It is real and well known that a large part of the people who think of Thailand as a touristic destination have in mind the famous elephant treks.
However, what many people don’t know, is that this type of treks hides a horrible reality about the quality of life of these giants of nature.
It is common to hear stories of tourists that did the elephant trekking in Thailand claiming that they are kept safe and well cared. Others argue that their ride has no negative impact since they walked directly on top of the elephant and that the elephant does not have the wooden platform on its back which is the cause that harms the animal.
Well … the truth is that unfortunately any practice involving an elephant ride is having a negative impact not only with regard of animal welfare but also on the environmental and tourism sustainability, and has a negative effect on the lives of the mahouts (owners and elephant riders), which are often exploited in their working conditions.
But how did the elephants enter the tourism industry?
The relationship between humans and elephants in Thailand is more than 3,000 years old, with elephants being mostly used as working animals. This relationship remained constant until almost the end of the 20th century when elephants were used as a working tool in the logging industry.
However, in 1989, a government ban on commercial forestry occurred, thus leaving many mahouts without income, leading them to look for other types of industry.
In the beginning, this exchange, from logging to the touristic industry, was seen as a good alternative, since the work in the logging industry was significantly heavier than the elephant rides or circus shows. But the reality is that today, most elephants who have worked in the logging industry have died, being the profit through tourism the primary motivation for the growth of the captive elephant population.
Numbers of the population
It is estimated that there are about 2,500 to 3,200 elephants in the wild in Thailand, a worrying number considering that there are around 4,400 in captivity, an amount that far exceeds the population of wild elephants.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the population of elephants in captivity declined, and two years after the government’s decision on logging the captive population was around 2,938 specimens (1991). This decline seemed to continue until 2007, when the registered number of captive population was well above expectations, with about 3,456 specimens, rising again in 2012 to 4,287. According to the National Institute of Elephant Research and Health Service in 2014 were registered 4,435 elephants in captivity, which shows a 50% increase over 1991.
The impact that the tourism industry is having on the elephant, captive and wild populations, is therefore quite flagrant, since many of the elephants now trapped in captivity are captured in the wild with the aim of being sold, the price of these animals can reach 30,000 USD, which is a very appealing value for hunters.
Animal abuse and well-being
There is already a lot of information that shows the brutality that the elephants are subjected to be “domesticated.” After all, keeping an animal, that can reach an average weight of 4 tons, submissive at our will, will not be the same as doing it with a dog.
The method for domesticating elephants in Thailand is known as Phajaan. This process begins by separating elephants from their progenitors, still at very early ages, which often involved the death of their mothers.
The next step will then be to isolate the young elephant in a sort of minimal cage, where he will be subjected to various types of torture, becoming almost totally immobile and deprived of food and drink, as well as sleeping.
Beyond all this, the mahouts with the support of various instruments, being the ankus the most common, consisting of a stick with a kind of metal hooks at the tip, bang on the most sensitive areas of the elephants’ bodies, making them submissive through the negative reinforcement of pain.
At the end of the process, the elephant is hugely traumatised, and submissive which allows to begin the training for the most varied functions.
The Phajaan process has in English meaning that is called “Crushing the Elephant” since this is a process where the spirit of the animal must be completely broken to give place to a submissive spirit.
There are alternatives
Although, not everything is bad news; there are already in Thailand several projects to support this cause, which offer travellers a different experience and a positive impact for the future of the Asian elephant.
As is the case of the Save Elephant Foundation, a foundation dedicated to helping the Asian elephant, playing an essential role in the tourism industry by offering alternative experiences to the traditional elephant tourism offers at their Elephant Nature Park. Also by creating initiatives to encourage the creation of such projects by contacting several elephant owners with the aim of changing the way they work and presenting them with a different perspective on tourism.
At Elephant Nature Park elephant rides are wholly set aside. As well as any entertainment and acrobatic “spectacles” carried out by these beautiful animals, travellers who want to help in this mission to protect the Asian elephant can assist in the preparation of the daily tasks to ensure the well-being of these giants. It is also possible to watch closely the natural interactions between the various elephants rescued by the Save Elephant Foundation.
In April 2018, the Save Elephant Foundation implemented a new rule in its activities, ceasing tourists bathing with the elephants, stating that elephants do not engage in natural and free behaviour when they are forced to go to a lake innumerable times a day, so that travellers can have a more direct contact with them while they “shower” them.
The rule will always be the more free and natural the better.
The Save Elephant Foundation has several volunteer programs available to anyone who wants to support this cause and help this association to promote its work.
The Wanderlust supports the Save Elephant Foundation while travelling to Thailand with The Wanderlust you will be helping this association directly, and you will be able to visit its Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, in the north of the country.