The plight of the Asian elephant in Southeast Asia is a seemingly never ending tragedy. The issues surrounding elephant tourism continue to go unrecognised by the majority of the population – tourists continue to unknowingly escalate the problem by participating in various unethical attractions within the industry. They are unaware of the dark secrets that lay the foundation of human-elephant encounters and I would like to change that.
To some extent, many of the unethical practices within the wildlife industry have reached the headlines, or, at least, have begun some sort of trend on social media. The Tiger Temple scandal spread across the internet and the story was covered by a number of news outlets such as National Geographic, BBC, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Huffington Post and more. In this case the media was positively used to end the illegal trafficking and abuse. This, however, is not always a common occurrence and social media will often act as the root cause of the animal’s oppression.
Elephant riding, as you will soon find out, is a practice that needs to stop. Posting a photo online after your recent trek with a severely damaged and mentally unstable animal is not doing the species any favours. The problem is, as mentioned above, that many people don’t know about the cruelty and abuse that is happening behind the scenes.
The injustices you will read about today are so cruel and intrinsically evil that you may even question the validity of this article.
The injustices you will read about today are so cruel and intrinsically evil that you may even question the validity of this article. You will find it difficult to believe that such immoral practices could ever take place. You will wonder why such a large portion of our population live so oblivious to it. You need to understand that this is all real.
I wanted to add a million pictures to accompany this article but they are so disturbing some readers would have found it too difficult to read. However, if after this article you wish to learn more and believe you are up for it I have been emailed a documentary by Elephant Nature Park, a non-profit organisation dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population, that I am allowed to share. Send me an email or message and I’ll forward it to you immediately.
The first issue is the destruction of elephant habitat due to human-elephant conflict. Throughout Southeast Asia, humans have begun to replace the elephants’ homes with small-scale and large-scale plantations, forcing the elephants to flee. Farmers and larger corporations create enormous wildfires in order to destroy the elephants’ homes and food sources. They jump from mountain to mountain, risking their lives crossing dangerous roads and railways.
When food is unobtainable they raid farms. This angers the humans who will shoot at them, electrocute them and poison them – whatever it takes to protect their land. Fear and starvation then leaves elephants with no other choice but to rummage through rubbish. On multiple occasions, after dead elephants are found, their autopsies show cans and plastics inside their stomachs. This is often covered up and hidden from the public because the authorities know a media story could stir outrage.
Humans have begun to employ more aggressive techniques – they have previously hidden bombs inside of pumpkins and watermelons which result in the elephant’s trunk being blown off along with the rest of its face.
The human-elephant conflict goes further than just rummaging through rubbish – humans have begun to employ more aggressive techniques. In many cases they have hidden bombs inside of pumpkins and watermelons which result in the elephant’s trunk being blown off along with the rest of its face.
The next part is the cruellest of all. It goes by the name of Phajaan and is the traditional Asian torture of young elephants to ‘break their spirit’ and make them so fearful of humans that they will become submissive to them. It is carried out on every single elephant that is working within the tourism industry in order to make them eligible to work with humans.
I should probably begin by once again reminding you that all elephants working in the tourism industry have undertaken the practice I am about to lay out for you now. Just because its mahout claims the elephant is taken care of doesn’t mean the elephant is actually cared for. Nor does it justify the torture endured in order to get it there in the first place.
To begin with, young elephants are poached from their families which often results in the death of the entire herd. Mother elephants are extremely protective over their young and will do anything it takes to help their babies.
The poaching process is cruel and brutal; firecrackers and guns will be used to startle the animals and corner them in order to get to the baby. The rest of the group is usually shot. The baby elephant, having just witnessed the death of its family, is terrified and extremely distressed.
The baby elephant will urinate and defecate continuously out of intense fear.
They are put into a cage, which often takes some time in order to prevent them from suffocating themselves. The baby elephant will urinate and defecate continuously out of intense fear. Once in the cage the humans will tie every part of the elephant’s body – especially its tongue as, in most cases, the baby will try to kill itself by stepping on its own trunk or biting its tongue. The baby will do anything it takes because it would rather die than live a life without its mother.
After three days of non-stop defecation and starvation the elephant is weak and will allow the humans to beat it. They will stab the elephant continuously with a hook in order to instil fear, something they will begin to associate with humans. Ten days later their bodies are rotten.
There have been many cases of elephants attacking people in zoos or circuses. Most people blame the zookeeper for abusing the elephant but in reality the zookeeper may truly care for the elephant (not that I’m advocating zoos or anything).
Often, zookeepers are not aware of the abuse that took place in an elephant’s life before its arrival. The same thing happens with tourists in Asia – they aren’t aware of the abuse the elephants endured before they got to where they are now.
Riding an elephant, in any shape or form, is not an ethical way to experience elephants. The elephants have gone through tremendous amounts of abuse and are left mentally unstable. They will have lost their will to live and are forced to carry tourists around in the sweltering heat for way too long, which often leads to the killing of people or their own deaths.
