Something very popular that almost all tourists will do when they are in Thailand is to ride elephants. What an awesome experience sitting atop a massive 9-foot tall beast while lumbering through deep rivers and pristine forests.
However, there is a very dark and disturbing truth behind how these gentle giants are used to make profit for the industry.
Out of the approximately 45,000 Asian elephants left in the world, almost 3,000 to 4,000 elephants are held captive in Thailand for the sole purpose of human entertainment.
Contrary to what most people have been led to believe, most of these elephants were not rescued nor bred in captivity. Instead, most of them were illegally stolen from the wild and from their families when they are still babies using pit traps because their spirits and independence can be easily broken.
However, this method, called phajaan, often result in high injury and mortality rates for the elephants. And because mothers are also very protective of their wild infants, this makes it difficult for poachers to capture them.
Therefore protective members of the herd who tries to rescue their child will be easily killed using automatic weapons while their infants are removed. Body parts from the slain individuals will also be sold for more profit.
Once captured, their training begins immediately. The babies will be tied down and beaten using instruments such as bullhooks. This is a method commonly used by all elephant rides attractions to crush the babies’ spirits so that they allow humans to interact with them.
Researchers have found that the elephants who were subjected to the merciless beatings often develop post-traumatic stress disorders and some don’t even survive the “training”. The elephants will often learn to obey their “trainers” in order to avoid more pain and further beatings.
Elephants in such attractions are also denied their natural lives. In the wild, elephants – who are highly sociable and intelligent creatures – live in herds. They spend their days foraging for fresh vegetation, playing, swimming, and communicating and exploring with other elephants.
However, in captivity, they have no control over their own lives. They are deprived of all that is natural and important to them. They are isolated and are unable to socialize with other elephants. They are forced to spend long hours chained up and can only walk in small circles or along a short path while carrying riders on their backs, even during the hottest days.
When the elephants are not working, the elephants are kept in sheds with hard concrete floors and a chain shorter than 3 meters bound around their feet.
Captive elephants are also denied nutritious food, adequate water, and veterinary care, especially for their feet. These elephants can be prone to conditions such as arthritis due to their lack of exercise and long hours spent standing or walking under the hard surface. Most elephants also die years before their average life expectancy is up.
But because public awareness of the cruelty done to these elephants is increasing, many attractions are now trying to fool tourists by adding words such as “sanctuary” or “rescue center”. However, the abusive training methods used for elephant rides are always the same. Real sanctuaries will not abuse and exploit their animals for human entertainment.
There are a number of ways you can enjoy your time with these magnificent animals which do not involve any abuse or exploitation by simply supporting real sanctuaries or organizations where former captive elephants are rescued, cared for, and rehabilitated.