While at Payap University, I became great friends with a St.Mary’s College of Maryland student named Monica Gillis. She is a rising junior and an Economics major. Since our time here, Monica has been very vocal about the mistreatment of animals around Thailand for the purposes of tourism. I had no idea how bad the situation was until I went to a Elephant riding camp and saw the mahouts repeated hitting, hooking and screaming at the poor animals. Once I saw that I refused to participate in the ride and have never been back to an elephant camp since. Since Monica has much more experience with the subject, I asked her to write this blog post and hopefully inform some of you potential Thailand tourists on the widespread mistreatment of these animals.
When most people visit Thailand, one of the first things they want to do is spend a day with elephants. Generally, “spending a day with elephants” involves riding them, watching them perform a show, and possibly playing with them. And from the perspective of a naïve tourist, this seems like good clean fun. It can’t be exploitative if every tourist who has ever been to Thailand does it. If it were bad, we’d know.
Like any other traveler to Thailand, I did not know about the truth of elephant camps. Naively, I went to an elephant camp and rode on an elephant for an hour with my friend. I did look at the organization’s website beforehand, to check on the humane status of the institution, and the few lines stating that the elephants are treated well and only give rides when they feel up to the task comforted me enough that I did not feel uneasy. Even during the ride, I did not notice anything to make me question the website’s statement. I conveniently did not pay attention to the young elephant who was chained so that it could not roam on the mountainside. I did not put much thought into the hook the mahout (elephant rider and trainer) would “tap” the elephant with to make it walk forward. I especially did not think about whether this poor elephant wanted me on its back, if it wanted to lug me around. I was the carefree tourist that these elephant camps appeal to.
About a month later, I was walking down the streets of Chiang Mai with my mom. We were looking for some sort of day trip we could go on, trekking or kayaking or something equally as overdone and mundane. We passed a building that was the headquarters for an elephant camp. I initially did not want to go in because I had become uneasy about the whole elephant riding situation. When the intern was trying to convince us to spend the ludicrously large sum of money to see elephants, I was extremely skeptical. Every elephant camp claims humane treatment. But soon, I realized this place was different. There was no elephant riding, no hooks, no chains. This elephant camp, the Elephant Nature Park, was founded by a woman nicknamed Lek (meaning small), who spends her life saving elephants from domestic work. My mom and I did end up paying for a day trip, and the next morning we were picked up and taken to the camp.
There I learned the stories of so many elephants, and my eyes were opened to how cruel the world really can be. Traditionally, elephants are ripped away from their mothers at around 4 or 5 years old, when they are still young enough that they had never spent a day without her before in their lives. Then, they are forced into a small bamboo cage where they are tied up and brutally stabbed and hit with hooks. Mahouts and their young sons tend to aim for the most sensitive parts of the elephant’s body; its inner ear and soles of its feet. These elephants, too young to know what is happening to them, try in vain to fight back, to escape for this confined space.. However, they are kept in the “crush” for about a week, a little less for female elephants, being “trained”. After the crush, they are led into the village, being beaten if they try to escape or if they refuse to walk. This walk becomes a daily ritual until the elephant can make it without fighting back in any way. And thus, the elephant’s sole has been broken down; it lives in constant fear of its mahout. The elephant now spends its life trying to please its mahout, doing almost anything to avoid being beaten.
At the Elephant Nature Park, I learned the stories of many elephants who were mistreated throughout their lives. I learned the stories of elephants who actually ended up dying at the park from internal injuries or drug addictions (some elephants, mostly involved in the illegal logging industry, are force fed amphetamines so they will work 24/7), and I saw the physical suffering of elephants who were still being affected by their maltreatment. Jokia, a beautiful older female elephant, is now blind because her previous owner forced her to drag logs even while pregnant. She had already been blinded in one eye, due to mistreatment by the same owner, but she lost her vision in her other eye when she gave birth while climbing up a steep hill. Her newborn calf fell to its death. Jokia refused to keep on walking, devastated by her loss. Her owner beat her to get her to begin walking again. She did not. He ended up using a slingshot, shooting small rocks at her eye from a very short distance. This was the day she went blind. A blind elephant cannot drag logs. Jokia was sold to another owner to give rides to tourists, using her trunk as her only way of knowing what was in front of her.
Lek saved her, right before she was going to be killed and used for her ivory, because nobody wanted to get a ride from a blind elephant. Jokia, along with about 32 other elephants, now reside in the Elephant Nature Park, living a life free of logging and giving rides. I spent the day feeding, bathing, and watching the elephants. I learned a lot about how tourism negatively impacts elephants. Young elephants are sometimes used for street begging, which leads to elephants being overwhelmed by city noise and malnutrition because they are fed only a few bananas that are paid for by tourists. Elephants are also forced to give rides to tourists in climates they are not accustomed to leading to dehydration and exhaustion. They are also forced to do shows where they put themselves in awkward positions that are uncomfortable and are seemingly impossible considering their bone structure. Some elephants even become addicted to drugs. By far, spending my day at the Elephant Nature Park was much more fun than riding the elephants. Seeing a happy animal is much more rewarding than riding on an abused animal.
However, the solution to elephant abuse is not so simple. Elephants need a job. They are domesticated and would have a lot of difficulty surviving on their own, and to compound this problem, most elephants provide the entirety of a family’s income. Without elephants, families would have nothing. Therefore, we can’t all just stop going to elephant camps. It is very hard to get angry with the tourists who do support this industry, because the issue is so complicated and not very well understood. All I know is that I refuse to ride elephants, and I try to tell as many people I can about the truth of Thailand’s elephant camps.
Elephants are an endangered species, but under Thai law, domesticated elephants do not have any special rights. They have the same protection as cows and pigs. Who is going to look after them? Deep seated cultural beliefs are what is driving the abuse of elephants, and seemingly the only way to change that is by changing the way tourists interact with elephants. So, if you’re ever in Thailand or any other country with elephant riding, make sure you check out the place beforehand. There are a lot of places were elephants are treated humanely. The use of the hook is still widespread, but a good mahout will not use the tip to physically injure their elephant. Elephants need work, but only by demanding good working conditions for them will the culture of elephant abuse change.
Also, please take a look at the Elephant Nature Park website. Read the bios of the elephants! http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/index.htm
Thanks for reading!