Their mahouts are abusive, carrying around a hook to stab their skulls when they aren’t performing well enough. They live in chains and cannot imagine a life without them. This is happening everywhere right in front of people’s faces. The mahout or company may say the elephant is well taken care of but this doesn’t make its previous abuse alright (and this may not be true anyway). The elephant’s only purpose is to make money and as soon as it collapses and can’t move anymore it will be abandoned and the owner will find a new baby to poach.
The babies that are taken away from their mothers are usually poached on the Northern mountains of Thailand and are often as young as eight months old. They travel all the way down to the South, almost 2000km.
Lek spoke to a driver once who said the baby screamed the entire 2000km journey without stopping to breathe even once.
Lek spoke to a driver once who said the baby screamed the entire 2000km journey without stopping to breathe even once.
After the Phajaan, humans will usually use the elephants for logging. There are about 200 elephants in the illegal logging trade in Thailand, 200 in Cambodia, 400 in Laos and 6000 in Myanmar. Elephants have to pull tonnes of logs up mountains, down mountains, across roads, rivers and fields. After a while the elephants begin to have problems with broken legs and limbs but this is not a good enough reason to stop them from working.
On one occasion, Lek, the founder of ENP, asked a mahout when his elephant would rest. He said the elephant can rest when it collapses and can’t walk any further.
Many people want to buy furniture from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China and other Asian countries. They don’t, however, have any idea what goes on behind the scenes.
The government announced in 2013 that no more wood could be bought from Myanmar. This doesn’t stop it happening though. People buy their wood from places like Singapore where wood has been transported across the borders. It is blatantly obvious – Singapore doesn’t have any plantations so where else would the wood come from?
Whilst performing, most elephants will urinate themselves from the pain the performances cause them.
The cruelty does not end here, as elephants are often taken to circuses and shows, attractions that are still visited by tourists today. Whilst performing, most elephants will urinate themselves from the pain the performances cause them. So many people still attend these shows. Teachers even take students which gives them the wrong message entirely.
Lek once followed a baby and realised that every time the elephant passed a truck it would walk around in a sort of panic and desperation trying to get under it. She soon realised that the baby thought the truck was its mother. When it couldn’t find the milk it would start to scream. This made tourists move away from the elephant and so the mahout would give her Orange Fanta to silence her. This inevitably resulted in an early death for the poor baby.
A lot of the elephants also find themselves in serious car accidents when walking back to the outskirts of the city at 3am or 4am, when many drunk drivers occupy the main roads.
According to some, elephants hold a religious purpose in Asia. Their true purpose, however, is to attract tourists.
There is a festival in Sri Lanka in August or September which 1 million people from around the world attend. It is a ten-day festival where hundreds of elephants are rounded up for a massive parade. A lot of elephants end up with multiple stab wounds from the mahouts and become deaf from the loud music.
“If you close your eyes you will hear the screaming, the chains and the hook stabbing the elephant.” – Lek
It is difficult to change something so deeply enrooted in culture – this year however, people began to fight. It will take a long time but as tourists you can make a difference by avoiding elephant encounters entirely.
Another problem is that many people seem to think that the tools don’t actually hurt the elephant because they have thick skin. However, if the hook doesn’t hurt the elephant why is it so afraid of it?
Lek told us volunteers in ENP a story about an elephant that was rescued from the logging trade. She arrived in a chain that was removed once she reached the park. The staff fed her and she did not take the food. They thought the crowd may have been the root cause of her nerves so removed everyone from the platform. This still didn’t help and the elephant’s muscles began to shake. The mahout informed Lek that the elephant was about to make a run for it so they put the chain back on to take her to her enclosure. As soon as the chain was on she began to eat. She had been in the chain for 40 years – she thought it was part of her body.
She had been in the chain for 40 years – she thought it was part of her body.
The cruelty and abuse happens every single day right in front of tourists. Elephants die mid-trek from heatstroke and exhaustion, their mahouts stab them with hooks and they have scars all over their bodies. Tourists are not blind – they just don’t understand; they think of a million possibilities to justify the situation because they want the experience.
This is why I think it’s important to spread awareness. If you know of someone who will be travelling to Asia, make it a point to inform them – get them to Google the Phajaan or just send them this article. Do whatever you can.
If you are reading this and have already visited Asia, you may have already ridden an elephant. You just didn’t know. I visited SeaWorld multiple times as a child – I didn’t understand back then and neither did my parents. A lot of elephants may look well-kept and they may look well-fed too. That’s the problem – no one knows about the damage inside.
If everyone made it a point to end human-elephant encounters entirely – that means trekking, taking photographs with elephants, visiting circuses, watching shows or giving money to beggars – they will have to stop. People take the elephants because they know they will earn money from them. Once tourists cease to spend, this practice will stop. Spread the word and educate other people before the plight of the Asian elephant becomes an irreversible tragedy.