Look, I know they’re fascinating and cute. They are! They’re kind of hilarious looking, with their huge flapping ears and long trunks. They’ve got saggy wrinkly butts that look like an old pair of pants that need a belt to hold em up, and tail that swings like a rope. Plus they’re ENORMOUS!
I get why people want to see the elephants. I want to see them too! But please, don’t ride them.
An elephant has to be tamed before it can be ridden. Like any animal, this is easier to do when the elephant is young. Therefore, baby elephants are poached out of the wild. In some cases, the babies are too young to be separated from their mothers and do not survive being weaned. Usually the family of the elephant baby is killed in front of it, to start the taming process. Elephants often stay with their parents for about 16 years, so this is a big deal. In fact, this has become such a large scale issue that the numbers of elephants in Thailand alone have dropped by 60% in the last ten years. In 2008, there were 10,000 elephants in Thailand. Now there are less than 4,000.
The taming process is called The Phajaan, which means “The Crush”.
First the baby elephants are chained up from their head to their feet, so they can’t move.
Then they are systematically tortured.
This is not an exaggeration.
It can last for weeks or months.
The trainers use slingshots on them. It’s not uncommon for elephants to be blinded in one or both eyes from it. They burn their feet and trunks with fire. They stab them with spears and knives, starve them, and leave them in chains. They teach use bull hooks on the elephants, slashing their ears and other soft spots.
The elephant cannot move, protect itself, or find it’s mom.
Unable to get away from the pain, they eventually lose all hope, and any memories of their lives before, just like a human would. They become submissive.
That’s the point of the crush.
Elephants are highly intelligent creatures, with large brains, and many emotions just like ours.
In fact, this is so widely recognized, that the whole point of the taming process for elephants, is to use those emotions the animal has, to break it.
After the elephant has no hope of living free, and has been broken thoroughly, it is submissive to humans. Bull hooks are kept in the hands of the handlers while the elephant does tricks, to remind it what will happen if it doesn’t.
They’re often used for trekking. A chair made of metal, sometimes weighing over 100 pounds, is put on their backs, with 3-5 people (or more) piled on. That could easily add up to 1000 pounds the elephant carries. Elephants are not built to carry so much weight on their backs.
The tour companies, looking to make money, run trekking elephants into the ground. It may have to make treks with that weight for 12 hours or more.
They’re kept in awful conditions. They are chained up when not in use, don’t have natural diets in captivity, are often dehydrated or injured without any aid.
There are some places that claim to treat their elephants ethically, but a lot of times this just isn’t true. A good rule of thumb is, if a place advertises riding elephants, they’re not ethical, period. If a place advertises bathing with their elephants, or uses bull hooks, I would stay away.
Places that let people bathe with their elephants force the elephants into the water, sometimes up to 3 times a day. We don’t even wash our dogs, or ourselves, 3 times a day, people.
Keep in mind that if you do take part in one of these activities, you’re not actually experiencing an elephant. What you’re getting is the robotic shell of one. If you want to experience these animals in even half their natural state, there are far better options!
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary doesn’t offer riding, or bathing with their elephants. All the elephants at PES are rescue elephants, bought from places like elephant shows, and trekking companies.
Right now they have 6 elephants, but hope to have 14 more soon (this is actually a difficult issue. Elephants are bought by rescue companies from individuals, which can then use that money to turn around and buy another, younger elephant. So companies have to try to be careful to not contribute to the problem even more, while still rescuing elephants in need).
The elephants at PES are cared for by manhouts, which is like an elephant’s human. At PES, the elephants get to choose their manhouts, we were told. The manhouts sleep at the park with the elephants (not in the pen with them, but at the park) and walk with them throughout the day. They do not use or even carry bull hooks.
The elephants are able to walk where they want, eat when they want, and relax. The do not have to perform anything, or carry anyone. Many are older, between 40-70 yers old, and have spent sometimes as much as 30 years trekking or performing.
Guests of the park are divided into groups. You walk with a guide around the park, and find the elephants doing elephant things, like dust bathing, scratching on trees, or eating. When you come up on an elephant, the guide explains who it is, how old they are, their story and where they came from.
This is Kannika. She is 32 years old and was looking for some treats from us
One elephant was completely blind in both eyes, one side from a slingshot. Another was blind in one eye only, and not fond of humans at all. She was also scared of water because she had been forced to swim and bathe with humans. Another had just come from the Bangkok Elephant Show. She had been in the park for a week. We did not really get to see her, she and her manhout stayed away from the group, and she wasn’t forced to interact with us.
Near the end of the tour, the guests get to feed the elephants. The park provided cucumbers, melons, and bananas. We all had to wash our hands first, so there wouldn’t be sunscreen or bug spray on the food.
The elephants knew it was time for treats, and gathered in a specific feeding area, flapping their ears like a dog wags it’s tail. They weren’t forced to go, it was by choice, so only 3 went. The newer one and the blind one didn’t go, nor did the elephant with only one eye because she was still scared of humans.
One of the elephants didn’t like bananas. She would take them from the tourists hands, then drop them on the ground, waiting for someone to give her melon or cucumber instead. When the elephants lost interest, they wandered off with their manhouts.
This is Jan Jao. She is blind in one eye. She spent most of her life working in the logging industry. If you look closely you can see she has no hair on her tail. It was cut off by her previous owner, along with her eyelashes, to make souvenirs for tourists
PES does a lot of great work. They have their rescue elephants, as well as some stray dogs, and even a pig that lives on the sanctuary! PES is actually a sister program of another, larger sanctuary in northern Thailand, called Elephant Nature Park. ENP has several programs throughout Thailand aimed at raising awareness, ending elephant trekking, and at teaching manhouts how to treat elephants well.
Another ray of hope is the Thai people and government getting on board with animal rights. In 2015, Thailand passed its FIRST animal cruelty law. It still has just one on the books, and it’s not enforced seriously, but it’s a start.
Please, please don’t ride elephants. Not in Thailand, not anywhere. Don’t go to the elephant shows where they stand on chairs and do tricks, please. Don’t give your money to places that offer elephant trekking, or buy elephant paintings. Instead, consider visiting Elephant Nature Park, or Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, or making a donation to a like minded organization.