The hidden, cruel world of the Thai elephant entertainment industry

Elephants are brutalised in the training they go through to become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand. The Government has started to try to clean up the industry, but opposition is strong, and tourists are still lining up for elephant entertainments.

By MICHELLE KITELEY

A terrified elephant calf in the crusher. Picture by Lek Chaillert.
A terrified elephant calf in the crusher. Source: Lek Chailert.

Locked in a wooden cage, this elephant was being taught to obey and fear humans. Surrounded by people from the local village, the elephant can be seen with its legs unnaturally stretched out. It is alone.

This calf was separated from its mother and put through this treatment so that it can be moulded into an entertainer. It is terrified.

It may end up being sold into a circus, an entertainment facility, or as a carriage for tourists to ride.

Legs stretched out in the phajaan. Picture by Lek Chaillert
Legs stretched out in the phajaan. Source:  Lek Chailert.

The treatment the young elephant is undergoing is called the phajaan or “soul crushing”. Deeply routed in Thai culture, the tradition began when changes to the Thai landscape forced villagers to find a new way of employing their elephants.

Victorian student and wildlife volunteer Celeste Hopcraft discovered this violent practice when she volunteered at the Thai Elephant Nature Park in 2013. She was deeply upset when she saw a video of the phajaan.

In the video, an elephant calf had been locked in a cage for weeks. It had large contusions on its skin from being stabbed and particularly deep wounds around its ears.

“It was horrific to see the different forms of abuse these animals endured … it was impossible not to see how years of mistreatment had left these beautiful animals with so many horrible scars,” Hopcraft says.

Hopcraft spent a week in the camp, along with volunteers from around the world. This sanctuary is one of the few in Thailand that is attempting to change the relationship between Thai people and domestic elephants. Its founder, Lek Chailert, is an active spokeswoman for the Asian elephant and has dedicated her life to rehabilitating animals.

At these types of animal sanctuaries, the phajaan is no longer used to train elephants and the traditional entertainment programs are not featured. Instead they provide an opportunity for tourists to see animals as they are.

“It reinforced in me that this is how we should look at elephants, acting naturally and showcasing their amazing personalities,” Hopcraft says.

The main issues surrounding the entertainment industry in Thailand is that there is a lack of truthful and relevant information available to tourists about training customs. Asian elephants are also an endangered species, as these methods make it difficult to breed, wild animals are sometimes illegally poached.

Tourists in Thailand are constantly offered “exotic experiences” involving elephants. But what they see is only a small glimpse of the harsh reality – a reality that their cameras never capture.

Elephants find a better life in a santuary. Picture by Michelle Kiteley
Elephants find a better life in a sanctuary. Picture by Michelle Kiteley

“Elephants and other rare animals will always be associated with a complete Thai experience, but after seeing the true cost … it is not worth it,” Hopcraft says.

London-based travel organisation STA Travel promotes volunteering experiences in Thailand. Along with Melbourne’s Intrepid Travel, they are the first tourism-based companies to stop promoting elephant rides.  STA Travel Southland store manager Ned Brennan says they are trying to encourage more ethical experiences.

“The ethical treatment of animals has only become a hot topic of discussion in recent years … our society is being injected with a conscience,” Brennan says.

As the demand grows for more positive tourism experiences, Brennan still believes the main issue is that the majority of people are unaware of these hidden cultural traditions.

“If people were more aware they would be less likely to use these companies … awareness is the key to change,” Brennan says.

Volunteer Meg Humphrey with Lek Chailert. Source: Meg Humphrey
Volunteer Meg Humphrey with Lek Chailert. Source: Meg Humphrey

Social media has become a global platform for sharing advice and knowledge in a prolific manner. The majority of posts relating to Thailand glamorise elephant rides. On Instagram, the trend of hashtagging shows that there are approximately 15,000 posts that use either #elephantride or #elephantrides. In other media forms, posing on top of an elephant has become a standard image for any person who travels to Thailand.

Although much of what is shared on social media presents the glamorous side of the elephant entertainment industry, some petitions can now be found online including Elephant Family, protecting Asian Elephants. Blogs and animal sanctuaries are beginning to use this platform to advocate for animals.

In Melbourne, Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) aims to educate the public about these abusive practices. Spokeswoman and ALV activist Felicity Andersen says petitions are not enough to make a difference; it is people who must change.

“People have a romanticised idea of how things are done … people couldn’t understand how an animal could be treated so badly you know, abused and traumatised… and then still can be handled in any way,” Andersen says.

Once people are persuaded to see a species as individuals, Anderson says, they won’t go back to the old view. Once an animal is an individual, it becomes “something that deserves rights; the right to live without pain and exploitation”.

Volunteer Meg Humphrey in the Journey to freedom program. Source: Meg Humphrey
Volunteer Meg Humphrey in the Journey to freedom program. Source: Meg Humphrey

Thai legislation categorises elephants as livestock, meaning they can be privately bought and sold. There are no regulations that govern how they should be treated.

Zoologist and animal presenter at Melbourne Zoo Mark Learmonth has been working in private and public zoos in Australia for over six years and is aware of the customs in Thailand. Learmonth says labeling elephants as livestock “is not accurate … elephants show much more complex forms of thought than most livestock do”.

