Cover photo by Polly C Photography
I should have listened to my gut. Everything inside me was screaming no, but I didn’t want to be the preachy friend that made everyone feel bad for something they were looking forward to do. I’d always wanted to do it too; who was I to be the moral authority all of a sudden? So I’d read a few articles arguing that elephant trekking isn’t responsible, but the allure of stomping through the jungle on the back of one of those majestic giants was too strong to resist.
I was conflicted and unclear on my stance. I grew up riding horses and never had any moral implications with that. How was riding an elephant any different? As long as we opted for bareback, what real damage would we be doing? It’s the metal and wooden chairs that cause problems for the elephants, I told myself. Against my better judgement, I decided to try it and see how I felt firsthand when a group of my girlfriends were visiting last March.
It hit me the moment I was told to climb on my elephant, a baby that was considerably smaller than the rest and wanted absolutely nothing to do with the 115-lb blonde chick on its back. He was surly and disobedient from the start, turning away from the path and ducking his head so I would slide off. After almost barreling into a small river on one such occasion, I told the men that rushed to my side that I wanted to get off, but they reassured me in broken English and brought in another person to walk beside my little guy. They used their bullhooks sparingly, so I choked back the tears with a resigned sigh and vowed to never ride an elephant again.
Unfortunately I can’t say the same for Viv’s mahout. He kept jabbing her elephant for no reason and seemed to enjoy doing it. I could see his face form an evil little grin every time he pushed the hook into the elephant’s flesh. It made me feel sick to my stomach, but it was nothing compared to the deep feelings of regret I’ve felt over the past year as I’ve learned more about what really goes on behind the scenes in the elephant tourism industry.
On the Brink of Extinction
Asian elephants are rapidly moving towards extinction. Experts believe there are only 1,000-2,000 wild elephants left in Thailand. They are threatened by a loss of habitat and suffer immensely when illegally captured and traded for use in the tourism industry – all for our enjoyment.
It may be impressive to see an elephant painting a picture with its trunk or balancing on a ball with one leg, but the fact is that they are wild animals and need to be tamed in order to perform these feats. In the majority of Southeast Asian countries, elephants are forced to endure a torturous taming process that involves separating them from their families at a young age and beating them to a pulp to break their spirits and coerce them into submission.
The Crushing Truth
This process is known in Thailand as Phajaan, or “the crush.” It has different names throughout the region, but the disgusting procedure remains the same. As babies, the elephants are torn from their mothers and confined to a small cage or hole where they’re tied up, beaten, starved and deprived of sleep for almost a week. That’s the amount of time it takes to crush the animal’s spirit and break all familial bonds, priming them to follow their mahout’s commands to work day in and day out entertaining Thailand’s 25 million+ visitors each year.
Unfortunately the torture doesn’t stop there. As we saw on our day trip with Blue Elephant Thailand Tours, many mahouts control their elephants with bullhooks and keep them in chains. Although it has a super high rating on TripAdvisor, this tour was anything but responsible. I urge you to go deeper with your research; don’t just listen to some Joe Schmo’s opinion and turn a blind eye to blatant mistreatment. I can assure you, the joy you’ll get from riding an elephant doesn’t even come close to the shame you’ll feel when you discover the truth about its past.
A Vicious Cycle
The handlers that carry out these atrocious practices are often under heavy financial stress, forcing them to overwork their elephants and themselves with no rest days and grueling hours in the heat of the tropics. Over the years, we’ve seen the results of these actions with headlines from across the region citing elephants acting out and killing their mahouts and other visitors. They’ve been worked to the bone, stressed and abused to the breaking point, causing them to lash out or drop dead out of sheer exhaustion.
Many of the mahouts are inexperienced Burmese migrant workers who have no choice but to get into the elephant trade. They’re often brutally murdered by the elephants they work with, perpetuating a vicious cycle of abuse that is both an animal and human rights issue. Some animal lovers and activists are quick to say that they are getting what’s coming to them without fully understanding that these people are just as trapped as the elephants themselves.
Regulation and Reform
But of course, the issue is nowhere near black and white. In a perfect world, the goal would be to get these elephants back to the wild in every instance possible, but sadly, rapid deforestation has cleared out a large percentage of the animal’s natural habitat in Thailand – to the point that there isn’t enough left for them to be set free. At this point, tourism is the most viable option for a number of reasons, particularly the lack of alternate livelihoods for both the elephants and their mahouts.
The ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group was formed in June 2015 to bring reform and regulation to an industry that desperately needs it. Rather than buying into the belief that the desire to go elephant trekking will simply go away – an idea that couldn’t be further from the truth as it’s in higher demand than ever – the group is working to establish realistic goals to keep wild elephants in the wild and captive elephants as safe as possible, while also ensuring proper care for their handlers and a humane training process that’s deeply established in love and celebrates the intense bond humans have had with elephants for centuries.
Because my elephant experience was so scarring, I know I’ll never get on the back of an elephant again. Even with ethical training procedures and regulated practices emerging, I still don’t think I’ll ever feel okay about it. But I am in no way passing judgement on those that do choose to do so. As I said before, there are no moral absolutes to this issue. However, I do hope you’ll do your research before you partake in any elephant encounter.
I’ve recently learned that even some of the most reputable sanctuaries are still not up to standard and can actually make for more dangerous circumstances for the animals and mahouts. As of now, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary appears to offer the most natural and responsible elephant experience on the market, while organizations like the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation are working hard to create ethical tourism experiences within the imperfect system.
If you’d like to learn more about this multifaceted issue, please check out the following articles:
The Human Cost of Elephant Tourism – The Atlantic, May 2016
Here’s Why You Should Never Ride an Elephant in Thailand – Vice, February 2016
ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group Statement – February 2016