You say, well that’s all fine and dandy Brenda, but I will never make it to Thailand to volunteer with elephants, is there any other way to help? To that I say, of course. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that going to Thailand and volunteering with elephants is going to save them necessarily. Not that it doesn’t take an army of volunteers to run a place like the Elephant Nature Park, it does. Plus, the money that we pay to stay there and the donations they receive from visitors help keep it running and expanding, allowing them to help rescue even more animals.
However, one question that my fellow volunteers and I discussed at length was, what else can be done to save the elephants? After learning about the history Thailand has with it’s beloved elephant, even being there made us feel helpless. But aren’t elephants endangered? Yes. Don’t the Thai people revere the elephant? Yes and no. Elephants (ช้าง) are the national symbol of Thailand. Their history is long, going back hundreds of years to when they helped save the kingdom in times of war. Their image used to be emblazoned on the flag (back when it was Siam), on their coins, Buddhist Temples and the king rode upon a white elephant in ceremonies. They are symbols of victory, wisdom and good luck. Strong. Hard-working. Intelligent and loyal. They are mighty. So, what went wrong?
After the logging industry became illegal in Thailand (still legal in neighboring Burma), there was no more work for the elephant. Not only that, but they unknowingly helped destroy their own natural habitat. No longer a way for the Thai people to use elephants for profit and no home for the elephants to go back to made for a bad situation for everyone. Until the country opened up it’s gates to tourists. Enter jumbo tourism. People come to Thailand wanting to come in contact with these magnificent creatures and mahouts (elephant trainers) know this very well.
Despite there being a law to protect the elephants in the ‘wild’, domesticated elephants have the same rights as livestock. Basically meaning that they have NO rights. One can do anything to a ‘domesticated’ elephant and it’s perfectly legal. What separates a domestic elephant from a wild elephant? Nothing. And what can stop a mahout from going into the wild, killing a mother elephant and stealing her baby for domestic use? Nothing. Frustrated yet? Me too.
It gets worse…
[Disturbing material, be advised.]
There are only a few thousand elephants left in Thailand and the amount in captivity as domestic elephants is staggering. In the video above you see what is called ‘the training crush‘, where they crush a baby elephant’s spirit in order to domesticate it. (70% of these babies are poached from the wild.) These are still-nursing babies. Put in a tiny wooden cage and tortured with sharp knives, poked with nails in their eyes, ears, feet, beaten mercilessly and kept without food or water for days or weeks. Some babies don’t survive the crush. They are continued to be beaten for the rest of their lives. Every single domesticated elephant in Thailand has gone through ‘the crush‘.
Every single one.
Even though elephants (even babies) could easily injure or kill a human with their incredible strength, they don’t. They are scared, in many cases alone without other elephant companions and they fear the abuse of the mahout. Most go blind from being stabbed in the eye so many times. Many of the elephants at the ENP are at least partially blind due to this. It leaves them crippled and physically and emotionally scarred.
If you feel helpless, don’t. The power is in our hands to change this. Each one of us. It is us after all that keeps the mahouts, elephant shows (ahem, circuses), camps and farms in business. Mahouts can make up to 2000 Baht a day with their street begging elephants. Now outlawed in both Chiang Mai and Bangkok, the major culprit is Phuket with about 400-500 elephants in the hotel and entertainment business. Elephant experiences in Thailand (and all over the world) can be stopped simply by not going to them. Many claim to be volunteer experiences like ENP, but most are not. If it involves riding the elephant, watching it paint, dance, play soccer or do tricks of any kind, don’t do it. And tell others not to as well. Not just for elephants in Thailand but for elephants everywhere.
Another thing we can do is write in to guidebooks and tourism journals and tell them not to advertize animal tourism. Lonely Planet does a pretty good job of steering people away from places of abuse. We need them all to advise against any kind of animal show. Trip Advisor needs help with this especially because it is based on customer reviews. I know this post isn’t about tigers, monkeys, snakes or crocodiles, but they are a part of this too. Places like Tiger Kingdom (which has STRONG advertizing all over Chiang Mai) are horrible places of animal abuse keeping the animals scared and even sedated.
If you want to help these animals right now, spread the word. Write in to tourism websites and guidebooks. This type of activism is what will help save these animals in the long run.
Until all are free.
Follow B on Twitter in India: @iamsunshine78
*I must note that the mahouts at the ENP are trained in a different manner. Kindness and compassion are evident. The beautiful connection between an elephant and her mahout is clear. There is love and respect on both sides. Seeing a mahout create music for his elephant, carve her likeness with the utmost care and detail out of wood and seeing an elephant get silly and play with her mahout brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart.
This is the way it should be.