From the classical ride to football games with these giants and even painting activities, tourists seem willing to pay for anything as long as they can get a cool picture to send to their friends back home. But at what cost for elephants?
Our first impressions
The first time we approached elephants was in Ayutthaya, Thailand, when we visited a rescue center supposed to be a safe shelter to abused elephants. At first glance we were surprised to see elephants chained and confined in a very small space compared to their size, wasn’t this place a refuge? Supposed to offer elephants better living conditions? Don’t elephants need space to walk, find food and socialize?
Then we noticed that none of them had any water despite the fact they were forced to spend the day in the sun on a concrete flo
or… but don’t elephants need at least 200 liters of water per day? Aren’t they fond of shade in their natural habitat?
And finally we saw a young elephant forced to sit in a very unnatural position so as tourists could themselves sit on its leg to take pictures. After a few minutes spent in this uncomfortable position, the young elephant suddenly roared, stood up straight and escaped from the circle of tourists around him… we could feel his distress…
So we asked ourselves that question: is it worth it taking a picture on an elephant knees? How can elephants become painters or football players? What’s behind the scene?
The hidden face
Asian elephants are an endangered species, their number in South East Asia has declined by 50% in the last century.
Originally used as war weapons to scare horses and men on battlefields, elephants have also been a mean of transportation and traction in fields or forests. Asian elephants have been tamed by men for a long time. Now that cars have replaced them and laws have been voted to forbid their use in the lodging industry, men have found another way to make money with them: tourism.
Unfortunately, in order to be tamed, the elephant has to go through a traumatic experience: the Phajaan (or crush). Young elephants are torn from their mother and confined in small cages where they are abused, tortured, starved and deprived of sleep for 6 days. This ritual is meant to crush the elephant wild spirit and make him submissive to humans.
Half of the young elephants doesn’t survive this crush, they either die during the phajaan or are killed afterwards as they turned crazy and are deemed dangerous…
An elephant never forgets. It will accept being obedient and perform in front of tourists, painting, playing football or carrying them on its back in the smoggy streets of Thailand for hours… rather than living that kind of pain again.
Videos can be found on Youtube that will discourage anyone to take part to this business but what about the local perception of this tradition?
The cultural point of view
Elephants have always been Thailand’s taxis, tanks and bulldozers, they are part of the local landscape. Thai people say elephants helped them build their nation and even are symbols of the king’s divine right to rule, of good luck, and religious icons.
A strong and long relationship exists between these animals and South-East Asia countries and people.
But there is also an economical interest. A young submissive elephant is worth $15k to $20k USD, no need to say that it is a big deal for people in South-East Asia where the income is pretty low.
Moreover, exploiting an elephant is a sure way to earn good money. Travelers from around the world pay top dollar to take elephant rides or watch them perform in shows, so it definitely supports the local economy.
Thus, elephants need to be tamed and, according to traditionalists: “to control animals that can eventually weigh as much as 10,000 pounds, it’s essential they fear their keepers“.
Even the law doesn’t protect elephants (even if it’s known they are an endangered species). Domestic elephants are considered livestock and small fines, rarely enforced, are the only penalties for abusing them…
What we finally did
We really wanted to meet Asian elephants and spend some time with them but we didn’t want to contribute to their misfortune so each time we were offered to visit a camp, we looked into it first, searching the internet, asking guesthouses, reading reviews… In Thailand, we found an only single camp that seemed responsible (Elephant Nature Park) but couldn’t go as it was fully booked. Too bad… but no guilt feeling.
Until we arrived in Lao. There, we were proposed to visit a camp in the jungle where elephants were well-treated, we were told. We asked questions, looked online, read reviews… and finally decided to give it a try.
We were brought outside of the city (Luang Prabang) into a wooded domain along the river. Elephants were in the nature, eating twigs, ferns and young trees, and had access to the river to cool-off. We were told these elephants were saved from the lodging industry and they were offered a better life working in the tourist industry now.
We were then proposed to ride and go in the river with them. It wasn’t a long ride (as we were told their daily riding time was limited, for their health) but I’m not sure the weight of the two of us + the chair was really a good thing for the elephant’s back and I kind of regret it…
True we spent a wonderful time and will remember that ride in the river. True we hugged, feed and cuddled this elephant but we now know that every single domestic elephant has gone through the phajaan – absolutely no exception – so we are a bit confused… Even if these elephants lived in good conditions (at least better than the majority of elephants we crossed on the road), and despite our best efforts, were we part of this blind tourism?
Awareness needs to be risen on both sides. Tourists need to understand the situation and stop contributing to it. Another kind of encounter with Asian elephants is possible, ethical and respectful (rescue and rehabilitation centers for instance).
If we could do it again, I think we would have paid even more attention and asked even more questions before committing to this.
Locals also need to understand that if the current situation remains, there won’t be any Asian elephant left in 30 years. If they want to continue supporting their economy, they need to develop new kinds of relationship with elephants and new ways of interacting with them…