Ignorance is not Bliss: Elephant Exploitation in Asia

Ignorance is not Bliss: Elephant Exploitation in Asia

Deep in the hills of Northern Thailand lies an elephant camp that attracts hundreds of tourists from all over the world who have long dreamt of riding the giant, tame mammals through the jungle.

On a hiking trip, I visited an elephant “sanctuary” on the outskirts of the Chiang Mai province, one of an estimated 106 places holding a over 1600 elephants throughout the country. The group I was with were excited to ride the majestic beasts as part of the hike package. Even after I explained the damage caused by riding, they, like thousands of others, turned a blind eye and jumped on. When the herd slowly strolled back to the camp to be chained up until the next ride, no one looked ecstatic as they climbed down. Two girls had actually asked their mahout (elephant trainer) to let them off before the ride ended, as he continuously beat the creature behind the ears with a bull hook. The group told me it was underwhelming and didn’t feel right; the elephants clearly weren’t treated well and the place was a brutal money making tourist trap. They told me they wished hadn’t ridden them.

Dutch founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand (WFFT) Edwin Wiek says tourists like my group who think a place is ethical need to be careful, as many companies claim income made by the rides will be used to look after the animals.
“In many cases, tourists are told they are supporting elephant conservation or tiger breeding for conservation in these places, when all they are actually doing is supporting animal abuse and the breeding of wildlife in captivity, which is counterproductive to conservation.”

rescued elephant

WFFT rescuing an elephant from a tourist show in Pattaya.

Edwin has lived in Thailand for over 20 years and runs his wildlife rescue and conservation foundation outside of Bangkok. He persistently organises and helps rescue severely mistreated elephants from camps, villages, tourist shows and working farms. It’s bizarre that such an important part of the culture is exploited in such ways. In Thailand, elephants are seen as traditional and religious icons – they are symbols of good luck and the king’s divine right to rule. But it’s contradictory to the torture they undergo.

A captured elephant from the wild must suffer through a process called phajaan or “crush” to break the animal for domestication. This process has been part of a Thai tradition for centuries and is done by their mahout in order for it to become a working elephant or part of the tourism industry. The elephant (usually a baby) is chained tightly around its legs and beaten with bull hooks and bamboo sticks, spiked with nails, starved and tortured until its spirit is crushed and it is forever submissive to humans.

Every elephant in Asia that works in trekking camps or animal shows has suffered through this process. Tourists sit on the backs of these giant beasts while the mahouts stand close by or ride on their necks with bull hooks to reawaken painful memories and remind the elephants to keep in line.

The World Conservation Union in Switzerland lists the Asian elephant as endangered. A century ago, there were 100 000 elephants in Thailand. Predominantly due to loss of habitat and interference by mankind, over the years this number has fallen 95 percent, leaving just 5 000 elephants, about half of which are domestic. A recent study done by the Rufford Foundation, ‘Assessment of the Live Elephant Trade in Thailand’, found elephants are often caught in Myanmar using pit-traps, where they are corralled into pits with the aid of domestic elephants. Protective members of the herd are often killed in the process. They are then transported to the Thai/Myanmar border and mentally broken.

The assessment also recognised that it’s illegal to trade elephants with tourist camps, but the current laws have flaws regarding the protection of animals, hence the overwhelming number of them exploited in this area of the world.

“Domestic” elephants in Thailand are covered by an Act that allows people not to register the animals with an appropriate government department until eight years of age, creating a major loophole through which wild young elephants can be caught and laundered into the domestic elephant population. For every smuggled calf that even makes it to a camp, it’s estimated that up to two others will die from this “domestication” process, and as many as five others will be killed during the capture. The brutal and illegal cross-border trade threatens the remaining populations of this endangered species.

The Thai government does little to protect their nation’s most iconic animal, instead seeing them as an important part of the economy. Many shows around the country present unnatural talents from elephants – along with tigers, monkeys and other wild creatures. Thai people and tourist from all corners of the globe are impressed with the intelligence of these animals playing football, hula hooping or walking on a rope. What many of the audience don’t see is the fact that they are supporting an industry that never reveals the abuse and exploitation.

scarred elephant

June, a rescued elephant at the Wildlife Friends of Thailand volunteer centre and an example of years of abuse and scarring from working in the tourism industry.

Many underprivileged people from third world countries survive on the income made from animals used to entertain tourists. Nowadays, thousands of photographs are posted on social media displaying people posing with monkeys dressed up and chained to the streets or cuddling a slow loris or tiger that has been drugged in order to be submissive and remain calm in the hands of an amazed traveller.

There are other ways tourists can get up close and personal with these magnificent giants, like helping out at a volunteer shelter where the animals have been rescued from bad working conditions. However, travellers to these countries should be aware that any place that lets you ride the animal or uses sticks to move along elephants is not protecting them.

 There are a few genuine rescue centers scattered over Southeast Asia that need as much support and volunteers as they can get. In Thailand, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai or Wild Life Friends of Thailands rescue centre are genuine rehabilitation places you can visit to give a little bit of your aid. These sanctuaries are fighting to help put an end to a cycle of abuse and unsustainability before there are no more Asian Elephants left in the wild.

Grace Burns is a contributor and social media dabbler for Global Hobo. She channels her inner Gemini and levitates around the world, teaching yoga, writing and floating on a magical carpet of pure wonder.