Thursday, February 16, 2012

In Thailand, domesticated elephants in danger

By Bixi Tian
Copy Edited and Produced by Taylor Pool

There is, indeed, romance attached to elephant riding. For a tourist, enjoying the rhythm of its gentle steps on the back of the beautiful big animal while admiring the breath-taking view, one almost feels like an exotic prince or princess in a fairy tale.

Almost. That is until the scab at the back of the elephant is thinned by pressure from the heavy holder, on which the tourists are enjoying their illusary impression of harmony, and the old wound begins to bleed. 

The old wound has been there for years. 

“It’s not new (that elephants are mistreated). It’s a very lucrative business and those(wrongdoings) have been there for a long time.” Soraida Salwala says.
Salwala is the founder of Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) the world’s first elephant hospital started in 1993, and also a dedicated elephant lover. Starting from nothing, the hospital now has 16 staff and has taken in more than 3,600 cases. Salwala says the reason why she was determined to build such a place  was because of a painful childhood memory. When she was 8 years old, she had to witness an elephant, who was hit by a truck, die by the road because there was no place to treat such a big animal. 

Thailand juggles culture and care
Elephants are considered by Thai people the symbol of the nation and are revered by the society.

Yet the definition of “reverence”, according to the current situation, varies on a large scale. While some are treating the giant creatures with respect and are trying as hard to protect them, others are simply interested in utilizing elephants as a tool to make money. There are two kinds of elephants in Thailand: the less than 3,000 wild elephants, which are facing extinction and are protected by law from being captured or traded, and the 4,000 domesticated elephants, which are not. Lack of regulation for domesticated elephants leaves an open door for some people’s greed and provides  a free pass to brutality. 

In seeking maximum profit, the owners of domesticated elephants inevitably turn to tourism. Tourists’ desire to closely interact with the animal as well as ignorance of the cruelty has created a huge market that the elephants owners are anxious to take advantage of. All kinds of “talent shows” are offered at zoos, in trekking camps, breeding  and tourist camps. Even on the urban streets, the giant animals can be seen following their mahouts (people who train and drive elephants) doing a little performance such as a head waggle. The mahouts then sell over-priced bananas or sugarcane to the amused customers. 

Salwala says this can also be dangerous, because the exhausted elephants can be aggressive. If the tourist doesn’t know when to let go of the food, the elephants might become angry and kill the tourist. “Unfortunately, this has happened before.” Salwala said.

To make it worse, this kind of elephant performance is also dangerous for the animals. The danger starts when the elephants are newborn babies and separated from the mother for training. The process of the training is, appropriately, called “crushing”, during which the trainers “break the spirit of the elephants” so that they will lose their independence and obey commands. During the training, the baby elephant is forced into a wooden cage into which it barely fits, tightly chained.

The baby, during its first separation from its mother, will be ridden for the first time and surrounded by people with heated irons and sharpened metal spikes, who  are known to use the tools for punishment. 

“The training will damage baby elephants’ mental health and completely break them”, according to Sangduen Chailert, founder of the Elephant Nature Park, a non-profit organization and also home to over thirty rescued, previously abused or neglected elephants. She says half of the elephant babies die; half of the survivors go mad during “crushing”. Not believing in training elephants through physical violence, Chailert, widely known as “Lek”, is among the loudest protesters of elephant abuse. She has received many awards including being named a Hero of Asia by Time Magazine in 2005, and a Hero of the planet in 2001 by The Ford Foundation in association with National Geographic. Currently she is on a trip to to Myanmar border for an investigation of elephants trade.

Photo contributed by Louise Rogerson
“Graduation” from the “crushing” is, sadly, not the end of the nightmare but rather the beginning of another one. Owners tend to overload the elephants with work at the expense of their health, and try to cut the cost by ignoring these issues as well as providing them with cheap living environment. Sombo, a trekking elephant, was among the victims. Having problems with his feet and in extreme pain, she was forced by her owner to carry tourists and the heavy holder. Her urgent need of a treatment was seen by Louise Rogerson, founder of a non-profit organization called Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation. Rogerson spent three months asking for petitions and negotiating with the owner  Finally Sombo was freed and its medical treatment was covered by the organization. Rogerson sees an urgent need to get all the working elephants off urban streets, because city is not the place them, but nature is.

Non-profits speak up
It seems that non-profit organizations are doing a great job saving the elephants, but Gary van Zuylen, an Australian journalist as well as the founder of the Thai Society for the Conservation of Wild Animals, who has been living in Thailand for more than 20 years, says: “Hold that thought!” He says that by taking advantage of people's love and sympathy for the elephants, more and more businesses are now operating under the pretence of being a non-profit organization or charity. Well-intended tourists should check the background of the organization before making a generous offer that may be used to support businesses that abuse elephants. 

Salwala offers a suggestion for people who really want to help the elephants. Salwala says tourists should not go to parks or elephant farms that offer any kind of elephant riding or shows. She says elephants do not perform out of talent, but because of cruel training. 

She said, "If you want to pose with the baby elephant for a photo, that's fine. But don't ride elephants... If you want to have fun with the elephants, you could walk the elephants to the lake, in the forest, in the mud, and that’s good enough, for me. And I’m sure many people would agree." 

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