“I don’t want to see the sad videos of baby elephants,” a girl lamented in the front row. She was, along with a group of us from around the world, volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for abused domesticated elephants near Chiang Mai, Thailand. We had all chosen to spend a week at the park, helping prepare food, improve infrastructure, and clean up after over 30 rescued elephants. Today though, our volunteer coordinators had asked us to watch a video made by the park showing us what exactly these elephants have been rescued from and the process that goes into training almost all domesticated elephants in Thailand. The abuse we saw was horrific, but also hinted at a surprising underlying cultural tradition that no tourist watching elephant shows or riding one of these animals might be able to guess at. As uncomfortable or depressing it might be to subject ourselves to viewing brutality, it creates necessary motivation to become educated travelers and make choices about our interactions with the rest of the world that hopefully can affect it for the better.
For backpackers and other tourists who are planning a trip to Thailand, it’s almost a given to find ‘ride an elephant’ at the top of their to-do list. After all, it’s an iconic photo opportunity that is perpetuated widely around the country and travel websites everywhere. And in the Western world, where the closest one might get to an elephant is usually behind a moat in a zoo, this rare chance for interaction with such a large creature seems irresistible.
It’s easy to book elephant treks, where riders sit in large boxes on the elephants’ backs, and are led through jungle paths for several hours. Also popular are light-hearted elephant shows, where the animals do circus tricks like playing basketball or soccer, painting, handstands and other body contortions, and riding giant bicycles. You even have the chance to wash elephants in rivers and pose with them by standing on their heads, backs, or sides when they lay down. Outside of the main attractions, it’s also not uncommon to see a baby elephant on the streets of a big city, led by a mahout (an elephant’s caretaker and trainer) who will let tourists feed it for a price.
But this exciting entertainment all comes at the expense of the animals at the center of it. Even though some people may see elephants as enormous, invincible beasts that could surely take a few humans on their back, in reality, an elephant is built very differently than a horse and those riding boxes can do damage to their spines. If you absolutely must ride an elephant, the least harmful way is riding bareback on its neck, which is, surprisingly a much stronger spot to sit on. Method aside, it’s important to remember that you aren’t the only tourist who will be riding this elephant. These animals have to lug people around for long hours all day, every day, and this can very quickly lead to an over-worked, collapsed elephant. In addition to the rides, shows are very often run by negative reinforcement, which means that the elephants are trained and kept on track through punishment. One common practice for particularly unpleasant trainers is to stand next to a painting elephant and stab it in the ear with a nail to control it (unseen by spectators, naturally). Elephant skin is thick, but also highly sensitive in many areas and it’s very common to see scarring and even open wounds on domesticated elephants in Asia.
Let’s take a step back though, and take a look at how Asian elephants got into the tourism gig to begin with. For centuries, elephants have been used in Thailand as powerful manual labour, being particularly useful in the logging industry. Chains attached to the elephant are wrapped around huge logs, which would then be pulled through the jungles through intensive, backbreaking hauls. But in 1989, logging was outlawed in Thailand. This was great for the local environments, whose jungles were being quickly depleted, but put thousands of domesticated elephants, and their mahouts, out of work. The next best thing to do with a well-trained elephant was entertain people with it.
Of course, animals are trained worldwide to do things for people, so why should there be a bigger fuss for elephants? Even if there wasn’t abuse involved, there are two elements that make seeing elephants in these situations especially tragic.
Firstly, elephants are one of the smartest animals on earth. They display problem-solving abilities, empathy, self-awareness, cooperation, and can use tools. They even suffer very acute grief, going as far as to bury their dead. Intelligence doesn’t give one creature more right over another to not be abused and exploited, but it does mean they can understand what is happening to them more deeply and be more emotionally affected by it.
Secondly- and this ties into intelligence- elephants are also one of the most social creatures, complete with life-long family groups that care for one another. The entire structure of elephant entertainment and domestication revolves around separating families and not allowing them to interact as they naturally would. Remember that baby elephant begging in the city streets? In the wild, not only does the mother nurture her young, another female elephant will step in as a ‘nanny’ or ‘aunt.’ Both these females will defend the baby with their life, which means that when it comes to obtaining those adorable elephant toddlers through the incredibly expansive trade of calf smuggling in Thailand, Burma, and China, not only do smugglers have to kill the mother, they also have to kill the aunt. So for every baby elephant you see by itself…on the streets, in a zoo, in a show….it is very likely that at least two elephants died for it, though experts estimate that number may be as high as five if the whole family tries to intervene.
All these reasons aside, there is one huge question…and response…you should consider before going anywhere near one of these elephant attractions.
