This post begins with a confession: I am an idiot. Or perhaps it’d be fairer to say I was an idiot. About ten years ago I did something that now fills me with shame and remorse – I rode an elephant in Sri Lanka. Now what’s so bad about that, you might well ask? Well the wonderful, magical, heart-breaking and heart-warming experience we’ve just had with the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai in Thailand can help to explain…
The Elephant Nature Park was set up in the 1990s by Lek Chailert, an extraordinary woman who devotes her life to the welfare of elephants. The park rescues elephants from the tourist and logging trades and gives them love, care and the freedom they need to live happy lives.
To fully understand, you need to realise why making elephants work for us and our financial greed is so wrong – these videos explain better than I ever could (be aware – they’re not an easy watch, but if you’re considering an elephant ride I’d implore you to watch…):
Not that this is purely an Asian or African problem…
Now it’s not as if it’s just a few of these elephants that go through the ‘phajaan’, which in Thai roughly translates as ‘to crush or divorce the elephant (usually a baby) from its spirit’. 100% of the elephants used in riding, trekking, circuses or logging will have endured this barbaric ‘training’ process.
Take a moment to think about how elephants very closely mirror the life cycle of a human – they live to approximately 70 years, they live in loyal family groups, they nurture, care for and teach their young. There are perhaps two big differences: the first is that a mother elephant will carry her baby for nearly two years, and the second is that female elephants will, if given the opportunity, live together for life – no flying the nest as a teenager, nothing. Think how it must feel for the mother elephant to carry its child for two years only to have it snatched from her almost immediately after birth. Elephants are capable of feeling complex emotions – happiness, distress, anxiety, so this must be unbearable for them. Now see if from the baby elephant’s point of view – no mother and just a life of chains, brutality and hard labour.
The phajaan process is so horrific that the elephants have to have their trunks tied with rope so that they cannot commit suicide by stepping on it. The catalogue of terrible crimes committed against these animals is staggering – just take a look at the clinic cases currently at the Elephant Nature Park – four landmine injuries, trap wounds, abscesses and infections caused by chains and bull hooks, multiple eye problems all caused by catapults or hooks. The one common factor here is human cruelty.
Sadly that’s just the tip of the iceberg: listen to Lek speak and you’ll hear of elephants maimed by landmines while logging who were then forced, with little or no medical care, into begging on the streets of cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai; the elephant who disobeyed her owner and was doused in gasoline and set alight as a punishment; the elephant who was blinded by her mahout with a catapult and bull hook because he lost his temper with her (she survived and now lives in the park and is best friends with another elephant who acts as her eyes); or elephants who are fed amphetamines so that they will work harder and longer in the logging sites until they drop. When these enslaved animals are seriously injured, there is no culture of care, no putting them to sleep – they are just left to suffer and die slowly.
Thankfully a lucky few make it to the Elephant Nature Park, where they are given the care, love and freedom that they need to enjoy the rest of their lives. Lisa and I spent a week on the Journey to Freedom project run by the ENP. This seems to be the direction, albeit at an embryonic stage, where Lek would like to take her project next. I’ll do a full post on our week shortly, but in a nutshell the idea of it is to allow rescued elephants who are physically able to live in the jungle, under the protection of a mahout (he also makes sure they don’t go wrecking the strawberry crops!). At the moment there are four elephants here – two older females and a younger boy and girl. Eventually, Lek would like to be able to purchase much more land, so that only ill, injured or disabled elephants live at the main park; the rest will live in a more natural, wild environment which is at the same time safe for them, away from poachers, hunters, trekking and logging companies.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the week was the highlight of our lives – we were able to spend hours observing the elephants, interacting with them, feeding thm. It’s often said that you can tell an elephant’s mood through its eyes and I firmly believe this – these four elephants, all of whom have been subjected to the phajaan in the past, are happy. Their eyes are bright, their ears flap back and forth and their tails swing from side to side. Watching them interact with one another is to watch a loving, happy family. Now if there’s any person who, having learnt about the phajaan and the other brutal treatment these animals are exposed to in the name of entertaining tourists, would still rather ride an elephant, or watch one perform tricks in a circus, rather than see them free and roaming in the jungle, then I don’t understand them. The choice we have as paying tourists is simple: continue to support the cruel practices hiding behind those oh-so-jolly elephant rides; or to put our time and money into organisations like the Elephant Nature Park.
So was I an idiot all those years ago? Well, yes and no. At the time I rode Zeta the elephant I had no idea of what she would have been through so that I was able to sit on her back, I had no idea that even my weedy ten stone frame could be damaging her delicate spine, I had no idea that her mahout would be controlling her with a bull hook, or a sharp nail concealed in his hand. The long and short of it is that as far as all animals are concerned we need to make informed decisions. If you in your heart of hearts can happily jump on the back or an elephant or go to watch one perform in a circus when you know what they’ve been through, then that’s your decision – not that I’d understand it. We need to vote with our wallets – support the organisations that promote true conservation (and don’t just have the word in their title).
Note on the tragic incident at the park on 11th March:
This only serves to underline the important work ENP are doing: these elephants are not only physically damaged by their experiences, but also mentally. They feel anger, pain and stress and will react to this. MeeSook was an overworked, abused elephant and it will takes years of work by the experts at the park to help her to achieve some sort of peace. I’m sure the man who was killed had only the best intentions in entering her shelter, but tragically he was most probably unaware of her significant problems. May he rest in peace.