The first reaction people have when told I spent my summer in Thailand is excitement and curiosity. But the first question I am always asked burns through my core, conjuring a memory that I will never forget. “Did you ride an elephant?” I see a line of elephants parading up a steep hill. Part of the tourist industry, these animals just finished giving rides to giddy vacationers, and are now out of their line of vision. On their backs now ride the elephant handlers; in each hand the herders carry a spear that is held just inches from the elephant’s eye. When the elephant is not moving fast enough, or their attention is strayed, the handlers elicit a sharp stab to their eye. Covered in scars and wounds from previous beatings, each elephant stared straight forward, the pain reflecting out of their gaze as sharply as the knives held in their periphery. Holding up the rear of the line was a small elephant, whose pain was unbearable to watch. As he passed by, his handler’s hook rested below his eye ready to strike, the elephant shot a quick glance at us as we stood silent, in shock. As he continued to march, our eyes were drawn to the elephant’s rump. With a badly broken hip, the elephant dragged one of his hind legs, clearly unable to move it. But despite his disability, his handler continued to yell and kick the creature while his body struggled to overcome the steep incline.
Riding an elephant is a dream come true for many unknowing tourists. It’s understandable; who doesn’t want to climb on the back of the largest terrestrial mammal on earth with their selfie-stick while parading around the jungles of Asia? Exactly. But with a little education on the industry, no animal lover would ever consider riding an elephant again. The training of elephants for elephant trekking is a long time Thai tradition called “phajaan,” which in English translates to “crush” . It consists of ripping baby elephants at the young age of six-months from their families, entrapping them in a small cage with little room to even lift a foot, and beating them with hooks, spikes, and nails, forcing them into human submission. Each and every elephant that tourists eagerly climb onto for a ride has undergone this horrific process. Not only does this training regimen clearly result in significant physical damage, but mental and behavioral impairment as well.
Elephants are extremely social creatures; they exhibit a highly complex social structure that is key to their survival. Elephant society consists of a high degree of mothering, adult cooperation, and care and interest for ailing members of their families. In addition, raising offspring is at the central core of society, and is therefore vital for full cognitive and behavioral development . But when young elephants are torn from their families at a tender age, they suffer dramatic developmental consequences. This lack of development results in abnormal behaviors, such as extreme anxiety, which is often illustrated by rocking back and forth and swaying their body. This extreme anxiety has also been shown to cause aggression, putting both elephants and humans at risk. And not only is the tourism industry harmful for Asian elephants mentally and physically, but their numbers are declining.
Once upon a time, the Asian elephant occupied the vast majority of Asia, with thriving populations occupying regions ranging from Thailand to Iran. Asian elephants have now almost entirely disappeared from Western Asia, Iran, and most of China. The surviving population of Asian elephants is estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000, only about one-tenth of the population of African Elephants . Although the greatest cause for the species decline has been habitat loss and deforestation from anthropogenic forces, the tourism industry is only exacerbating the decline . The ultimate solution to put an end to the horrific methods behind the elephant tourism industry is to spread awareness. The Thai people are not the source to blame for the treatment of elephants; phajaan is an age old tradition that is encouraged by the interest of tourists. With knowledge of phajaan, and spreading the awareness of its detrimental impacts on elephants, we can take a step forward towards the conservation and protection of the Asian elephant.
– Elizabeth Matthews
Here are some sources I used for this post:
Caution – This is a video of phajaan, it is graphic but if you are interested, I would encourage you to watch it: http://youtu.be/SVckvi_gWVo
I volunteered at an elephant conservation center in Thailand that focuses on caring for “retired” elephants that were once in the tourism industry. The center works on providing the elephants with the best possible care for the remainder of their lives, assisting with mental and physical rehabilitation. Here is the website for the center: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/