IS YOUR BUCKET LIST KILLING THE ASIAN ELEPHANT
I’m convinced no one wants to hurt elephants. But Thailand’s tourism industry, the beating heart of the country’s economy, is dependent upon foreign tourists’ ages-long fascination with elephants. People will pay good money to ride or otherwise interact with elephants…and most have no idea that because of this, they’re contributing to a cycle of horrific abuse. The Thai elephant is in grave danger due to lack of awareness––and it’s long past time to get the word out.
THE PHLIGHT OF THE THAI ELEPHANT
On the 3.5 hour drive up the mountain from Chaing Mai to the location of the week-long elephant rehabilitation program I signed up for, I was educated on the mistreatment of elephants. On a TV that dropped down from the ceiling of the van, the other 13 volunteers and I watched a documentary on the before/after of the lives of elephants that end up at Elephant Nature Park. The doc graphically explained and visualized the torture and abuse elephants go through to become submissive to their owners in order to work as tourist attractions. We had known each other for about 20 minutes, and the video made me and a couple others cry on the ride up. It was absolutely stomach-wrenching to learn about the mistreatment elephants experience.
I thought––and most people I’ve ever spoken to on the issue have thought––that if there wasn’t a seat on top of the elephant, it wasn’t harmful to ride them. I thought bare-back riding was responsible tourism, but I was very wrong.
The truth is, when elephants are caught, rented or purchased for tourist trekking camps (riding, etc) or circuses, they go through a brutal training to become submissive to humans. Elephants are forced into what is called a “crusher.” It’s a cage far too small for their bodies that they desperately want to escape, but every time they fight it, they are poked with bullhooks or bamboo sticks with nails on the ends. In the crusher, they’re sleep-deprived, starved, and the more the elephant tries to get away, the more injuries they will sustain from the trainers. This goes on for days to more than a week, depending on how long it takes to “crush their spirit.”
Below is a short video of the training every elephant goes through before working for human entertainment. Please be warned it’s unsettling, but I think it’s really important to see at least a minute of it. This is an excerpt of what we watched on the way to Journey to Freedom, and it really sets the tone for WHY rescuing them from trekking is so important.
On top of the abuse they endure to get to where humans can ride them for their own entertainment, it should be known that elephants eat for 20 hours a day and consume 10 percent of their body weight daily. They sleep for a maximum of four hours in a day. So, when working nine or 10 hour days in tourist camps, they don’t have time to eat what they need to stay healthy. There is a contract that the renters sign with the owners to rent/work the elephants. In the contracts, how much food they need and their working limitations are often not included. The people who rent them for trekking only give the elephants what is necessary to survive, and nothing extra. They feed them sugary and widely-available foods such as watermelon and corn that eventually lead to fiber and other nutrition deficiencies, which cause the giants to literally collapse.
Not to mention that keeping a human on their backs aren’t good for their spines. Elephants may be massive creatures, but it still isn’t natural to keep that kind of weight on their backs for 10 hours a day.
Some trekking programs advertise that they’re ethical by not using bullhooks, etc, but regardless of what they do now, there was brutal training for the elephants to get to where they are today. And even if they say they treat the elephants in a humane way now, you just never know.
Other forms of entertainment that humans gobble up, such as elephants painting pictures with their trunks, is achieved by owners pushing nails into the back of the elephants’ very-sensitive ears. Pushing the nail left causes them to take the paintbrush left, pushing it right takes it right, and so on.
So what are the options for spending time with elephants when all of these things are so unbelievably cruel to them?
Enter Elephant Nature Park.
ELEPHANT NATURE PARK PROGRAMS
Elephant Nature Park, one of a handful of reputable elephant sanctuaries in Northern Thailand, has stellar reviews all over the Internet and hundreds of features from media outlets worldwide. It’s a place handicapped elephants that are rescued from their previous lives of tourist trekking now live. At Elephant Nature Park, they’re treated with the respect and rights they deserve.
The fee you pay to spend the day or week volunteering (depending on what program you choose) goes directly to Elephant Nature Park renting the elephants from their owners. So, instead of a trekker renting the elephant for tourists to ride, ENP is renting the elephant to live in an “elephant heaven.” The money is used to pay the mahouts (people who talk to the elephants and are constantly with them. Someone must be watching or near the elephants at all times), pay for medicine for the 50 elephants at the park, 180 cats, and 400 dogs. It also goes towards your meals and accommodation, of course.
I originally wanted to go to Elephant Nature Park as an ENP Weekly Volunteer at the main park, about an hour north of beautiful Chaing Mai. The Park description boasts that you will “Volunteer at Elephant Nature Park and help to improve the plight of the Asian elephant. Make a real contribution to conservation in Northern Thailand. The park provides sanctuary for disabled, blind, and orphaned elephants that have often been abused as working animals and for street begging. You will actively be helping improve their lives and the conditions in which they live.” You also get modern-day luxuries such as a proper bed, a door that closes, available Wi-Fi connection and beer for purchase. The life.
Of course when I went to sign up, the week I could volunteer was full already––three and a half months ahead of time! My heart dropped. I continued looking through the site: There were loads of one-day tours, two week-long stays in Cambodia (but I only had a one-time-entry visa for the country), and programs reserved solely for students in vet school. Things were looking bleak.
But, there are 13 programs total, so there’s definitely something for everyone. Towards the very bottom of the site, I came across Journey to Freedom. Wildly different from a week at the park, the description reads, “a home stay has been set up in a village south of Chiang Mai for volunteers to learn about Karen culture and watch the elephants roam freely in this remote mountainous region. Fees paid by volunteers are used to compensate the tribes-folk for the income they would have received from leasing their elephants to tourist camps. It is hoped that the interest and affection shown toward elephants will spark a similar drive amongst the younger Karen generation.”
It says simple tribal hut accommodations are available for sleep, and no beds, but soft mattresses. Volunteers are required to be physically fit and there is no Wi-Fi.
This was officially a gamble.
But I knew volunteering with elephants was something I wanted to experience in Thailand, so I rolled the dice and made a deposit in early April for my stay at Journey to Freedom in early mid-July. (Note that I’m an outlier and most of the volunteers booked less than a month before volunteering.) Please read my next blog post “Journey to Freedom” if you’re interested in my personal experience with this specific program.
The only way to incite any kind of change begins with education. I know how much of a privilege it was to spend a week with these gentle giants in their natural habitats and to learn the truth about their lives. I also know most people won’t get the same opportunity. Because of this, I feel a great responsibility to share what I’ve learned with as many people as I possibly can.
I am asking you to share this post with anyone and everyone. I wanted nothing more than to ride an elephant when I got to Asia––until I learned the truth. Ignorance is not bliss, and in 2015, lack of awareness is simply unacceptable. We humans can do better. Elephants are emotional, beautiful creatures that are worthy of a life free of abuse and human entertainment. Please, please consider the elephants’ best interests if you ever visit a place where riding is an option.
Leah Jordan graduated in 2015 from Georgia State University with a degree in broadcast journalism. Jordan is a SPJ Georgia member and was president of Georgia State’s SPJ student chapter. and was a contributing writer for SPeachJ News. For more information about Leah Jordan, link here.