Yes, I Went to Thailand. No, I Didn’t Ride an Elephant

Liam recounts his volunteering experience in Thailand and explores the shocking truth behind the commercial elephant industry. Please be advised, there are graphic descriptions and photos of animal cruelty in the following article. 

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Pin getting a trunk tickle

November 2015 was when Jele’s chains were cut and she was rescued from her life of exploitation as a working elephant in the logging and tourism industries of Thailand. Jele had been worked her entire life until she was seen as a drain on resources. It’s illegal to euthanise elephants in Thailand, so instead, she was chained to a tree and left to starve to death. This sadly is the final outcome for many elephants across Asia, though before we carry on with Jele’s story, let’s look at some background.

Humans have been using elephants for over 4000 years, mostly in logging and for transport, but also for use in shows and as begging animals/photo props. The global population of Asian Elephants is around 45000, having decreased by 50% over the last three generations. In Thailand, there are around 6500 elephants, over half of whom are in captivity, mostly for the purpose of tourism.

Last year, over a million Brits visited Thailand, many travelling to see elephants, and for as little as 600 Baht (≈£15) they can have the ‘Thailand experience’ and ride one. Searching ‘elephant trekking’ on tourism websites reveals many comments describing how “happy” elephants are to be ridden on and that visitors “witnessed [no signs of] abuse”. However, most mistreatment happens behind closed doors.

Before any elephant can be ridden or used in the logging industry, it must first go through the Phajaan process. Also known as ‘the breaking of the spirit’, the process aims to make the elephant fear their owner so it will obey humans. Calves are either bred in trekking camps or captured from the wild, which usually involves killing their herd, and as such four to five wild elephants die as a result of one elephant captured for the tourism industry.

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This photo shows the true horror which some young elephants could face in the Phajaan process.

At the start of the Phajaan process, calves are put into small wooden cages with their trunks and legs bound with ropes. The process varies in duration, though often lasts for several months. Calves are deprived of food and water, being given the bare minimum needed to survive, and beaten with bullhooks by their mahouts (a person who works with and rides an elephant), an extreme example of negative reinforcement training. The calves which survive the process leave their cages psychologically different to when they entered them, demonstrating abnormal behaviours not seen in wild-living animals.  This relationship allows a mahout to exploit the elephant for commercial use and for most elephants this is their life until they die, working for as long as their mahout can profit from them. But for some, like Jele, this is luckily not where their story ends, and they get rescued by charitable organisations such as the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT).

I volunteered with the WFFT back in summer of 2017, and that’s where I met Jele and the other amazing elephants the WFFT cared for. The WFFT was founded in 2001 with the mission of rescuing captive wild animals and rehabilitating them as far as is feasible. This also involves campaigning against animal abuse and exploitation as well as an education aspect aimed at locals, tourists and the global community to spread understanding of why they do what they do. During my time with the WFFT I helped care for their elephants at the ‘elephant refuge’, as well as a broad range of other wildlife from gibbons and sun bears to non-native species like a crocodile from the illegal exotic pet trade in their ‘wildlife rescue center’.

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Jele chained to the tree on the day of her rescue, credit: WFFT

During my time at the WFFT they were caring for 19 elephants, and like Jele the vast majority of them had been through the phajaan process and worked either in logging or trekking up until their rescue. The exception to this was (everyone’s favourite) Pin the elephant calf, who had been rescued along with her mother Pun who was being used as a breeding elephant in a trekking camp.

As a volunteer I helped look after the elephants in the WFFT’s care which involved washing and feeding them, collecting their food, and cleaning their enclosures. For certain elephants there was also the opportunity to walk with them which provides them with exercise, and is a good example of an ethical interaction with these amazing creatures as no animal is ever forced to do it if they don’t want to. These experiences are also available to visitors allowing tourists to have ethical interactions with elephants and also help support reputable sanctuaries like the WFFT.

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Liam walking with Dao Rueng

The WFFT’s elephants are part of only a lucky few. The story of Jele is endearing, when she was rescued from that tree she was given only 2 months to live, 4 years later she is still alive and kicking. But sadly only around 200 elephants in Thailand kept in ethical conditions like the WFFT. The WFFT and other organisations such as Elephant Nature Park and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary are doing what they can to help these elephants, but the biggest issue they face is economics.  A retired elephant like Jele costs around $10,000 (US) but a calf effectively costs around $250,000 (US) when loss in profits are factored in. Without charitable help and donations, these organisations can only help a fraction of the elephants in Thailand. Even the lucky few that are rescued still face issues going forward.

The phajaan process and years of exploitation leave elephants with both physical and mental scars. Elephants in trekking camps are ‘hyper-aggressive’ and perform behaviours ‘stereotypic’ of an animal in a high-stress environment. Studies suggest this is because they have no control over their lives and are not free to perform natural behaviours. At a rescue sanctuary the conditions allow wild behaviours leading to the re-expression of elephants’ individualities.

This article is not about shaming naïve tourists who have ridden elephant’s in the past. Although naivety is what keeps the trekking camps in business, by saying no to elephant trekking and telling others about the torture of elephants in these camps hopefully we can influence changes.  Without a market, the trekking camps can’t function, and there is hope that one day ethical places like the WFFT will replace the camps. Only through education can a change be made to the future of Thailand’s elephants.

If you would like to learn more about the WFFT or their voluntering programs go to either:

About the Author: Liam Pattullo is a master’s student at University College London, you can follow him on Twitter at @SassyZoologist

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