The complex story of Asian elephants in Thailand

Franziska Seitz

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I could feel my pulse beating fast during the first few minutes of my encounter with Lucky. Although she did not seem as though she wanted to move away from her delicious meal anytime soon, her size and visible strength intimidated me. Any sudden move with her trunk could have caused severe head injuries, possibly even death. Yet the Asian elephant quietly ate her bananas and surprisingly enjoyed being petted by each of the tourists in my group. I spent a lot of time observing Lucky and was impressed by the calmness and beauty of the world’s largest land animal. Sadly, she could not see me.

Lucky is one of 2500 domesticated elephants still living in Thailand, a number that used to lie around 100 000 in the 20th century. The cow elephant resides in the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary near Chiang Mai, which is currently the home to 34 rescued, domesticated elephants from all over Thailand. While some of her relatives in the park were saved from harsh treatment in trekking camps, breeding programmes or illegal logging companies, Lucky lost her eyesight during her long-lasting work in the spotlight of a circus, all in the name of entertainment.

Elephants such as Lucky have always played a big role in Thai history, as well as culture, and represent a mandatory experience during any Thailand holiday for thousands of tourists each year.

Alongside being a religious figure in Buddhism, elephants are Thailand’s national symbol and were used in the logging industry until 1989, when logging was banned by the government. Before the ban, elephants provided a stable income for families in the rural areas of Thailand. However, being animals that consume up to 150 kilograms of food and 300 litres of water a day, they quickly became unaffordable once the logging ban took effect across the country. Many of the elephants, unable to return to an untouched wildlife due to their domestication and a continuing habitat loss within the country, ended up working in Thailand’s booming tourist industry. They now entertain tourists from across the world in trekking camps, circuses or shows. Some animals were even forced to work as begging elephants, sent to the country’s major cities to tug at the heartstrings of tourists, often developing serious health problems including respiratory infections.

Trekking camps are probably amongst the most popular tourist attractions, as they allow foreigners to take rides on the pachyderms and thus experience them up close. Owing to the tourist industry, domesticated elephants have been able to work again and the trekking industry in particular currently provides the safest working environment for the animals. Yet they are faced with a dilemma as the demands of tourism and competition for tourist attractions are growing.

A major problem facing Thailand’s domestic elephants is that, as opposed to their wild relatives, they are not legally protected from abuse but treated as livestock along with other farm animals. This not only gives way to careless treatment in camps, but also breeding programmes which are blooming to meet the demands for new elephants in Thailand and surrounding countries. During the breeding programmes animals are forced to copulate, often resulting in serious injuries and severe trauma for the mother. The reason for their popularity is that it is usually easier to domesticate young calves than wild elephants. The domestication of new calves often still occurs according to an ancient procedure aimed to break the animal’s spirits to make them obedient. As part of this treatment, an elephant is tied up in a cage to demobilize it and is neglected food or water for several days. During this period, the animal is tortured with sharp objects and beatings, until it is will is completely broken. Only one in three elephants is estimated to survive this process. Most tourists are often unaware of the methods used to tame the gentle creatures as they happen behind the curtain. However, even the animal treatment in the camps does not focus on the elephants’ welfare.

Traditionally, Asian elephants are cared for by a Mahout especially trained to maintain and teach the mammals, who are capable of learning up to 250 verbal commands and emotions such as joy or grief. Nowadays, the profession is declining across the country as mahouts suffer decreasing pay despite the growth of the tourist industry. While this leads to elephants frequently falling into the hands of unskilled caretakers, it also forces many of the remaining mahouts to take jobs that require the overworking of their animals or teaching them non-natural tricks and behaviour. All these procedures are threatening to the elephants’ survival, which is severe for a species that is listed as threatened worldwide but so rarely talked about. Next to their threatened African relative, with approximately 600 000 animals worldwide, the population of Asian elephants has decreased to 40 000 in the entire of Asia.

It is difficult to find a solution, especially with such few controls on tourist camps and the decreasing territories for elephants to live in. However, the training and treatment of elephants is slowly improving thanks to activists such as Sangduan “Lek” Chailert, the founder of the Elephant Nature Park. Chailert recognizes the paradox facing elephants in the tourist industry, but stresses that currently the domesticated animals are dependent on their work with the tourists, as they cannot be released into the wild. As a part of her work, she promotes kinder training methods across camps in Thailand that operate according to positive reinforcement, involving the development of a loving bond between the pachyderm and his mahout, and provides medical care for the animals across the country. She stresses that awareness is the key to help save the already endangered animal and provides tourists with education about the state of the Asian elephant in her park near Chiang Mai. Establishments such as the Elephant Nature Park – which provide tourists with an elephant experience involving just the touching, feeding or bathing of the animals – at this point may be the best solution to ensure the welfare of the animals. Such ecological tourism institutions are increasingly growing in Thailand and tourists are advised to encourage visits at these despite their slightly more expensive fees.

The only current solution to the problems is for tourists to make themselves aware of the establishments they are visiting to view elephants. After all, although it may be stunning to buy bananas off an elephant in the midst of the concrete jungle of Bangkok or watch a pachyderm such as Lucky play football in the spotlight of a circus, the animals remain wild creatures that did not ask to be domesticated and are most beautiful to see in their natural environments.