Not a Beast of Burden

By Mary Kay Seales with guest poster, Peter Klika

Elephants are revered by Hindus as a symbol of the god, Ganesh, the god with an elephant’s head. He wasn’t born with an elephant’s head, of course. He was born a normal boy to the great god, Shiva. However, one day upon returning home, Shiva saw his son, but did not recognize him, and thinking he was an intruder, cut off his head with a sword.  One fell swoop.

Realizing his great error, he ordered his servants to go out and cut off the head of the first beast they encountered, which just happened to be an elephant. Shiva attached the beast’s head to his son, who then became Ganesh, the god with an elephant’s head, a most revered Hindu god.

I think the Hindus have Christians beat. All we have is someone rising from the dead. No reattached heads.

Elephant in Trichy
An elephant in the Rock Fort Temple in Tiruchirapalli, India

Buddhists, too, have their elephant god, the elusive white elephant, thought to be the reincarnated Buddha, a thing of rare beauty and purity. I like to think this is the reference in Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, one of his most enigmatic short stories, in which the female character claims that the hills of Spain look like white elephants. Well, not really, she finally says, “I just meant the color of their skin through the trees.” Their conversation is about whether she should have an abortion, which the man wants, but she doesn’t.

 ‘And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?’

 ‘I love you now. You know I love you.’

‘I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants,         and you’ll like it?’


Sri Lankan man with Elephants
Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka

My question is this: Why is it that the world has so badly treated this revered god, this holy beast, this symbol of innocence and purity?

Chained in temples, dressed up for the circus, forced into the tourist trade in Thailand and India. Living in small, restricted areas in zoos. Slaughtered for their tusks, which are shipped out for useless trinkets, jewelry, and vases.

“Blood Ivory” 

It’s cruel to kills these magnificent animals for such insignificant rewards, not to speak of the fact that the obsession with ivory is driving many elephant populations to extinction: 

“Central Africa’s forest elephant population has been substantially affected by poaching for ivory, since the 1990s. The Democratic Republic of Congo used to hold one of the most significant forest elephant populations in Africa, which has now been reduced to tiny remnants of its former size. Gabon and Congo now hold Africa’s most important forest elephant populations but both have been affected by heavy poaching in recent years, as have the forest and savannah populations of Cameroon. The savanna populations of Chad have taken heavy losses and those in the Central African Republic have almost completely disappeared.”

What can we do? For a start:

  • Stop riding elephants as tourists.  As guest poster and world traveler, Peter Klika, reminds us: “It is insensitive and disrespectful to ride elephants, no matter what the owner tells you.” He suggests helping to give them a bath instead. “Scrub ‘em, don’t ride ‘em.” You don’t need that selfie.



  • Stop buying ivory and boycott stores that do, or tell them how you feel about these products. Make them uncomfortable.



  • Make sure local zoos are caring for their elephants and giving them the space they need, and if they aren’t, start yelling and screaming about it: “Zoos rob elephants of their most basic needs, including extended social relationships and the opportunity to walk long distances. Lack of exercise and long hours standing on hard surfaces are major contributors to foot problems and arthritis, the leading reasons why captive elephants are euthanized. Many die decades short of their expected lifespan.”



  • Finally, be aware of legislation that facilitates the abuse of elephants, i.e. the recent move by Donald Trump: “The Trump administration will begin allowing hunters to bring into the United States “trophy” elephants killed in Zimbabwe, reversing a 2014 ban on a practice that has received intense scrutiny in recent years.”


All simple suggestions, but worth noting, and then noting again. 


Scrub ’em, don’t ride ’em


As one of my heroes, Dr. Albert Schweitzer wrote: “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”


Mary Kay Seales is a travel writer and photographer, and also teaches writing at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is the owner of Closing the Circle, which specializes in marketing materials for the travel industry. Visit her website at

Peter Klika is currently “rewiring” after working for the U.S. State Department, NASA, the University of Hawaii, the Governor of Hawaii, and the law firm of Klika, Parrish & Bigelow. He has sailed both around the world and the rim of the Pacific Ocean, led several Himalayan expeditions, and walked solo across Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. He has contributed to such diverse publications as National Geographic, Arts of Asia, UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He participated in five documentaries on Tibet including “Finding Shangri-La” which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

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