* Warning this post contains graphic language & photos related to elephant cruelty.
For many tourists a trip to Thailand would not be complete without a ride on a elephant or buying a souvenir of elephant art,they are magnificent creatures & Thailand’s national symbol, after all. But there is a dark side to this seemingly charming tourist industry.
The domestic elephant helped shape Thailand. They were used for war (much like the horse in the west), the logging industry & as a spiritual symbol. In 1900 there were more than 100, 000 domestic elephants. Today there are less than 3000(domestic elephants are not considered endangered, like their wild counterparts,they are considered livestock & have the same rights as a cow or water buffalo, which is to say they have no rights at all). In 1989 Thailand’s logging ban put many elephants & their mahouts out of work. Because elephants are expensive to keep (they can eat up to 350 pounds of food a day) most went to work in the tourist industry.
In order to “domesticate” an elephant, the animal is subjected to brutal training called the phajaan. As I watched a video of the training process, I cried. I still tear up when I think about it. And if the training process isn’t bad enough the breeding programs are almost worse. Domestic female elephants are forced to breed. All four legs are chained & tied far apart. If they move to get away they are stabbed with “hooks” or machetes.
Soon after the baby is born it is taken away from it’s mother & placed in a “crush”. There is no worse thing for a female elephant to have her baby taken away. They will often become depressed refusing to eat or work. During the crush the babies scream in pain & you can hear the mothers wail in the distance.
The crush is a cage where the baby is tied up, unable to move. It is intended to “crush” the youngsters spirit. It is left there for days, often without food. It is “trained” to lift it’s foot & allow a mahout to sit on it’s back, and when it does not follow commands it is stabbed in the foot or in the inner ear (the most sensitive part of the elephant). This training is called the phajaan & EVERY domestic elephant in Thailand goes through it. YES, EVERY SINGLE ONE. For a blow by blow account of the crush & phajaan training read here if you can.
These baby elephants are often taken from their mothers to beg in Thailand’s tourist districts or perform in elephant shows. They, after all, have the cute factor. The begging elephants live their lives under freeway overpasses, often without adequate food, water & shelter. The noise & stimulus is overwhelming to elephants and many have to be sedated. Begging elephants in Bangkok are illegal, but enforcement of the law is lax & police often turn a blind eye. Others are trained to “paint” or put on shows for tourists. This is no life for Thailand’s national symbol & it is shameful.
There is one woman who has dedicated her life to rescuing Thailand’s domestic elephants & allow them to live out the remainder of their lives in peace. The woman is Sangduen “Lek” Chailert & the place is the elephant nature park. Lek was raised in a small mountain village & her love of the elephant began when her grandfather, a shaman, was given one as a gift. Lek started the 2000 acre park in the 1990’s with the purpose of rescuing as many domestic elephants as possible. There are currently 35 elephants in the herd at ENP. There are 2 babies at the park, but Lek points out that there is no breeding program at the park, nor does she plan for one. The babies came from rescued elephants who were already pregnant. The babies provide a unique opportunity however. They offer chance to show others that it is possible to train elephants with only positive reinforcement. Mahouts at ENP are not allowed to use hooks or any other violence at the park. Their only tool is food. And praise. And love.
At ENP visitors & volunteers do not ride elephants, nor do the elephants paint or do tricks:the park is about the elephants, not people. You do get the help feed & bathe the elephants however, which is much more rewarding. (More about my volunteer experience in the next post)
Here’s the story of one elephant at the park. Mae Do is a logging refugee. When she was working as a logging elephant she fell & broke her leg. The bone never healed properly & she was no longer able to work. A lame elephant is not useful or valuable so Mae Do was placed in a breeding program. When she refused the bulls advances she was attacked by him & her pelvis and back were broken. These injuries were life threatening, and Mae do was near death for 3 years. She did survive & for the next 15 years Mae Do spent her life in total isolation. No camps would accept an elephant so deformed, and when she came to the elephant park in 2006, she had not seen another elephant in 15 years. One my fellow volunteers asked “Eck” (the volunteer coordinator,pictured with a bucket on his head) if he thought Mae Do was still in pain. Eck pointed to his heart & said ” I think in her heart she is still suffering but when her heart gets healed, her body will follow” Mae Do is still fearful of bull elephants & cries when they come near her. The compassion & love the park employees show for their elephants is heartwarming and makes me hopeful for the future of Thailand’s domestic elephants.
Managing Thailand’s domestic elephant population is complex & there is no easy answer, but if you want to help, Here’s some things you can do. When visiting Thailand:
- Don’t feed begging elephants
- Don’t ride elephants or become a “mahout for a day”
- Don’t buy elephant “art”
- Don’t go to elephant shows
- ALWAYS turn off your flash when photographing elephants
- Write to guidebooks that list elephant trekking companies & encourage them to remove listings
- Write to trekking companies & tell them you only want to see elephants “being elephants”. Only when the owners of domestic elephants see than money can be made by tourists observing elephants, not riding or watching them paint, will they change.
I know I have voiced some strong opinions here, it’s my blog after all, and If you don’t agree, that’s ok, there’s plenty of websites & places you can find to ride an elephant or see them do tricks. Ultimately everyone is free to choose how they spend their tourist dollars, yen or euro, but if you do go to an elephant show, trekking adventure, buy elephant art or whatever, I would implore you to listen to your heart & decide for yourself if you really, truly believe it’s the way an elephant should be treated.
For more information and other ways to help:
Donate to the Serengeti Foundation
Sign the petition to ban elephant begging in Chiang Mai
Volunteer, visit or contribute to the elephant nature park
Coming up…… My week at ENP (it’ll be a much more fun & uplifting post, I promise)