Learmonth is completing a masters in animal psychology and believes elephants as a species are far more developed than many people realise.

“We just keep learning more and more about elephants. They show the ability of insight …they have extensive long term memory … they use co-operation and understand social dynamics … they can learn to work with each other, and this links to elephants having a sense of empathy,” Learmonth says.

In late 2013, Thai mahouts, or trainers, took part in major protests against the The Wild Animals Preservation and Protection Bill, which would shift ownership of domestic elephants to a state run agency.

Elephants at play in a santuary. Picture by Michelle Kiteley.
Elephants at play in a nature park. Picture by Michelle Kiteley.

This aims to reduce the number of wild elephants that are illegally poached and to allow the Government to monitor the number of working elephants in Thailand. Mahouts have been reported as saying this would not solve the issue, instead they called for higher penalties given to those who break the current law.

As this Bill continues to be debated in Thailand, making elephant rides and circuses illegal would not necessarily fix the problem. In economic terms, these industries generate huge revenues for the country, and the practices themselves have deep cultural roots.

Andersen believes that despite the cultural connections, this practice still needs to be stopped.

“Culture is never an excuse for behaviour. I think when someone is being harmed by that behaviour, then that behaviour needs to change,” she says.

“We see in other examples that some cultures believe in circumcising young girls, which is a very entrenched culture … we all know it is wrong. Just because this involves another species doesn’t mean that the behaviour is justified.”

While Thai culture may not be changed in the near future, Andersen believes that the culture of Australian tourists can change to support ethical animal programs. As society progresses into this more conscious era, animal activists are urging the Australian public to seek opportunities where elephants behave naturally. This is an issue, as she believes some tourists seek out these experiences for the wrong reasons or do not think about the consequences for the animal.

Picture by Michele Kiteley
Picture by Michelle Kiteley

“If we see an animal acting like a human then it gives greater value to that animal, we can then think that animal is special. It is really sad because we can’t value them for their own inherent value … instead we recognise what we see of ourselves in them,” Andersen says.

“We have to find a way to value animals … that does not rely on being entertained.”

Working at the Melbourne Zoo, Learmonth is familiar with people asking whether their animals can perform tricks, however, Melbourne Zoo does not promote or allow performances.

“It feeds right back to early modes of thinking … it is almost as if humans are basically lords of nature and that nature is provided for us a tool to utilise,” Learmonth said.

Melbourne Zoo does still allows elephants to complete paintings as a part of their enrichment programs. In Thailand the elephant painting industry is one that often relies on violence to teach the elephants this skill. Learmonth argues that many elephants at Melbourne Zoo enjoy this task.

Three elephants that live at Melbourne Zoo were born and trained in Thailand, meaning that they were subjected to the phajaan. Learmonth says these elephants have overcome the abuse from their early stages in life and can now enjoy these activities.

“We do have a few at the zoo that get really excited to the point of excited urination when the painting easels come out,” Learmonth says.

Elephants have to potential to overcome their violent past if the right opportunities are provided. he says. After a recent volunteering experience in Thailand, Learmonth has seen first-hand how positive environments can lead to higher reproduction rates and stronger bonds between elephants and their trainers.

For the elephants who do not escape, Learmonth says: “It is like learnt helplessness, they learn that there is no way to escape from the punishment or treatment they are subjected to so they learn to just exist as they are and expect the punishment for the rest of their lives.”

Sanctuaries and rescue parks are beginning to grow in parts of Thailand and provide another alternative for these animals. At The Elephant Nature Park, the rescued elephants will live out their days being cared for with mud baths and bananas. The park also has a program called Journey to Freedom where the healthier elephants are moved into rural villages to integrate them back into their traditional environments.

Wildlife volunteer Meg Humphrey participated in this integration program and witnessed the possibilities for a better life for elephants.

“Elephants can never go back into the forest freely due to poachers … in these villages everyone is reshaping their attitudes … to save and improve the lives of animals you need to improve the culture and the mentality of the people in the villages,” Humphrey said.

“We as a western country know that treating animals in this way is bad and we should address it … we do not need to exploit animals to survive.”

 

BRING AN END TO THE SOUL CRUSHER

Research into the elephant entertainment industry shows that almost all domesticated elephants in Thailand are subjected to the violent training regime called the phajaan or “crushing”. This method sees young elephants being caged and abused until they become completely submissive to their human trainers.

Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) wants the practice abolished. Long time employee and ALV activist Ms Felicity Andersen said the media should stop promoting these elephant entertainment experiences.

“As there is a buck to be made there are always going to be people who pursue it. I think that filmmakers or advertisement agencies have the power to change these things and we need to ask them to do the right thing,”  Andersen says.

When animal welfare stories run on mainstream media platforms, the ALV is inundated with calls from people who want to know more.

“Anything published in the media is going to have a much greater impact. It is a huge responsibility for the media, but I think they need to accept the challenge,” Andersen says.

These changes include eliminating elephant rides in films, television or music videos and to stop advertisements promoting animal entertainment programs in Thailand.

Zoologist and animal presenter at Melbourne Zoo Mark Learmonth says it is the media that now needs to advocate for change and promote ethical animal experiences.

“If the media made the right choices and chose to promote the right things it would make a huge impact. They have such a huge reach to target audiences and the general public …they need to be more involved,” Learmonth says.