Traveling to Thailand? Riding Elephants Prolongs an Evil Culture of Abuse.

At first blush,  Asian elephants seem to be as domesticated as horses, but there is a dark side to this veneer that needs to be exposed. When blissfully ignorant tourists pay to ride elephants or for an elephant-painting, they prolong an evil torturous culture that hovers just below the surface. 

I speak to this only from personal experience. During my first visit to Thailand in 2013, I was fascinated by the thought of riding an elephant. As fate would have it, we signed up to visit the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), an elephant sanctuary for elephants rescued from the logging and tourism industries. There, we were educated on the history and lives of these gentle giants. The experience changed my life and my forever-perception of the elephant tourism industry.

I choose to believe that if every selfie-stick-toting tourist were educated about Phajaan, the vicious and brutal practice of breaking the elephant into submission, they would not participate in these activities. They would instead spend their valuable tourism dollars on education, interaction, observation, and ultimately, to save the endangered Asian Elephant.

Phajaan; a ritual that has been around for hundreds of years. Every elephant you see in a circus, being ridden, performing, or painting a picture has been subject to this abuse. “The ritual was founded on the belief that a tribal shaman could expel the wild spirit of the elephant, thereby leaving it under the control of its mahouts (person who works with and tends to the elephant),” explains Craig of The ritual begins at roughly three years of age when the baby elephant is poached from its mother and herd. Upon capture, the baby elephant will likely witness the killing of their mother and herd – causing lifelong stress and mental anxiety – before being tethered and transferred to a kraal, aka “crushing cage.”  In the “crushing cage,” the baby elephant is tied in such a way that it is completely immobilized, not able to sit or lie down, sway, or move its head. Then the torture and abuse begin – from beatings, burning and stabbing to deprivation of food and water, and not allowed to sleep. Day to day, they are repeatedly beaten over the head and on their sensitive trunks with bamboo sticks, stabbed in the delicate ear-tissue and tortured in an array of other unimaginable ways.

It’s the first time the baby elephant has been without its mother or other family members. The baby is confused and scared, and despite the non-stop trumpeting, loud shrieking, and crying for help, the abuse continues until those involved are satisfied that the elephant’s spirit is crushed, and they are so fearful of being hurt, it will submit to being trained.  

The broken baby is now ready to learn how to perform tricks, tasks and endure humans riding on its neck.  The baby elephant is continually beaten as a reminder of their place and to keep them compliant.

Half of the elephants put through phajaan will die. Of those that survive, “About half will go mad,” says Elephant Nature Park founder Lek Chailert. “This brutality can make them aggressive and dangerous.”

If you see an elephant in Thailand, it has likely been through this process. While the video below contains some very graphic footage that is difficult to watch, please, for two minutes, imagine what it must be like for the baby elephants.

For decades, elephants have been exploited for financial gain through tourism. The culture is driven by the almighty tourism dollar, which plays an ever-increasing role in the Thai economy. In 2019, nearly 38 million visitors explored Thailand, which translates into almost $90 million tourism dollars for the Thai economy.

“There are thought to be fewer than 5000 elephants left in Thailand, yet a whopping 4000 of them are captive – and the latter still need to be fed and exercised, and financially support their mahout,” explains Sara Reid to Lonely Planet. “Following Thailand’s 1989 ban on using elephants for logging, many mahouts claim that without charging tourists for rides and shows, they and their animals would starve – elephants cost a minimum of 1000B ($33 USD) per day to feed properly.”

Elephants that have lived in captivity for an extended amount of time are emotionally attached to a mahout.  When the ENP rescues an elephant, a new mahout is introduced to the rescued elephant. Without a mahout, an elephant can become mentally distressed, depressed and anxious.  It can take time for the elephant to accept the new, weapon-less, gentler mahout. There is a delicate balance when attempting to changing a practice that is so deeply ingrained in a culture, but small steps are being taken. There is hope!

Elephant Nature Park – Mahouts seeking shade while attend elephants and a walk in the park.

In 2018, The Thai government drafted a law to require that every domestic elephant birth be registered and the elephant given an ID card. Also, the government assigned to the Department of Livestock Development and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation to collect DNA samples from all the domesticated elephants in the kingdom to build a database. The new draft law and genetic database should help make it more difficult for poachers to pass off baby elephants taken from the wild as babies born into domestication. The legislation would require owners to register all domesticated elephants within one month of their birth. This new requirement is a step in the right direction and a far cry from the current law, which allows owners up to 8 years to register a birth with no penalty. The status of this law is unknown.

More and more elephant sanctuaries are following in the footsteps of Lek Chailert, Founder of the Elephant Nature Park, which offers single-day visits and week-long volunteer opportunities to interact with the elephants at the park and in tribal settings, feed, and observe. The ENP pays for or grows the elephant’s food and the mahouts are paid a living wage.  As the Elephant Nature Park gains popularity and financial viability, other elephant-based tourism companies become more open to converting to a sanctuary-based platform. 

Elephant Nature Park – Sangduen “Lek” Chailert with the herd.

The 250-acre sanctuary currently has 81 elephants, 400 dogs, 300 cats, and countless water buffalo that all live in harmony.  Our second visit to the ENP was for a week of volunteering, which included basic/shared lodging, three amazing vegan meals each day, wifi, nightly entertainment/education, and transportation to/from Chiang Mai. The cost is approximately $400 each person plus volunteer efforts.

During our week’s stay, we were part of a larger group that rotated chores. The work hours are short, from 9 am to 12 pm, then lunch, and 1:30 pm to 3 pm. Our duties consisted of cleaning out the elephant stalls (poop-masters!), making food for the older elephants, planting trees, and building feed reservoirs out of rocks and cement.  

The international group was mostly smart, informed, young solo travelers who had just finished college, in between jobs, or on holiday. The atmosphere was open, relaxed, and easy to make new friends.

Our final evening in the park, we watched the heartwarming documentary, Love & Bananas, directed by Ashley Bell, about a team of elephant rescuers led by Lek Chailert on a daring mission to rescue a 70-year-old Asian elephant and transport her to her forever-home at the Elephant Nature Park. There was not a dry eye in the place by the end of the film. As we wiped our tears, Lek appeared to talk more about her mission, how we can create our own sanctuaries through social media, and bring attention to those who don’t have a voice, not only elephants but stray dogs, cats, and other animals.  

Lek is a tiny woman of 4’10” and under 90 lbs., but has the spirit of a lioness. Her heroic efforts to be the voice of innocent animals are tenacious, driven, and almost obsessive. Despite being harassed, alienated, lied about in the media, and her husband assaulted, she perseveres.  Lek’s mission continues and her voice is heard throughout the world, but she can’t do it alone. She founded the Save Elephant Foundation and hired a dedicated team who work tirelessly by her side to protect the Asian elephants. 

It’s magical to watch Lek with her herd of elephants. When she is walking around the park, the elephants gravitate to her. They trumpet with delight, circle and hug her with their trunks but are careful not to crush the woman who has given her life to be their voice and create a place they can call their forever-home.

Enjoy the Climb!


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