Mistreatment and misconceptions of Thailand’s elephants.

9 Mins read

Driving through the striking scenary of Koh Lanta, Thailand, it is difficult to not fall in love with its beauty: the sun setting over the stunning beaches, the crystal-clear waters reminiscent of a warm bath and the seemingly endless lush-green jungles covering most of this large island.

On the surface it’s the ultimate Paradise, offering travellers plenty to do in terms of tourism, with one of its most popular attractions being the ‘ultimate elephant experience,’ which for Western visitors seems alluringly cheap. But who really pays the price?

I followed a sign that advertised elephant trekking. I’d heard horrific stories from lots of travellers when I first set my sights on the East. Stories that weren’t common knowledge to people outside of the travelling circuit.

From hearing these, I vowed never to ride one. This was where my curiosity got the better of me and I decided I was going to enter the camp in the unconventional way. I was going to break in.

I wanted to see the conditions the elephants are subjected to. I thought that being mid-afternoon it was likely they would be out on a trek or being used for some sort of tourist activity. Whether I was going to see elephants in the flesh or I was going to go behind the scenes and see where they’re kept, I didn’t know – but in an investigative sense I got lucky. But what I saw was heartbreaking.

There were two of these magnificent creatures. They were out of sight of each other, about 25 meters apart. They weren’t roaming freely like you’d expect to see them. Instead they were chained by their legs to the tree behind them, unable to move more than a couple of meters.

Not only were these poor creatures imprisoned, they were imprisoned alone. These animals are herd animals – they’re social and supposed to stick together.

I had brought along some bananas and a pineapple in case I was able to witness one first hand, and seeing these, she knelt down. I fed her, angered by the action she had been conditioned into.

Looking into the eyes of the elephants, they seemed empty, almost lifeless. As I stroked one of them I’d noticed the eyes were filled with tears. A heart wrenching scene to witness.

The other elephant, seemingly older, had a slightly bigger, sandier space compared to the other. She seemed to have a bit more personality left in her. I managed to take photos of them both chained up. Both elephants had deep marks in front of their ears, which I later learned to be from the use of bull-hooks.

It’s horrible to know that there were more elephants out that day who are also subjected to this. They’re not loved. They’re not treated in an ethically acceptable way. They’re just money-making machines to these companies offering rides through their home, the jungle.

After spending around 25 minutes with both elephants, I felt powerless. There wasn’t anything I could do. I couldn’t free them, although that thought was crossing my mind. It wasn’t until I heard the sound of shouting behind me did I remember I had trespassed on Thai property. I had seen a part of tourism which they, of course, don’t want to be public knowledge.

I anxiously made a run for it, praying I wasn’t going to be caught and probably arrested. Luckily, I’d hired a bike from the ferry port of Koh Lanta. The two men chasing me continued right up until I got on the bike, whilst shouting remarks I can only imagine to be Thai expletives.

As scary as the experience was, it was also a very eye-opening one. This heartbreaking scene is common throughout Thailand. Since the banning of logging, which was one of Thailand’s biggest moneymakers, the exploitation of elephants for tourism has seen a massive rise. It wasn’t until travelling to Asia I learned more about the mistreatment of these animals, and it disgusted me. Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined such scenes existed.

Elephants are an extremely endangered species, with the Asian elephants being the most threatened. Considering Thailand is a country that is predominantly Buddhist, practising ways of peace and preaching love, the treatment of the elephants is shocking.

Another surprise is the use of elephants as a national, political and religious symbol. Everywhere you go, from temples to monasteries, most have elephants depicted as a treasure and shops use them in their iconography.

So why are elephants endangered? And why are they exploited them in such a horrific way?

At the birth of the 20th Century, Thailand boasted around 100,000 elephants. As of today, that number is around 3-4000, with none of these being in the wild. A chilling statistic which shows the destructive impact humans have on wildlife. Who gives us that right to do this to such an intelligent species?

After seeing the chains the elephant’s were kept in, I wanted to find out a bit more about the process of capturing them, right up to forcing them to be vehicles for humans. Something terrible must go on to make the elephants defer to their captors command.


Captured and chained

I spoke with Ashley Fruno, a senior campaigner at PETA Asia and asked her what she knew about the conditions the elephants are subjected to in these nightmarish camps.

“Behind the exotic facade of elephant tourism is a world of merciless beatings, broken spirits, and lifelong deprivation. Once revered, elephants in Thailand today are treated like slaves. Tourists flock to Thailand and snap pictures with cute baby elephants or take an elephant ride. Some facilities make elephants paint pictures or perform circus-style tricks. What many people aren’t aware of — and what the industry tries hard to hide—is the dark and ugly existences that these elephants endure in order to provide them with such an experience. Contrary to misleading and false claims made by those who exploit them, elephants used in the tourist trade are not domesticated and very few have been ‘rescued’. Elephants exploited by the tourism industry are captive wild animals who have been beaten into submission and controlled through domination and fear.”

This is a common misconception advertised by these so called elephant rescue camps. As if the harrowing story of the elephant’s couldn’t get darker, Ashley shocked me further. I had heard of the process of crushing the elephant’s spirit, known as ‘phajaan’. During this process, some elephant’s commit suicide by standing on their own trunks. That thought alone is scary. But what I was told was even more chilling.

“Most elephants captured in the wild are taken from Myanmar, where traffickers use elephants who have been previously broken to corral herds of free elephants into pit traps. Mothers and aunts, who desperately try to protect their youngsters may be shot and the more profitable babies are taken to clandestine locations.”

