Never Ride An Elephant
In a few weeks, I will be spending 2 magical weeks in Thailand! When doing research on what all I should do while I am there, it seems like riding elephants was promoted as a cool tourist experience. I knew in the back of my mind that tourist animals are often mistreated and live terrible lives, so it wasn’t high on my priority list. Upon doing research, however, I discovered that I was very ignorant of what actually happens in this business. Here’s why I had no interest in riding an elephant…
First of all, Asian elephants are endangered, due to years of hunting for tusks, and capture for tourism and manual labor. Before 1989, the manual labor predominately included using elephants to haul timber for loggers; however, logging is now illegal in many countries.
In Thailand, wild elephants are endangered and protected under the Wildlife Protection Act from hunting and domestication. However, elephants that are used in the tourism industry are considered “domesticated” animals and therefore not safeguarded. Baby elephants in the tourism industry are not required to be registered until 8 years old, so it’s easy to smuggle them into the country.
An Elephant Never Forgets: Documentary (55 minutes)
In order to prepare an elephant for its life in the tourism industry, here’s what happens:
- A baby elephant is captured from an elephant herd, often in Myanmar, where conditions are less regulated. Naturally, momma elephant is very protective of her baby, so for every calf that is captured, an estimated 5 elephants are killed.
- The calf is smuggled across the Thai border and sold to a Mahout (trainer). Very few of these calves make it to Thailand, often dying of stress or starvation.
- In order to train the calf, it is subjected to a torture process designed to break its spirit, called Phajaan, or “the crush,” where the baby is tied up and unable to move, beaten, pierced with bull hooks, starved, and deprived of sleep for many days. This process is to teach the calf to associate disobeying humans with pain, however, many calves don’t make it through Phajaan either. Every elephant in the trekking business or circus/performing has been through this process, regardless of what its owners claim now.
- After being sold into the tourism industry, the elephant is made to carry uncomfortable and heavy tourist loads. The elephant spine is not made to carry the weight of a human, so riding an elephant causes chronic back pain. The heavy chairs that are often holding the tourists also cause blisters, which lead to abscesses and infection. Walking long hours on the hard-surfaced road causes abrasion and pain on the pads of elephant feet. During the trekking, the elephants cannot stop and rest, for fear of pain from the bull hooks. Even the babies, which are chained to their fake “mothers” are forced to keep up.
- When the elephant is not working, it is kept chained up (causing joint pain) or in a tiny pen, and not allowed to interact with other elephants. Since they are social creatures, this often leads to emotional problems.
Even if a tourist company claims that their elephants are treated well, remember that every baby in the business went through Phajaan, and some sort of maintenance is still required into adulthood, even if it is less harsh than before. Circus and painting elephants are not exempt from this treatment either. There are also elephant street beggars where they will perform tricks or the Mahout will sell fruit so that a tourist can feed the elephant. A rule of thumb is that if a tourist or performing company offers anything other than simply spending time with an elephant, it is being mistreated. Mistreated elephants tend to sway, bob their heads, or pace back and forth as a sign of stress. By giving the company business, whether it’s rides, buying an elephant painting, or watching an elephant show, you are contributing to the mistreatment and allowing it to continue.
I did some more research, and found some great information on the Elephant Nature Park, which offers sanctuary to tourism elephants. There are several different projects that you can work on, including child-friendly projects, adult-only projects, and week-long projects. While the park calls the work with the elephants “volunteer” there is a hefty price on spending the time with them. I paid 6,000 THB (about $165) for one day, which cost more than my flight from Xi’An to Chiang Mai. Here’s why I was happy to spend the money:
- Elephant Nature Park is a non-profit organization
- Fees go towards feeding and caring for the animals (elephants eat more than 250kg of food per day)
- Fees go towards buying additional animals from abusive tourist attractions and circuses
- Fees go toward expanding the sanctuary
Most day trips are 8am to 6pm, and include lunch and transportation. My particular project, Pamper a Pachyderm, offers me the opportunity to work with a single elephant for the morning, feeding it, walking with it, bathing it, and observing its natural behavior. I believe in the afternoon the group works with several elephants at a time, and then observes a wild herd. I’m so excited for my day with an elephant!
Picking just one project was difficult, and if I make my way back to Thailand in the future and have the time, I’d like to do the week-long one as well. There’s also an option in the park to take care of the many stray and rescue dogs in the park. There is only a week-long option, or else I would have spent a day here too.
Click on all the links! They have a lot of great (and depressing) information. The documentary is fantastic as well, and is about an hour long.
Sources and Information:
Youtube video of baby elephant torture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVckvi_gWVo
Award-winning picture of baby elephant torture http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2011/03/03/6180772-baby-elephant-tortured-into-submission-before-illegal-smuggling-from-burma-to-thailand
Tourists riding an elephant picture https://farahramos.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/attwd_banner_thailand_elephant_ride_.jpg