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Elephants are, by nature, extremely intelligent and sensitive beings. They form close friendships with one another, mourn when a relative dies, and have even proven that they are able to differentiate between humans who wish to harm them, and those who do not. They typically live in matriarchal herds, headed by an older female elephant. Her daughters and their calves follow her lead, and when she dies, the eldest daughter usually takes her place. Adult males live in separate “bachelor” groups. A study released last year by Think Elephants International found that “Asian elephants console others who are in distress with vocalizations and gentle touches” – proving that they are much more similar to us than we realize.

However, these majestic animals are all too often abused and exploited by humans who wish to put them to work. In the elephant tourism industry of Thailand, for example, elephants are deprived of their natural familial bonds, forced to perform tricks in order to earn money for their handlers, and are often subjected to horrendous cruelty. The Elephants Asia Rescue and Survival (EARS) Foundation recently posted a shocking series of images to their Facebook page, that illustrate just how grim everyday life is for the elephants who are trapped in this industry.

The pictures were taken at this year’s Surin Round Up in north-east Thailand. This annual festival was originally established in 1960 to celebrate the close, centuries-long relationship between the people of Surin and local elephants, but has since degenerated into a sad display of elephant abuse and cruelty. EARS’ previous investigations into the Surin Round Up revealed that “inexperienced teenagers were using young elephants to aggressively beg for money, selling bags of sugarcane at 20 Baht and charging 50 Baht for a photo. We saw elephants as young as 1 year old being stabbed and controlled with sharp nails and hooks.”

Just like the terrified baby in this photo, EARS found that “every baby elephant had a bloodied head and wild frightened eyes.”



“By their demeanor and actions, we believe some of the teenagers were drunk or had taken drugs,” the organization added. “They were seen driving the hook into the elephants’ head, kicking them, pulling their tails, and forcing them to do tricks even when tourists were not present; seemingly for their own amusement. Both local and foreign tourists were handing over money to these teenagers who appeared to be making 1000’s of Baht daily.”

The injuries on the elephants’ heads bear witness to the suffering that they have been forced to endure.

The pictures may be distressing to look at, but there is no doubt that they need to be seen.

Even in their pain and sadness, the elephants attempt to comfort each other by standing close together and caressing one another with their trunks.

EARS said, “You can feel their sadness, loneliness, frustration and confusion. You can see the fear in their eyes. There is little access to fresh water so they are dehydrated, thirsty, and hot from the scorching sun.”

They are continuously paraded through large crowds of people, waiting for their handlers to pull them into yet another photo opportunity.

Whenever they try to stop for a break, the handlers force them to get up again.

Sadly, to many elephant keepers at the Surin Round Up, profit vastly outranks the animals’ well-being.


On their Facebook page, EARS asked the unanswerable question: “What possesses man to be so cruel? … (The elephants’) lives are a misery. They are stabbed repeatedly with huge sharp hooks, pulled and squeezed by their ears. Tourists take rides even with the elephants’ foreheads covered in bloodied wounds. The teenage boys with the young begging elephants are not mahouts, they are not worthy of this title and important status.”

The Surin Round Up and other kinds of exploitative festivals continue to exist because people have a misguided desire to be close to elephants: to touch them, pose for pictures with them, ride on their backs, and watch them perform tricks. In their rush to claim that they have had an up-close encounter with an elephant, tourists fail to acknowledge or understand the fact that this is not a natural or desirable existence for these animals. EARS have stated that, “Over the next few days we will be posting more footage to share across social media. It is difficult to look at but this is the reality for these elephants every day. Please use the photos to tell their story so we can bring about change.”

To help raise awareness of the plight faced by elephants in Thailand’s tourism industry, and learn about more ethical ways to experience elephants and other wild animals, share this post! To learn more, check out the articles below:


All image source: Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation/Facebook