I remember the elephant gazing at me with teary eyes as I watched a girl from my tour go up, pay the mahout, and sit down on its massive tusks. Once powerful, they were now cracked and warped from years of sitting, lifting, and straining. The tusks had started to twist into a makeshift bench, cracking in protest to the unnatural shape.
Elephants have been an important part of Thai culture and society for generations. The official national symbol of Thailand, an elephant has been featured on three of the past national flags, and white elephants still represent wealth, power, and royalty. The actual role that elephants play in Thai society, however, has changed drastically over the last few decades. Romanticized in ads for gaudy elephant rides, disregarding the long history of elephant culture in Thailand, elephants are now regarded more as a source of income than a respected national symbol.
Every time I say I have been to Thailand, people ask me with hope in their eyes and grins on their faces, “Did you get to ride an elephant?” I did. But I’m not proud of it. I didn’t know then what happens behind closed doors. The industry doesn’t expose the harsh reality of its training practices. Instead, I discovered those after doing some research. Armed with my new knowledge, I was able to make my second trip to Thailand more productive and helpful than my first.
Elephants were once used for logging in the timber industry. They would work for a few grueling hours every day, hauling heavy logs through dense forests under the blistering hot sun. Then, in 1989, the Thai government banned all logging and displaced thousands of working elephants. This ban coincided with the rise in tourism, and many of the elephants and their mahouts (trainers) switched to elephant tourism instead.
At zoos, circuses, and camps, elephants are trained to give rides, paint, play soccer, play basketball, balance on steps, balance on each other, pose, and lift people up, none of which is natural elephant behavior. Baby elephants, usually around one year old, are ripped from their mothers and forced to undergo a pajaan (“divorce” of spirit and body). During this ritual, the baby elephant is secured in a V-shaped, wooden cage for weeks as the mahouts poke, prod, stab, whack, and starve them to break their spirits. Once the elephant loses its will to live, the mahouts give the elephant commands in return for food and water, training it to do all the tricks tourists enjoy at the elephant shows. The most common tool that mahouts use are bullhooks, also known as elephant goads, which often consist of a wooden handle and a sharp, metal hook on the end.
While at the elephant circus, I watched the bullhook sink into the soft flap of the baby elephant’s ear. The mahout pulled the elephant’s head down, forcing it to bow. People clapped and cheered. The bright green and cheerful yellow of the festive head ornament almost distracted me from the small rips in the fabric and faded brown spots that looked like blood. The little elephant’s trunk stretched for a banana in a girl’s hand, barely out of reach because of the two-inch metal chain around the elephant’s ankle. The mahout shouted. Whack. The bulhook struck again. I looked closer, noticing the old tear stains streaking down the speckled, sun-damaged skin and the fresh tears pooling in the elephant’s eyes.
Elephants at these camps are forced to work longer hours than they did in the logging industry. The demand for elephant tourism is high. Hours of trekking around with 200-pound benches strapped to their backs, not to mention the people sitting in them, as well as the mahouts on their necks, lead to permanent back and spine problems. Some mahouts argue that they have no other choice. If they didn’t work with their elephants at the camps, they would either beg in the streets or starve. They believe that street begging is even worse for the elephants because elephants hate the city. Oftentimes, elephants need to be sedated so as not to act out from the overstimulation of lights and people. At the same time, they need to be given amphetamines to give them enough energy to work their long shifts. The mahouts began to see the long-term damage the first generation of street-begging elephants coped with, leading to a decrease in the practice within the past few years.
After learning all of this about the elephant tourism industry, I found the best way to interact with the elephants of Thailand ethically: elephant sanctuaries. I went to the most well-known one: Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, a major city in northern Thailand. Rather than exploiting elephants for economic benefit, the park has been rescuing elephants from camps and zoos since the 1990s. When I went, there were 69 elephants roaming freely in the park. We were able to feed, observe, bathe, and even touch them. We were taught how to properly treat elephants, to never to approach them from behind but instead let them come to you, a sign they are willing to be touched. In just one family, there were three elephants with eye problems (blinded either by age or stabbing by a mahout), one elephant with diabetes (from improper diet of only sugar cane at the plantation where she used to work), one missing an ear (due to infection after injury) and one victim of a landmine (with a nearly completely blown-off front right foot). Despite all of this, they were all receiving the proper medical care, love, and respect that they deserved. To me, at least, these elephants seemed much happier than those I had seen working at camps.
The first time I went to Thailand, I was completely unaware of the horrors behind the flashy display that is elephant tourism today. I am so thankful I decided to research before I went back, helping me to avoid blindly supporting the practice a second time. Most tourists who go to Thailand simply do not know about the horrible treatment of the performance elephants. When I asked my friends what they had heard, most had vague ideas but no real knowledge of the true extent of the pajaan and other abuse. I believe that once people know there is a difference to be made, they will do whatever they can to make it.
Photographs by Anita Sheih
**The information relayed in this article was gathered from both this documentary film and from conversations with locals in Thailand.