Elephants are some of the most iconic animals in the world. Few can resist the charms of the elephant: their soft eyes, their gentle natures, and their comical personalities as youngsters. But unfortunately, despite all their charm and charisma, there are many threats facing the elephant. In the past few decades, the wild elephant population has drastically declined as a result of the illegal ivory trade. It is estimated that one elephant is killed every 15 minutes to fuel this trade. There is no denying the horrific impact that ivory has on elephants, but what other threats to these creatures that many don’t consider. And, in fact, many of these threats come from our own desire to interact with elephants in the tourism industry.
Most people already know that circuses are a big no-no for elephant welfare – but countless others are still unaware of the harmful impact that other forms of tourism, such as taking photos with elephants, watching them paint or even going on elephant treks. These forms of tourism are mostly witnessed in countries like Thailand where Asian elephant attractions run rampant. While there is a lot of controversy behind the use of elephants for this industry, the bottom line is there is largely nothing “cute” or “fun” about wild elephant interactions.
As Green Monsters, we are always looking for ways to reduce our impact on the animals around us. To reduce our impact on elephants in the tourism industry, here is what you need to know about how these animals are trained and three major attractions you should always avoid.
Phajaan and “The Breaking Ceremony”
First, a brief mention about how these huge, wild animals come to “serve” us in the first place. Surely they could just knock us down with one smack of the trunk and run away, right? Well, to get any elephant to submit to their human trainers and allow them to ride on their backs, or make them do tricks, or any other unnatural activity, the elephants go through a process called phajaan, or “elephant crushing.”
Once a family of elephants has been spotted, poachers single out the babies. At least 50 to 100 babies are smuggled from the wild every single year, separated from their families, and sold to the tourist industries where they will be forced to serve humans for the rest of their lives. Before they are “trained” and will accept a rider or a handler, however, these wild and traumatized babies must go through a grueling training process called The Breaking Ceremony. The process of “Phajaan,” or elephant training, originated when a shaman of a tribal community in Asia claimed that he could separate the spirit of the elephant from his body, allowing the “wild” and “unmanageable” beast to be overcome by a more gentle animal capable of being tamed by humans.
During this time, the babies are shackled by ropes and chains and dragged to a remote part of the forest and isolated from others, which is real psychological torment for such social animals. There, they are forced into a tight enclosure, tied up and unable to escape. It is called the “crush” for a reason; the babies are unable to turn around, sit or lie down, or move away at all. For the rest of the week, they will receive no food or even water, and are deprived of sleep.
But this is not enough to break an elephant’s spirit, they have to be afraid of humans. Eventually, the elephant is so terrified that they will never want to “act up” or fight back again, and thus be the compliant, obedient creatures that “happily” allow tourists to ride on their backs, or do silly entertaining tricks in parks and circuses. To establish this fear, elephant trainers beat the animals every hour of the day and night with canes, sticks and spears, and have sharp daggers, nails and hooks dug into the delicate flesh of their inner ears, faces, trunks, necks and the soles of their feet.
For a week, the agonized cries of the babies in “training” will ring out through the forest and their blood will spill. It is not until they fall silent, flinch away from the contact and become hollow shells of their former selves that the training is complete. An elephant never forgets – and they certainly never forget the training.
Sadly, this is the process that all elephants used for tourism must undergo. Here are three of the most common attractions where these elephants are used that should be avoided to prevent this ongoing torture of elephants.
1. Elephant Rides
Elephant rides are some of the most popular attractions tourists partake in on vacation. Sadly, not only will all elephants have gone through the traumatic breaking process, but the actual act of riding an elephant causes them great pain and injury. An elephant’s back is not made for weight bearing; an elephant’s weight is carried on his thick pillar-like legs and his stout neck, not his back, which is relatively weak.
The weight of multiple tourists on his back each day, plus the trainers, and the heavy howdah, the large seats strapped to elephants, that they sit on takes its toll on their health. The heavy weight causes life-long lasting damage to their nerves, back, and feet, often resulting in lameness and arthritis. The seat is designed for maximum comfort – if you are a tourist. But not only is the additional heavy frame a real pain on an elephant’s bones and joints, but it often rubs and causes blisters, which can lead to painful and recurring infections. Mentally, they suffer just as much. They are banned from grazing all day, as they are out working and are not allowed to play or bathe in case it endangers the handlers or tourists.
2. Elephant Street Photos
Elephant trainers will sometimes try to stop you as you walk down the street, asking if you would like your photo taken with a baby elephant. This is surely an opportunity not to be missed, and will definitely make your friends at home green with envy. Sometimes you will see elephants being walked or ridden through the city, trunks outstretched, begging for money, which they pass to their handler. Please never encourage this trade by giving money or having your photo taken. These creatures were taken from their families and would also have their spirits broken to be used for profit.
Begging elephants are often forced to work long hours, walking on hard concrete surfaces which causes serious damage to their joints. Most of their handlers also don’t provide elephants with the proper nutrition. Raju, the former street elephant who was saved by Wildlife SOS, existed for nearly 50 years by eating only plastic trash and other garbage on the streets. This has the potential to do enormous damage to the animal’s digestive system.
3. Elephant Painting
Some videos and photos of elephants painting each other or pretty pictures of flowers have gone viral in recent years, with people amazed and awed by their intelligence and learning capabilities. The truth is far bleaker. These elephants do not know what they are painting – all they know is that if they move their trunk in certain strokes and directions, they will not be beaten. Elephants used for painting are typically accompanied by a trainer who will tug on their ears. Many believe this action is a subtle way to direct the elephant’s brush strokes, when in reality, trainers often hide nails in their hands and pierce the elephant’s sensitive skin when they don’t follow their designated pattern.
Thankfully, there are kinder ways to get close to elephants. Why not volunteer at a true elephant sanctuary such as those listed at the bottom of the page? These sanctuaries provide a safe haven for elephants, many of whom have been saved from the abusive situations above, where they will never have to worry about being tortured for the sake of our entertainments.
- The Elephant Freedom Project – Sri Lanka
- BLES – Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary -Thailand
- WFFT – Elephant Refuge & Education Center – Thailand
- Elephant Nature Park – Thailand
- BEES – Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary – Thailand
- Elephant Valley Project – Cambodia
Help spread the word about cruelty in the tourism trade and encourage friends and family not to share these images or ride elephants on their next vacation.
Lead image source: Alex Valavanis/Flickr