Imagine this. You’re wanted and on the move. There’s a bounty on your head so no one cares your innocent. Your family, attempting to protect you, get slaughtered by your side. But what match are you- a baby elephant- against a pack of poachers? Less than one year’s old, you’re taken far away. Another victim. Another win of man against nature.
In Thailand, similar to many countries across the world, animals are captured from the wild to be used and exploited for human gratification. Today there remains a thriving illegal wildlife trade, retailing animals as pets, bush meat and for use in traditional medicine. The tourist industry is a renowned culprit of this, placing elephants under immense threat. Yet why are these creatures so vulnerable? What perverted secrets lie behind their domestication? And what can you, hundreds of miles away, do to help? When living itself is threatened for elephants, every saviour counts.
The Story of Thailand’s Elephants
Thailand fosters a remarkable array of species. Situated at a biogeographic crossroad between the Indochinese region to the north and the Sundiac region to the south, Thailand’s range of climates, varied topography and long coastlines make it a hotspot for biodiversity. However, since the industrialisation of Thailand’s economy during the 1950s, rapid urbanisation and population growth have led to the natural environment being exploited rather than conserved.
With poaching, destructive fishing practices and deforestation pushing thousands of species to the brink of extinction. The large-scale logging industry, responsible for uprooting and harvesting trees, was the dominant driver of habitat loss. Before the introduction of sophisticated machinery, it cruelly employed elephants to deforest their own homes, the very habitat they require for survival. By 1989, commercial logging was banned in Thailand. However, by then Thailand had lost around 50% of their forest and the wild elephant population was highly fragmented.
Thousands of unemployed mahouts and their elephants turned to the fast-growing, lucrative tourist industry; forced to perform degrading tricks for the amusements of tourists, or repeatedly seminated to be bred for profit. Most entered trekking camps; spending long days supporting heavy saddles and people. Yet elephants’ backs were never designed to carry such loads and after years of trekking, many suffer spinal deformities, pain and lameness.
Elephants have been used by humans for over 4000 years. Although this is around the same length of time since horses have been domesticated, there are significant differences between them which make elephants much harder to control. Unlike horses, male elephants undergo a process called ‘musth’ which roughly begins during puberty and causes highly aggressive and unpredictable behaviour.
Characterised by a periodical rise in reproductive hormones, elephants during musth kill around 500 people every year meaning postpubescent elephants cannot be tamed. Therefore, elephants are generally taken from the wild as calves. However, owing to close family bonds and a devotion to protect their young, often the whole herd is slaughtered even if just one elephant is taken. It is believed that the spirit of the elephant must be broken in order for it to be domesticated: the Phajaan or ‘the crush’ is a process originating in the hill tribe communities of India and South-East Asia and is believed to drive the wilful and wild spirit from the elephant, leaving it submissive for their handlers to control.
Breaking an Elephant’s Spirit
The baby elephant is first tethered and dragged to a clearing where the crush cage is located. Its fragile legs are bound with ropes and the animal is relentlessly beaten with sharp metal tools and bullhooks for several weeks. Starved of food, deprived of water, this extreme form of torture is said to be so traumatic that neither the mother nor calf are able to recognise one another once the process is complete.
In the final stage of the Phajaan, the elephant’s mahout will bring the animal its first meal with water and will be the one to ‘release’ the elephant and lead it away from the crate. After weeks of mental and emotional torment, the elephant likens this human figure to its saviour – the one it trusts. This is just another stage of manipulation, of course, but it is how a particular mahout gains immense control over its animal.
Most tourists do not realise the torture all domestic elephants endure to make them subservient to their mahouts. Fortunately, increasing public awareness and education surrounding these issues is helping to change the habits of international tourists who unknowingly fuel the illegal trade and abuse of Thailand’s wildlife.
A Chance For Hope
WorkingAbroad has campaigned and fought against abusive practices since 1997, rescuing and caring for thousands of animals. Our Elephant Volunteer Programme in Thailand gives retired elephants the freedom they deserve in a safe and natural environment, providing lifelong veterinary care as well as optimum husbandry and diet, hopefully setting a high standard for others in the tourist industry to follow.
Other than elephants, WorkingAbroad practises rehabilitation and release programmes for all types of animals. Healing local wildlife to health, having fallen victim to dog attacks, road traffic accidents or other human-caused accidents. However, Thailand still has a poor reputation regarding animal welfare. Incessant corruption and lack of animal welfare laws mean many species are still vulnerable.
Wherever there is a high tourist demand for these services, it is unlikely a robust system for protecting Thai wildlife will emerge. To help overcome this, WorkingAbroad works directly on the ground with local Thai people to promote eco-tourism, prioritising educational programmes and employment opportunities that work with nature rather than against it. To encourage sustainable development and to protect Thailand’s elephants, volunteering with WorkingAbroad is a strong way to take immediate action.
Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Stephanie Frank