How do you take one of the largest, smartest, most empathetic animals in the world and make it meekly obey you for the rest of its life?
You break it.
You break its body and you break its spirit.
I’m referring to the process of domesticating an elephant, which is called the ‘phajaan' or training crush. Young elephants, freshly separated from their families, are forced into tiny wooden cages that are barely large enough to stand in. They are beaten and stabbed with sticks, nails, hooks, and other tools all over their bodies and faces. They have ropes tied around their necks and legs so that the only movement they can management is to wave their trunks in a small plea for help. No food or water is given to them and they are sleep-deprived, with men beating them around the clock. During this time, their training begins, as men shout commands and hit them certain ways to make them move accordingly. Punishment is doled out liberally for disobedience. The elephants learn a new fear of humans that weighs on them for the rest of their lives. After days or even weeks, once it no longer struggles, the animal is released and tied up to continue with less intensive training. Only, of course, if it survived. It’s estimated that one in three elephants die during the phajaan.
If you feel you can handle it (and maybe even if you can't), you should watch a video that includes footage of the phajaan here (the actual phajaan starts at 2:45). It's one of the very few videos that exist of this common technique, taken undercover by local Thai activists.
The incredible thing is that though this process is done well away from the eyes of visitors and tourists, it is a tradition carried out by entire villages throughout Thailand. Children and spiritual leaders participate and the ritual is celebrated. These aren’t evil people with mal intent. This is just a cultural tradition that has been passed down for thousands of years. The vast majority of Thai people believe this is only way an elephant could ever be domesticated. From this belief, a stunning contradiction is formed, where elephants are revered and treasured as an iconic symbol of Thailand, yet also ritually mistreated.
Personally, this is where, before I came to Thailand, my understanding of elephant abuse fell short. I knew there were bad people who did bad things to elephants to get them to perform. I thought that, like the US and many other countries, there were simply animal abusers that slipped under the radar and you just had to watch out for those. Lonely Planet and other travel guides suggest checking elephants for wounds before riding them, if your conscience is tickling you, but there is no mention of the underlying common denominator of trauma that almost all domesticated elephants in Asia have.
And this is what makes this issue so deeply complex. Trying to right a wrong that the perpetrators don’t see as wrong and has been a part of their traditions and livelihoods for generations is such an uphill battle, it’s practically rolling backwards. The Thai government is pretty much ambivalent and domesticated elephants have the same legal rights as livestock, even though their wild counterparts are severely endangered (95% of Thailand’s entire elephant population is domesticated). Progress for animal rights and conservation is painfully slow.
That’s why deciding to interact responsibly with elephants in Thailand is not a matter of picking and choosing between which trek or show tells you they treat their elephants well. Even if there is no current abuse or overwork (which is still more exceptional than not), you are supporting the crushing process and creating demand by paying to play around with working domesticated elephants. The only solution, in my opinion, is to find a sanctuary that not only works towards rescuing abused elephants and putting them in retirement, but is actively finding ways to slowly reintroduce elephants into the wild and create natural habitats for them. This kind of rescue should not offer any interaction with the elephants outside of touching, feeding, bathing (without climbing all over them), and enjoying their presence.
Elephant Nature Park is this kind of rescue.
Not only does the park put retired elephants into a natural-as-possible environment with family groups, it manages to do so in a profitable way that still provides work for locals and mahouts who are dedicated to positive reinforcement and won’t touch a bull hook. They are living proof that elephants can be controlled and cared for without hurting them. But more about the park in my next post…that’s the happy counterpart to all this depressing information.
So please, I’m asking this personally and with my whole heart….riding an abused elephant isn’t worth a check mark on your bucket list. In my next post, How to Mend an Elephant, I discuss how interacting with a rescued, content elephant who chose to spend time with me of her own free will was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Do your research and be a responsible tourist. You have power with your wallet and your voice to make a difference in the countries you travel to. Both Thai people and their beloved elephants are remarkable and both deserve the opportunity to thrive together without pain.
You can support and learn more about the Elephant Nature Park here.
Other reputable organizations for the conservation and rehabilitation of Asian elephants are:
Elephant Nature Foundation (UK-based and affiliated with the Elephant Nature Park)
Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary(Thailand)- as far as my research has taken me, this is the only other sanctuary in Thailand that treats elephants the Elephant Nature Park does, existing completely for the elephants, not the tourists.
If you know of any other reputable organizations, especially within Asia, that you think should be added to this list, please let me know. And if you have any other questions/concerns about the treatment of Asian elephants in Thailand, please feel free to email me or comment below.