When I first came to Chiang Mai on holiday nearly 10 years ago, I went elephant riding. A year later when I was working as a tour guide, I promoted elephant riding to my passengers, in fact it was even part of the itinerary of most trips, and my company was one that prided itself on being conscientious of animal cruelty. Even though I was only vegetarian at the time, I felt deep down that using animals for riding was probably not the funnest thing for the elephants, but I told myself, that it gives a job to the elephants who no longer have a job since the logging industry stopped in 1989. I thought that elephant riding was probably easy work compared with logging. I also knew that these domesticated elephants could not be returned to the wild. There was probably not enough forest for them and they lacked the skills necessary to live even if there was enough forest. I also thought that it was probably the only job that the locals could do. I told my pax this when they asked me about it and justified mine and the company’s actions.
So, I promoted it to my passengers. Even as recently as this Christmas (after I woke up to the suffering of animals) I suggested an elephant ride to my family for something to do while we were on holiday. We went, and none of us really enjoyed it, in fact, I felt pretty dreadful that I had participated in such a thing and swore I would never do it again. Of all the many elephant camps I have been to over the year, they have always been tethered, and I’ve never seen any ellies able to go free.
While in Chiang Mai at Christmas towards the end of my stay, I found out about the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants that have been injured or mistreated. I told myself that I would go back as soon as I had the chance.
These holidays in Chiang Mai, I decided to bite the bullet and go. The price of the day trip is 2500 thb, which compared to other excursions and activities around Chiang Mai it is quite expensive, but as it was for a good cause, and I had a lot of making up to do to the elephants so I went.
The issue of elephants in Thailand is a long and complicated one. They are credited to have helped Thailand become the country it is today by helping with construction and even in war. Now, most domesticated elephants (which number 2500) are used in the tourism industry since they lost their jobs when logging stopped, but there are still elephants being born and trained to carry tourists. It seems that the tourism industry giving these elephants a job so they can be fed and looked after until they die of old age in a convenient excuse. It also makes money. Another even more shocking thing is elephant begging where elephants are taken in to the big cities and used for begging. The owner can make the same in one night than the average person makes in a week. Tourists buy food from the owners and give it to the elephants. To say that the city is the wrong environment for elephants is a gross understatement. The noisy, polluted environment is a cause of much stress to the animals. They are given drugs to keep them calm.
Although the Thai elephant is much revered by Thai people, many elephants are dreadfully mistreated.
I knew much of this before I went, but what I was not aware of is the training that many elephants go through in order to be ‘controllable’. At four years old (when they are still so young) they are placed in a tiny cage for 3 days where they are unable to move (this is called Prajaan). Here’s some horrifying footage. Remember. This is not an isolated case. This is how most elephants are trained. It’s a centuries old tradition. They are literally beaten in to submission so their spirit is broken. I saw footage of this process and it was heart wrenching. As I looked around, I saw many people moved to tears by this incredible suffering*. The animals were so obviously terrified and suffered some very painful injuries. When they get out of the cage, the animal just goes completely crazy. This is just the start of their training which will continue for many months.
There are no laws to prevent this cruel process happening. Just as in our countries, there are very few laws to protect livestock animals and they are usually very small fines (also just like in Australia and the US etc).
I ask you to think about this. If you go elephant riding in Thailand and you care about how animals are treated, then ask yourself. “Can I be sure that this animal was trained without massive cruelty” If the answer is no, then don’t go and make your reasons clear to your guide or company that you are travelling with and why. Consider going to the Elephant Nature Park instead where you can spend the day observing these magnificent creatures and get to actually learn a little bit about them.
Although noone is asking me, if someone did, this is what I would say.
- Let’s make sure that we can preserve and extend Thailand’s forests so that a larger population of elephants can be supported in the wild so elephants can do what they all want to do; Be free!
- Stop breeding domestic elephants and stop the Prajaan immediately.
- Educate travellers about the Prajaan and ask them to make choice with their pockets and not support this cruel training method and instead go riding in places that do not practice this. Make these places known to tourists so they can make an educated choice about which places too support.
- Make more sanctuaries so that abandoned elephants can live in peace for the rest of their lives.
- Help the employees of these big elephant parks find appropriate alternative work which doesn’t harm these magnificent beasts or any other creature.
At the Nature Park, you feel an overwhelming sense of peace. The animals are not tied up. They come and go as they please, although there are a couple of scheduled feedings and bath times which you can participate it. The elephants have divided themselves in to several small herds and I was able to observe some very special elephant behaviors including scratching and spraying themselves with mud and water. There was an incredible moment, when one of the babies became very agitated. The rest of the herd came running over trumpeting so loudly and surrounding the baby so that no harm could come to her.
Please be careful when you decide to go to the Nature Park. An action filled day is not to be expected. Also, there are many operations touting themselves to be an elephant nature park. Make sure you choose the right one.
*I always feel great sorrow when I see how sad people get about this stuff. I see huge parallels between the way that the way the elephants are treated in this case for 3 days and how all animals for food are treated for their whole short lives, and not just a few weeks. What is the difference between an elephant and a chicken or cow?
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