I Paid To Support Animal Cruelty

I Paid To Support Animal Cruelty

I was at the same trekking sanctuary where a rampaging elephant trampled and gored a Scottish father to death in front of his 16-year-old daughter. I soon discovered I was on the same jungle safari tour as he had been, only one year later. It is believed the 36-year-old father had teased the elephant with a banana, unaware he was suffering from excruciating starvation.

I stepped off the 4×4 vehicle and walked into the elephant trekking sanctuary behind my local tour guide.  My mouth’s corners slanted down as I looked over at the many elephants standing still like they were stone, waiting for their next instruction. Over my shoulder in the pouring rain, I noticed dozens of tourists with their cameras armed around their necks and giddy smiles plastered on their faces.

Though I’m no animal rights activist, I could tell this place was full of fucked-up shit.

As I held onto the dangling rope at the top of the landing porch, I swung onto the elephant’s back tentatively. He was the biggest in the sanctuary, with tusks almost as long as me. He trotted slowly down the red muddy road, and I could feel his weight shift from side to side. Tears welled in my eyes as I stroked my elephant’s prickly back.

Why am I doing this? I thought. I am such a bad person.

The mahout (elephant’s owner) held a bull-hook in his right hand, which looked like a giant hammer. He knocked the elephant on the head hard with the blunt side of the bull-hock as it started veering off course to graze on plants. WHACK. I gasped in horror as I could hear the bull-hook’s reverberations echo inside the elephant’s head. Immediately, the elephant spat the plant out of its mouth and kept on walking towards the camp. The mahout’s left foot pressed firmly into the elephant’s left ear, acting like reins to steer the animal on a straight path.

“Do the elephants like trekking?” I asked the mahout as I wiped away my tears.
“Yes…of course…elephant very happy madam,” he replied while keeping eyes on the track.

I shook my head in silence. Even a blind person would be able to see the tension in this money-making hell hole and sense the silent screams from the elephants’ cages.

The hairs on my elephant’s back stood up tall. I imagined it would be soft and muddy, but its skin looked stripped back to the core like the rough side of a sponge. I noticed the elephant had pink and white spots on the back of its ears, neck and truck. I wondered what it was; a sign of old age, the natural pattern of the elephant, sun damage or pigmentation?

According to the Phuket Gazette, the pink spots differentiate Asian elephants from their African counterparts. “Physical characteristics that qualified an elephant as ‘white’ included light pink spots on the skin, large eyes rimmed with white, jet-black irises, two pronounced bumps on the forehead, a tail that hangs straight away from the body and a long trunk…If a white elephant was found with the physical characteristics that are considered auspicious, it had to be brought to the palace with pomp and ceremonial rejoicing.”

But, is the elephant actually spiritually significant anymore in Thailand’s culture? I see monuments and golden statues of elephants at every temple I visit, and sculptures of elephants in hotels. But is it just a facade now to keep tourists in the fantasy world so they can dig deep in their pockets and feel like they are getting cultured up? Or, do they believe they are treating the elephants with respect through means of tourism work rather than logging or manual labour?

Originally, elephants were used for logging purposes, working two-to-three hours a day carrying extremely heavy loads. They are not used for that purpose any longer now that cranes and trucks have been invented, but the tourism industry is still no progressive alternative. Now, a solid metal chair weighing more than 90kg is strapped onto the elephants’ backs, plus the weight of multiple people riding them. The elephants work long hours day in and day out, often without a rest, food or water breaks.

According to the documentary ‘An Elephant Never Forgets,’ the training the elephants go through begin from as young as six months old. A wild baby elephant will latch onto its mother for at least 16 years before becoming independent. But a mahout snatches a calf from its mother as young as six months to one year old, and throws it into a tiny cage no bigger than the elephant itself. In this cage, the elephant is subject it extreme fear and physical torture from beatings and stabbings with the bull-hook’s sharp side until the elephant has no will to live. It is through this breaking-in technique, known as the phajaan, that the elephant will eventually learn to be obedient to its mahout as it has no other choice except to die in solitude. An elephant’s life span is significantly decreased when raised in captivity due to its psychological and physical state.

I sat on the concrete bleachers after my short-lived trek and observed the circus performance the elephants were forced to go through. The tourists rode on the back of them with their selfie sticks, laughing hysterically.  I looked around the stadium in hopes that someone would have the same reaction as me — absolute disgust – but not one person looked concerned. The tourists volunteered to play soccer with them at the goal posts, and lie underneath them while the elephant gently prodded their bum and groin, all for a laugh or two and an Instagram snap.

My stomach flipped in time to the revolutions of the hula hoops around the elephant’s trunk. I couldn’t smile at anyone else; I could only cry. How could no one see the cruelty behind this circus act? The elephants were on short chains; they smiled on request, danced when pulled and bowed when pushed, but they appeared to not have the will to move during the in-between moments.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, a monkey came out on a short leash among the elephants. The owner yanked the baby monkey by the chain until it was almost hanging off the ground and choking. I could taste the vomit in my mouth.

“What’s wrong?” my mum asked, noticing how pale I looked.
“I can’t watch this anymore – they’re hurting these animals.” She grabbed my arm and walked me out of the audience.

“Where you go?” my tour guide asked as he followed me out.
“I’ll wait out here. I’ll be okay,” I sheepishly replied.

I never looked back; I just kept on walking.

The problem is there is no clear solution. The tourism industry simply cannot allow 4,000 captive elephants into the wild. Not only is it a money-maker for Thailand, but this country does not have enough wild land suitable for the elephants to live freely. So what can we do?  There are new sanctuaries, which are about promoting a natural and wild approach to elephant tourism. No elephant rides and no work; only the opportunity to bathe them in mud and see them interact in their own natural habitat. It may still be tourism, but at least it is far more ethical.

Cover by Jo Cool