This blog entry is about the upsetting footage we were shown on the way to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai and during our welcome meeting and time with Lek, the incredible founder or ENP . It is a very tough subject for some to address and it is a much longer post than usual hence why I have posted it separately, but please try to take the time to read it. This week has been one of the most eye opening weeks of my life in regard to animal welfare and animal tourism and trade. It really is worth a read.
The video showed elephants being used for trade and tourism. 3 of the most popular uses for elephants in Thailand are as work animals in the logging trade, as show pieces for tourist attractions and as props and performers in circus acts and parades.
To begin with it all looks quite harmless, elephants painting basic tree and flower looking pictures for tourists, taking people for rides through beautiful lakes and rivers on seats mounted on the elephants backs, the elephants dressed up and painted in stunning bright colours and jewels to parade through towns and festivals for special events.
But then it begins to show you what happens behind the scenes. It takes a closer look at the mahout on the elephants back, thrusting a spike or a hook into the elephants head, hidden behind its ear, all while the happy honeymoon couple sit on the heavy metal frame seat. The heavy chains locked around the elephants ankles and wrapped over its back to slow it down all hidden underneath the elegant rugs and throws for the people to be distracted by. The adolescent elephants taken from their mothers far too soon to be walked up and down busy main roads in towns and major cities so the mahout can charge holiday makers to feed them. It appears there is much more to these 'traditions' of using elephants than most people realise.
Before I go on I need to explain, I had my eyes opened on this matter so I am not trying to preach, more educate, as the founder of ENP asked us too. I never imagined that elephants in tourism were treated so poorly, although for a long time I have disagreed with riding, I didn't understand the impact that all of the trades where having.
The logging trade. This trade is tough and highly demanding. Although these animals are incredibly strong, they are worked ridiculously hard. The conditions are harsh, the days are long without breaks, and the materials they are forced to drag or push are too heavy. When they struggle, stop, make a mistake, or even fall from exhaustion they are fiercely beaten but the mahouts and worker around them, with all sorts of tools, from hammers to axes to heavy sticks. The old system was banned in Thailand many years ago so any elephant used in the trade today are used illegally. Although the ban helped remove some elephants from the trade, the majority of them were just moved into mainstream tourism as the mahouts need them to be profitable. The elephants that are still being used are harder to keep track of for people concerned about their welfare, as the mahouts want to stay out of trouble for working them illegally.
Street tourism/riding camps. I believe this is the toughest one to face as many people choose to be ignorant to what is really happening behind the scenes and don't wish to educate themselves because the would rather take part in an 'experience' that millions of others have done before them.
Elephants are not equipped to deal with conditions in noisy, busy, crowded towns and city's. They live in the wild, with their families, with lots of vegetation, away from humans, away from roads, away from crowds. These built up areas are terrifying for these animals, especially for the infants who are often favoured for tourism as they attract more attention.
The riding camps keep their elephants tied/chained in small wooden frame 'cages' before mounting huge, heavy metal frames on their backs and adding two or more fully grown adults on top. Again, these animals are giants in comparison to us, but they are not capable of withstanding such heavy loads for sustained periods of time. If a riding camp is popular, it will load and elephant repeatedly, without food or a break, until the visitors stop coming. For some that can be 10+ hours a day.
Circus/performance acts. These animals are kept in small, confined spaces and are permanently shackled and chained. The chains are wrapped over their backs, usually linking all 4 legs together. This restricts the movement of the elephant. The elephants are layered with stunning costumes and jewellery and usually walked or ridden by a mahout who will keep control of them. This is usually done with a metal hook or a nail behind the ear. Elephants ears are highly sensitive to sound and to touch, so having a nail or hook pressed against them is extremely painful for the animal.
During discussions over the week, a lot of people asked, "Why don't the elephants retaliate? When the mahouts treat them so badly, why don't they trample them or attack them in some way to defend themselves?"
This brought us to the process that is truly behind the scenes, and for good reason. Before any elephant makes it to a trade it is subjected to an ancient ritual developed by hill tribes in India and South East Asia. The video showed us clips of the tradition called 'phajaan' meaning 'crushing'. Essentially it is used to crush or break an elephants spirit. To create a submissive animal, that can be controlled for profit. The majority of the elephants that are subjected to this ritual are babies, stolen from their mothers and families in the wild, often leaving the mothers injured or dying.
The ritual begins with the elephant being forced into a tiny bamboo/wooden pen known as the crush. It is shaped to keep the elephant standing and in one position (as there is no room for any movement) once the elephant is in the cage the tribesmen/mahouts bind the elephant to the pen creating even more discomfort. If you want to see more you can google this ritual. It has numerous videos available on YouTube.
The process is known to last approximately a week depending on the 'strength' of the elephants spirit or the brutality of the people carrying out the process.
The elephants are starved of food and water (in the wild elephants will eat for around 16 hours a day to sustain themselves) deprived of sleep and tormented with loud music/noise being blasted into their sensitive inner ears. But the worst of all is the beatings. Using sticks, hooks, tools, spikes, nails, fire and anything else they think will inflict enough pain to scare the animals, these people will spend hours a day, sometimes in shifts causing severe damage to the elephant in the hope it will make it compliant.
Once those in charge are satisfied that the elephant will no longer pose a threat to them (the elephant is broken or crushed) they will release it from the ties and the tiny pen. It's well documented that a high number of elephants don't survive this process (some sources state as high as half of the elephants that endure the ritual die before it is complete) and many that do survive have done so because their mental state has deteriorated so dramatically they don't understand what is happening anymore.
But for those who survive they now enter a life of constant fear, being reminded of the pain and suffering they have endured with the use of hooks to coerce them to behave and perform. This ritual will have been performed on every animal in the tourist trades. It ensures control for the mahouts and a level of 'safety' for the tourists. Although this isn't always the case as there are many reports of animals acting out, becoming aggressive, and 'losing control'. This happens when the elephant just can't cope.
Needless to say, after learning all of this, and seeing it actually happening in the video footage, I was sobbing. Almost uncontrollably. When the video finished the bus was silent and I noticed most of people had reacted the same way as me, even the men. This was heartbreaking, but it was explained to us that the ENP encourage their guests to watch it in an effort to educate and create an understanding and empathy for the struggle these animals face. It certainly created a new perspective of the ENP for me, and when we arrived I had lost the notion of it being an experience on our trip, it was now an experience in my life, a little bit of giving, a helping hand, making a tiny difference to a cause that has a truly mammoth challenge ahead of it. But it is making progress, and elephants are being rescued, receiving treatment, and being treated with the care and respect they deserve while they recover and live out their lives in peace. The place is outstanding.