Hi guys, I haven’t been blogging recently because I had taken on a temp-full time job working in an office. After spending 9am to 6pm- or sometimes 12 hour shifts, depending on how strong my need to feel productive is- staring at a computer and putting up with arrogant CEOs, the last thing I wanted to do was to come home and stare at a screen again, or to use my brain at all, really. But I’m finished with most of the work I’m going to get in this holidays. Now I’ll actually try to treat my summer break as a break.
A few weeks ago, I was on a family trip to Phuket, Thailand, and I got reminded to finally post about something I felt strongly for. Elephants. And I’m sorry if this reads more academic rather than casual, but I had done a presentation in ethics class on the subject, so for once, a serious post.
The Elephant is Thailand’s national animal, being inextricably linked with Thai tradition and culture. So much so that in 1998 the government of the day ordered that March 13th would be recognized as being Thai Elephant Day. Besides being simply beasts of burden, elephants were greatly loved and honoured. Their image are emblazoned on coins, talismans and temple. In 1989 , however, the Thai Government banned logging in an attempt to conserve forest land, which had been falling at an average of 59 000 ha every year, resulting in 70% of Thailand’s domesticated elephants unemployment. Some owners turn to illegal logging while others took them to cities to become “street elephants”, where the mahouts (elephant trainers) can obtain money by begging; To the average holidaymaker, US$1.50 for a picture, a hug and perhaps even to sit atop the back of an adorable elephant, is a small price to pay. Other elephants were drafted into the entertainment industry. In my numerous trips to Thailand, I have on separate occasions, watched elephants dance, paint, been beaten, forced to copulate, and carry loads too heavy with a nourishment too lacking, in the name of For our entertainment.
I had an incredibly hard time trying to practice responsible ecotourism during my recent family trip. The itinerary offered to us involved visiting a “Monkey Training School” where monkeys were caught from the wild and forced to learn how to don cute little outfits and dance, a “Tiger-petting zoo” where, likewise, wild endangered tiger cubs were brought in, drugged up and forced to sit still for 12 hours a day, “Elephant trekking” or “Horse riding”. I picked horse riding in the end, because horses aren’t endangered, and the horses were not showing any signs of neglect. By definition, ecotourism is the “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” A common outcry when asked not to support the elephant (or any endangered species really) industry is “But if we don’t give them our money, then the elephants will die for sure! They won’t have food!” But perhaps I tend to always take a utilitarian stand, if you don’t support the industry, perhaps the elephants already in captivity may suffer, but if you do support it, there is reason to continue it, to bring in more elephants until the last one is dead, too.
Being a developing country, the obtainment and training of entertainment elephants is both legally and ethically questionable. Typically, poachers routinely kill mother elephants in order to steal and break in their young. All domestic young elephants go through a breaking in ritual termed “phajaan”. An elephant is placed in a crush and starved and beaten for weeks to break it’s spirit and learn obedience. Any noncompliance resultsin a stab in the foot or in the inner ear (the most sensitive part of the elephant). A phajaan stick is an arm-length pole with a metal hook tied to it’s end. The hook is repeatedly flung at the elephant’s body and forced in to break through the mammal’s thick hide. The Phajaan is a brutal ritual that no words can describe, so I have instead, just substituted a video for your viewing (dis)pleasure.
Why not reintroduce the elephants to the wild? “There is not enough space in Thailand, or anywhere in south or Southeast Asia for releases,” says Asian elephant expert Dr. Richard Lair. “Too bad, because well over half would probably adapt quite well.” The few thousand elephants that remain truly wild live in disconnected nature preserves and mountaintops around the country, and males are still massacred for their ivory tusks which, up to today, are still being smuggled for a hefty price.
There are many stakeholders involved, and being an integral part of society, I do not think the elephant trade should be totally eradicated from the Thai society. While the people in the trade may control input in terms of increasing training and education of stockmen and handlers and ensuring proper housing for their elephants, change in the area is the least likely. The Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of 1992 should be comprehensively amended to include specific legislative provisions relating to the control of internal and international trade in live elephants and other elephant products. But politics aside, the biggest power lies in the hand of the consumer. Ensure to only buy products, visit and support elephant conservation centers rather than commercial entertainment ground, as well as spread awareness. Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the principles of minimizing impact, while providing direct financial benefits for conservation and the empowerment of local people. And of course, education is always key to moving forward. Whilst in Thailand, I saw wild elephants roaming the mountains, and elephants shackled to the porches of shop-houses with barely 2x2m of standing area. Do you part in raising sensitivity to the host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.
Today, nearly 300 elephants still beg on the streets of Bangkok, a booming metropolis. By day, mahouts hide the elephants outside of town. At night, elephants plod along crowded freeways to get to tourism central. Some beg illegally, while many others work in entertainment and tourism — the only legal use of domesticated elephants in Thailand today. Elephants carry people on rides, dance and perform in shows. I hope this post may change even just a single person’s perspective on how animals in the entertainment industry are trained to such perfection instead of being caught up in the thrill of it all. A very easy tip is to always scrutinize an animal for wounds or scars, or to watch how they are treated behind the scenes, before lending your support. If everyone knew the pain invested into these animals, I think the situation might be different.
Here are a few petitions you can sign if you would rather be passive aggressive from the comfort of your home- even that makes a difference. If not, this is a very interesting topic to be talking about with your friends; What you say can impact someone’s decision.
Help Lek Save Elephants: A local woman’s effort in challenging the ruthlessness of tradition.
To the Thai Government: To step up and take action.