She continued: “Whether stolen from the wild or born into captivity, elephants endure unimaginable abuse for the lucrative Thai tourism trade. Baby elephants have their minds, bodies, and spirits systematically “broken” through a barbaric process called phajaan. Still-nursing baby elephants are dragged from their mothers, kicking and screaming. They are immobilised, beaten mercilessly, and gouged with nails for days at a time. These ritualised “training” sessions leave the elephants badly injured and traumatised. Some don’t survive.”

Ashley then explained that “Once their spirits have been crushed, these elephants spend the rest of their lives in servitude and chains. They spend their days lugging loads of tourists on their backs, often in sweltering temperatures. They are routinely beaten with bull-hooks—metal rods with a sharp hook on one end—and often denied adequate food and water. The elephants are often worked to the point of exhaustion and many develop pressure sores and suffer from painful problems with their sensitive feet.”

How can people subject these animals to such misery? One factor is that many pseudo-sanctuaries exist which mislead tourists into thinking they can ride “rescued” elephants and buy pictures they have painted. In reality, these camps are profit-driven ventures operating under the guise of eco-tourism. The bottom line is that tourists’ money drives this cruel trade and at the expense of the elephants.

Many of the elephants imprisoned in these camps are worked for 15 hours a day with little or no rest and barely any time to eat or drink. They end up with broken limbs, some end up blind or have abscesses due to the wounds inflicted from trekking and their wounds left untreated. They are not designed to carry extra weight on their backs.

There are often two or three tourists on an elephant at a time, they may weight up to 200KG, and then with the added weight of the iron chair means the elephants will be carrying almost half a ton of additional weight.

Thankfully, there are some places in Thailand you can visit and have an experience that doesn’t involve riding the elephant but just connecting with them on a mutual level.

I spoke to Rebecca Gray from the Save the Elephant Foundation which is involved in the Elephant Nature Park; a legitimate rescue centre that dedicates it’s time to giving elephants a second chance. She told me about the Elephant Nature Park she works with and how they support elephants, past and present.

“The Elephant Nature Park actively educated mahouts, which is the name given to people who work and ride with elephants, across Thailand to our method of care. We encourage the camps to remove the saddle and cast aside the bull-hook and treat their elephants with respect, love and offer food rather than punishment . By educating the camp owners and mahouts to this alternative method of employment the elephants are able to roam freely without carrying heavy loads and mahout are able to make the money they require to feed their families. We continuously help camp who wish to convert to walking tours and all their elephants to live freely by promoting their tours and showing them our method. We’re dedicated to improving the lives of captive elephants in Thailand. We have 67 elephants who have been rescued from a number of situations, many of whom have mental issues, broken limbs, dislocations or suffer from blindness. It is our mission to change the future for captive elephants and introduce a life of freedom to the captive elephants of Thailand.”

Although there are people actively helping the elephants in Thailand, this is a problem that happens throughout south-east Asia. Countries like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam all have the same inhumane tourism when it comes to elephants. As more people become aware of the treatment of elephants – the hope grows that camps will find a way of treating these animals in a humane and loving way, instead of using them as 21st century slaves.

Elisa Allen, the Associate Director at PETA UK spoke about what they’ve done to help the elephants.

“Through undercover investigations, public demonstrations, celebrity support, and more, PETA and our affiliates are raising awareness of industries that exploit animals. PETA recently convinced STA Travel, the world’s largest student travel company, to stop promoting elephant rides as well as Sea World.”

“Not everyone knows how cruelly elephants used for tourist attractions are treated, so we must encourage them to stay away from these abusive industries. Sharing the documentary “An Elephant Never Forgets” with your family and friends is also a great way to get people interested in this issue.”

Delving further into what can be done to help, Sophia Lyaskazenco, a fundraiser for Greenpeace and an avid London activist spoke about what to do to stop animals being treated in such a horrible way.

“We need to grab media attention, speak to tourism websites, put adverts on forums. Bombard the elephant camps website comments lists. Post your opinion on relevant Facebook groups. Organise protests outside the Thai embassy. There is a lot you can do to help. Raising awareness with travellers is important, to lessen the demand but also challenging the government to improve the law. We desperately need a shift in consciousness about how we treat all animals and their importance to ecology.”


The face of an elephant subjected to ‘phajaan’

It all comes down to education. By educating people of the plight of the elephant, speaking of the threats they’re facing helps to assist the course. When traveling to these countries, avoid activities that exploit the animals and explain to others why they must avoid joining in activities.

Raising awareness like this will hopefully mean a decline in the demand for these vile activities. With international pressure we will be able to bring a change to these animals.

This exploitation in the Asian tourism industry doesn’t just exist with elephants. Snakes, monkeys and tigers all experience exploitation. Monkeys don’t voluntarily ride a bicycle, snakes don’t dance with humans and tigers don’t let people lay with them and take a photo.

Logically, we know this. But entertainment overrides ethics and money talks. To force them to perform these meaningless and physically uncomfortable tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bull-hooks, and other painful tools of the trade.

Recently, a video went viral on Facebook of a Thai man punching one of the tigers at the Tiger Temple in Chang Mai in the face. People were shocked by this, it was shared rapidly over Facebook, with many people speechless at how a person could do that to one of these ‘beautiful animals,’ but what people are unaware of is these animals are drugged to corpse-like personalities. You can see the video here.

Next time you make a trip across to the mystical East, be aware of how the ‘perfect Facebook profile photo’ may gain you countless likes, but the actions the animals endure prior to your photo are horrendous.

We don’t want another animal extinction on our hands. It’s time to make a stand. We owe it to the elephants.



All images by Tommy Hibbitts


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