Thailand does love it’s elephants. Elephants are depicted everywhere in Thailand’s temples, its artwork, its history. So how did Thailand’s most loved animal become the subject of such exploitation and abuse? Like any topic involving indigenous cultures, illegal trade, poverty, with a lot of greed and a bit of ignorance thrown in, you will not find one answer that everyone agrees on. It is very complicated. Every blog post written about the elephant situation in Thailand brings on a barrage of conflicting comments. Here’s an extremely simplified overview.
In 1989 when logging Thailand’s forests became illegal, many Karen hill tribesmen and their elephants lost their only source of revenue. The Royal Projects Foundation, together with the Thai government, have been successful in stopping Thailand’s illegal logging trade, however, neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia have not been as successful. There is still a sizable illegal logging industry on Thailand’s borders. Elephants are used to clear forests, often being worked, literally, to death. Many of the elephants rescued from the lumber trade are malnourished and have a wide range of injuries from run-ins with machinery to land mines, or simple overwork. At around the same time, Thailand’s tourist industry took off. It now brings in over 20% of Thailand’s GDP. The Karen hill tribes and their elephants turned to Thailand’s newest thriving industry as a solution to support themselves.
Elephant tourism is huge in Thailand. These elephants are now earning money by painting pictures for tourists, begging for money in city streets and giving rides to tourists. The government encouraged tourists to visit elephant camps of all kinds to support the Karen hill tribes and their elephants. The attached video is a documentary about the current state of elephants in Thailand. I saw this for the first time at our visit to Elephant Nature Park last year. Just watch this video and decide for yourself.
While it may seem harmless for an elephant to paint a picture or give tourists rides, remember, some of these elephants have been “rescued” from logging, and are often subjected to cruel training techniques so they can paint a picture for a tourist. What is worse, and more harmful to the dwindling Asian elephant population, is that many of these tourist camps have been repeatedly found with undocumented elephants, or elephants that have been caught in the wild, which IS illegal. Thai law does differentiate between domesticated elephants and wild elephants, and while a domesticated elephant, with papers to prove it, can be sold and work to support its owner, a wild elephant cannot.
A young wild elephant, especially a female, is a valuable black market prize. They can bring upwards of US$25,000 (more than 5 times the average annual salary in Thailand). They use pit traps to catch a young elephant, and usually kill the protective mother. To make the young wild elephant appear domesticated, they subject it to “phajaan”. The telltale signs of a wild elephant who has been put through this practice and forcefully “domesticated” are scars and injuries, with subsequent restlessness and more injuries from the new chains on their feet and around their necks.
All of this is complicated by the fact that life for Thailand’s indigenous people is very hard. They live in remote villages, many accessible only on foot, in extreme poverty, with little opportunity, and are only doing what their tribes have been doing for generations. An overworked elephant may be a justifiable sacrifice for being able to feed your children.
So, what can we do?? As tourists, we can do a lot. There are an increasing number of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Ask yourself, would you rather see a young elephant with scars, who winces at their mahout’s bull hook, paint a picture? Or an old elephant carry twice what is safe for a young elephant to carry? Or, instead, a happy elephant family play in a huge mud puddle? Or build a quick bond with an elephant by repeatedly feeding it watermelon and bananas?
Last year we spent a glorious day at Elephant Nature Park. Lek Chailart, the founder of ENP, is a local hero who is trying to change the future of Thailand’s elephant. Her home for rescued elephants is a beautiful place with open grasslands and a wide river where the elephants can live in their normal habitat. As I am writing this post, she is driving back from Cambodia with an elephant, Kabu, who was injured logging, and had to continue working for 20 years in her damaged condition. Lek is setting up other elephant sanctuaries around Thailand by convincing former tourist camps to throw away the saddles and bull hooks, and go “sanctuary’. There is now one in Cambodia and one in Kanchanaburi, near Bangkok, and another one south of Chiang Mai that involves Karen hill tribes and their elephants. Seems like a win win, right?
So, now for your part. All you eager tourists out there, do your homework. Find out what goes on behind the scenes. Find out what many don’t want us to know. Help bring on this change for the Asian elephant. Taking home the memories of those big, beautiful brown eyes, and the imploring trunk, tapping you on the shoulder, meaning, “More watermelon, please”, is much more valuable than a picture of a frightened animal performing simple tricks.
Tonight at about 9pm Thai time, I’ll be the one out on highway 107 at the 1096 with the big sign saying “Welcome Home Kabu”.
One last thing, Elephant Nature Park gets much of its funding from the Save the Elephant Foundation. Donations through SEF will support Lek's efforts. Or, even better, when you come to Chiang Mai, go to ENP and spend some time with the herd.