Everyone wants to do it. You see travel magazines everywhere with photos of travellers happily posing on top of an elephant, it’s trunk in the air reaching to touch their outstretched hand. The Thai holiday dream right?
My heart breaks every time I see another one of these photo’s go up on Facebook, despite warnings that so many are now posting – with many travellers turning a blind eye to get their Asian elephant experience. The worst bit, a lot of these people then get angry with me, telling me I’m trying to ruin their holiday (oh, I’m sorry).
The truth is, these poor creatures are miserable. Naturally aggressive and very protective (in the wild), there’s no way you were ever gonna get on one of these huge creatures’ back for a ride around the jungle. The only way to get them to let you do this; break them. Literally break their soul.
Working and performing elephants in Thailand are often poached from Myanmar, ex logging elephants are very popular. The ‘kraal’ or ‘training crush’ method of breaking the babies involves them being placed in a strong, large stall or cage and tied with ropes to keep the elephant from moving, including being unable to kick, raise or swing its head. Proponents argue that this allows the elephant to properly and safely learn the basic command “Still!” or “Quiet!”, and enable it to adapt to its new environment.
National Geographic reports on the use of nails and sticks stabbed into the ears and feet of an elephant the subject of a crush in Thailand. Other reports cite the use of beatings with sticks, chains or bull hooks, sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to “break” the elephant and make them submissive to their owners.
Working for a tour organiser in Thailand, I refused to sell these trips to my customers. Instead, they would come back to me to tell me they’d bought elsewhere, offloading their guilt after seeing the trainers use bull hooks to get them to do what they wanted, scars on their backs from where the heavy seats had rubbed away at their skin.
On visiting the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai (the only humane rescue centre in Thailand that wont allow you to ride the rescue animals), we heard complete horror stories about what goes on behind the scenes. One big female had had both her eyes burned out. Her crime? She’d refused to carry on working as she pulled logs up a hill and gave birth to her baby, which rolled down the hill behind her. I sobbed the whole way through meeting her.
My meeting with the beautiful lady who had her eyes burned out… I had to feel her trunk so she knew where I was.
My biggest upset came after booking a 2 night trek in the North. We were insistent that our trip didn’t include elephant rides. Our organiser assured us, we payed, we went, only to find ourselves being put up over night in one of these riding camps. I cried for hours watching a large female chained up outside on her own, with no freedom of movement, swaying from side to side the way a distressed polar bear in a zoo does. 500 meters or so down the park, her baby was chained in the middle of a field, the same swaying.
What can do you do to help/avoid?
- Don’t be conned into rides on the promise that the animals are happy and well treated. They simply aren’t. Those with seating harnesses are particularly stressful for the animals.
- Ensure you aren’t taking treks with companies that offer elephant rides/animal shows.
- Don’t buy food for elephants in Bangkok being dragged around the city. It’s common to see people trying to sell bananas to feed their baby elephants being paraded around busy nightlife streets.
- Visit the Elephant Nature Park in the North. You get one on one interaction with the huge darlings, get to feed them, bathe them in the river and full day tours are given a huge buffet vegan lunch.
- Write/tweet/post to large holiday providers asking them to take riding of their activity list (Royal Caribbean.. that means you!)