Tag Archives: elephant

One Tourist’s Dream, An Elephant’s Nightmare

Thailand & Cambodia 2013 787

A retired elephant at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Elizabeth Matthews

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” [2]. 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 [3]. 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 [3]. 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 [1]. 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:
1. http://www.elephantconservation.org/elephants/asian-elephants/

2. http://journals.worldnomads.com/responsible-travel/story/81053/Thailand/Why-Elephant-Riding-Should-Be-Removed-from-Your-Bucket-List

3. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/230242723_Social_structure_and_helping_behavior_in_captive_elephants

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/

Using Behavior to Deter Elephants from Crop Raiding

Standing next to an adult elephant is incredibly intimidating; adult male African elephants can weigh more than 15,000 pounds. Many farmers fear and hate them because cropraiding elephants can destroy entire fields and even threaten farmers’ lives. Imagine an angry farmer going up against a hungry 6-ton elephant! In southern India, during a three-year period 60,939 incidents of cropraiding occurred and 91 people were killed [1]. This also presents a problem for the conservation of elephants because retaliatory killing of elephants often occur and public support of elephants is incredibly important for their survival.

There have been many methods tested to deter elephants from raiding crops, however, elephants are often too big and smart for these deterrents to work: elephants will push over fences or simply go around them [2], culling problem animals just makes way for new crop raiders, and the electrical fences set up by the government will either be destroyed by the elephants or fall into disrepair because of a lack of upkeep [3].

Some new and upcoming methods to deter crop raiders include using elephant behavior to keep them away from cultivated land. It may be humorous to think about the largest land mammal running in fear of a simple bee, but because of the thin skin around elephants’ eyes, trunk, and under their legs, they are actually susceptible to bee stings just as we are. A swarm of bees has been known to send entire herds into flight [4]. Setting up bee hives along well known paths and near key habitat areas, such as water sources near crops, has been proven to deter elephants from those areas, however, often times the elephants will go around them to get to where they want to go: the water hole, or the tasty crops [4]. Although “beehive fences” won’t completely work to deter an elephant from a whole crop, they can be used along well-established paths either to guide them away from a crop or keep them from coming near water sources near crops.

While humans rely mostly on eyesight, the elephant’s most powerful sensor is their nose. Just like a human could be blinded by a bright light, elephants are “blinded” by extremely strong scents, which is why another promising elephant deterrent is the creation of rope fences covered in chili grease. Chili grease fences are created with a mixture of chili essence, motor grease, and sometimes tobacco [2]. One farm encircled by a chili rope went un-raided for two years despite nine attempts [2]. If there is a way around the fence, the elephant will find it. However, when faced with the decision to either go near the fence and get to the crops or leave, all elephants chose to avoid the fence and the crops were protected [2]. The downside to this method is the constant upkeep of the rope: the paste must be reapplied at least once a week, more during the rainy season.

These methods of deterrence that utilize animal behavior are extremely promising because they are specialized for specific behaviors and are non-lethal to endangered animals such as the elephant. Decreasing crop raiding through effective methods that do not harm the animal is one way of improving conservation efforts for elephants. Villages with agricultural practices are much more likely to support conservation efforts when their livelihood and lives aren’t being threatened by neighboring elephants.

 

-Mackenzie Platt

Citations

  1. Gerhardt, K.V., Niekerk, A.V., Kid, M., Samways, M., and Hanks, J. (2014). The Role of Elephants Loxodonta africana Pathways as a Spatial Variable in Crop-Raiding Locations. Orynx 48(3): 436-444.
  2. Sitati, N., and Walpole, M. (2006). Assessing Farm-Based Measures for Mitigating Human-Elephant Conflict in Transmara District, Kenya. Oryx 40(3):279-286.
  3. Moss, C.J., Croze, H., and Lee, P.C. (2011). The Amboseli Elephants: a Long Term Perspective on a Long-Term Mammal. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  4. 4.Vollrath, F., and Douglas-Hamilton, I. (2002). African Bes to Control African Elephants. Naturwissenschaften 86(11):508-511.