“I am going to ride a motherf%^king Elephant”. Yea that was me while planning my first trip to Thailand. If you’d scroll thru as many Thailand Instagram photos then it would all make sense. One incredible shot after another of gleeful travelers atop these massive 4-ton beasts, trekking through some lush looking jungle scenery. I was sold. Instagram’s sole purpose as of late, is to breed covetousness. It had undoubtedly succeeded in hypnotizing me. Riding an elephant climbed to the top of my trip’s bucket list.
Me was a wide-eyed and naive traveler back then! I wasn’t alone in my thinking though. While reminiscing, telling some stories from my trip, one friend attempted to quickly summarize it by asking two questions.
You know the type! One who loves to get to the end of a book as quickly as possible, by speed reading and breezing thru all the context. She wanted to know only two things:
1. Did you ride an elephant?
2. Did you go to a full moon party?
To some, especially those who haven’t truly experienced all that Thailand has to offer: The wonderful people that you meet, the pure exoticness, delicious food, overall sense of freedom while exploring & island hopping. I can on an on. In their eyes, If you didn’t ride an elephant or go to a full moon party then: Did you really go to Thailand?
At first glance, this photo looks normal, right?
No worries If you didn’t spot it. I zoomed in on the left side of the picture for you
Illegal captures and the fading of lust green forest once called home
Sad to say, Thailand elephants are becoming endangered. The once vast forest areas have been reduced from 80 percent in 1957 to less than 20 percent today. This by part largely due to deforestation associated with inappropriate developments. This should lead you to ask a few questions. Like how many Elephants are in the wild since the deforestation offset? As late, It turns out that Elephant’s counted in the wild was only reported at 1900, and declining per year. The main reason: illegal captures. When captured the elephants are sold for domestication. It’s hard to believe that at one point, although very long ago, there were 100,000 counted.
Looks normal right?
Look closer, at the chain tightly around its foot, now hold that thought for later.
The Cruel Practice of Domesticating Elephants to Break their Spirits.
The backend domestication practices for up keeping the thriving business of using elephants to entertain foreigners like my former self goes unseen. We pour in to these locations excited to ride and see these gentle giants perform unnatural tricks. However, the domestication process follows this routine: first the elephants are hunted and captured from the wild, with the baby elephants typically being the primary target. It’s cornered off as the adult elephants, who justifiably become hostile are often killed off in the capturing process. It’s far easier to transport, sell, and train a calf. It drastically reduces the time needed to prep for entertainment. Now after being sold, the breaking of its spirit begins, at childhood . If you are wondering, the going rate for a healthy calf or a young breeding female is about 700,000 Thailand baht or US$22,000.
While trekking around the camp I took a picture with my zoom lens but never analyzed it until now.
Like the dark side of the mood, the dark side of trekking camps are hidden from our view. As a tourist, you can be observant and look around, there are a few things you can spot. For example, just as you’re able to pick up on the tell-tale signs of distress from your pets at home, elephants similarly to your loving pets, they give off a few signs when in distress. One of the tell-tale signs of distress is seeing one of these giant sadly rock and sways from side to side. This is especially noticeable when they’re chained. Also Elephants are not very hairy so you can easily do an eyeball inspection scanning for visible torture scars.
Overworked elephants often carry over 50+ tourist a day for more than half a mile and back to base.
What’s the strongest part of the elephant, is it the back? Or it’s Neck?
Although massive and powerful, with a full grown Elephant weighing a ton. You would think the source for strength in elephants lies in their spine — but it’s actually their necks. See the Mahout riding at its neck. Placing a carriage on its fragile spine as it’s often the case where one or two full-size adults sit is probably comparable to being at the gym, at a squat rack with poor form, maxing out your weight. Day by day you will be slowly destroying your knees gradually over time. An elephant’s spine is not meant to hold such weight, and just as your knee it’s spine will suffer over time from being overworked every day.
Look closely, notice anything questionable?
Look again, still nothing?
Pajann: How Elephants are trained with a Bullhook
Traditionally the method used for training elephants in Thailand is called “Pajaan”. It’s a barbaric ritual used to break the elephant’s spirit. After the baby elephants are captured or if birthed on the trek grounds they are isolated to a holding pen, restricting all movements and also deprived of food and sleep. Similarly to the chained up elephant in one of the photos above. This is done for over a period of a week where they are periodically beaten and have bull hooks driven into their ears and head.
The elephant that endures this training makes it out spiritless and ready to accepts the Mahout as it’s master. If every heard the saying: Have a Memory Like an Elephant. An elephant will never forget the torture and what the Bullhook represented. Hence the Bullhook is always present for safety, in entertainment, it’s mainly used to intimidate the elephant with threats of more pain if they do not obey the mahout’s commands. A spiritless elephant can be trained to carry tourists or play soccer, stand on its head, and perform tricks as below. Ringling Bros one the most famous traveling circus here in the United States will retire their elephants by 2018 after several U.S. cities outlawed the use of bullhooks and other questionable training tactics.
Round of applause for these states and it’s people for stepping forward
Undoubtedly, Some Cool Tricks Elephants can perform but…
Elephant balancing it’s weight on two front legs while working a hula hoop.
Elephants can play Soccer
Tug of War: 13 Humans one Elephant. Part 1
Look how strong the elephant is at its neck.
Now the not so cute part, how elephants are tamed
You would assume that elephants are having a blast right, they look happy? These were cheerful videos indeed, but let’s not forget what it took to get and keep them performing at that level. No matter which acts, however cute, elephants perform for the amusement of tourists, its likely they do so in response to violence, or by the Bullhook reminding them of the fear of violence. Take a look at this extremely sad video of an elephant being tamed with a Bullhook.
Other Ways To Get Your Elephant fix and Selfies to Show Off To Friends While in Thailand.
Safe to say I won’t visit an elephant trekking site again on my next trip to Thailand. Presently, I found out that there are other more ethical ways for tourists to interact with Elephants. It’s more upfront and personal. Also, in exchange can yield more to those earning a living through the tourism business. So plan a visit the few sanctuaries and rescue centers spread throughout Thailand. While there you can get a chance to feed, bath and playfully interact with these gentle giants. One of the well-known centers is the
Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai
209/2 Sridom Chai Road, Chiang Mai
Follow: #Elephant Nature Park
Change is a slow process when done right!
Most elephant trekking camps have more than enough land to easily convert to a Sanctuary while remaining profitable.
As a closing, please understand that no one should look down on anyone. Instead, allow yourself to play devil’s advocate, realizing it’s simply a survival game for those trekking companies — a means to feed their families. With this in mind, the blame must be routed back to us — the travelers. We are the ones who pay for this form of entertainment. As a traveler, we are unaware of the events that take place behind the scenes – yes. However, the first rule in business still applies: supply and demand. If there’s no demand for this form of entertainment from exotic animals then these unethical practices and poor treatments of Elephants will slowly cease to exist. In conclusion, as a traveler, seek out places like above that allow you to have a more personal bond with elephants. By doing so, your demand will soon pave the way for an overall change.