Grief-stricken back in 2012 after a breakup with who I thought was the love of my life, I impulsively spent a lot of money on a last-minute flight to Thailand. It was in the middle of nowhere a couple of hours from Bangkok that I fell in love with elephants. Trekking through the jungle towards a river, we splashed each other and it dunked us into the cold water where we’d fall off and climb back on. It was a magical experience I would do anything to relive.
The rest of our trip was organised by tour group Contiki, and the first of our island-hopping stops was Koh Samui. To kick off our stay we were taken on a pre-paid elephant trek.
Samui elephants are not native to the island and are there purely to fuel the demands of the tourist trade. I could tell instantly the elephants weren’t well cared for and the experience was dismal. Chains hung from their necks and ankles, and their ears were damaged from the bull-hooks used to force them along the track when they hesitated. I found myself with a bad taste in my mouth in a country referred to as ‘The Land of Smiles’.
I so clearly recall thinking it wasn’t right and to this day am ashamed I didn’t refuse to get on. Although I should have listened to my gut, I didn’t know what I know now about the treatment of captive elephants.
But the fact is that wild elephants need to be tamed before they can be ridden. The taming process is brutal, and accomplished when the elephants are very young. In a process called phajaan, or “the crush”, the baby elephant is snatched from its mother and tortured to completely break its spirit. Beaten into submission with clubs and pieced with sharp bull-hooks, they are simultaneously starved and deprived of sleep for several days.
A British tourist was recently killed whilst elephant trekking on Samui in front of his teenage daughter. When the elephant’s mahout – handler – climbed down to take photos he was attacked by the elephant’s tusk, leaving the elephant free to go on the rampage. It threw the tourists of its back, trampling the man and stabbing him in the chest with a tusk and killing him instantly.
Now aged 23 and wiser, I would have made a point of refusing to get on and letting everybody know about it. The industry thrives because tourists all want to ride elephants or watch them do tricks, paying good money for the privilege.
Likewise, through research I would have learned the Tiger Temple had long been accused by animal rights activists of mistreating the tigers for commercial gain and even trafficking some of its animals. I should have wondered whether a wild animal, even one the size of a dog like a monkey should be kept on a leash.
I learned about an elephant named Tyke, kept in captivity for many years before finally killing her trainer and escaping from a circus in Hawaii. Bolting down the streets of Honolulu, police fired 86 shots until she eventually collapsed from her wounds and died. Her bid for freedom and disturbing final minutes can be seen here, whilst the documentary Tyke: Elephant Outlaw elaborates on the correlation between wild animals treated as entertainment and them paying the ultimate price.
If you’re determined to interact with an elephant, there are a select few sanctuaries where they are are treated with respect and free to behave as they would in the wild. The Elephant Nature Park sanctuary is tucked away in the beautiful jungles outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, with a mission to protect & care for mistreated elephants rescued from the tourism and logging industries. You can feed them fresh fruit out of the palm of your hand, watch them play in the mud, accompany them on walks and even help give them a bath – which in my opinion sounds brilliant!
We all know the ivory trade is illegal, but many of us are still ignorant about the socially accepted abuse of elephants. Keeping such a majestic creature alive for monetary gain is equally as cruel, and need to spread awareness of elephant trekking to eradicate this treatment.
If an elephant camp in south east Asia claims to be “responsible” with its animals, you should still be sceptical. Remember the process used to train them is often the same, and even if they’re now treated with kindness it’s the fear of being stabbed used to motivate them to work.
The elephant has been a cultural icon of Thailand since ancient days, a symbol of fortune renowned for its intelligence. It’s easy for me to say this being from a prosperous country, but what Thailand doesn’t see is the good fortune it has in being able to share its land with such incredible animals.
Everybody has the right to make their own decision on whether animal trekking is an essential Thai activity, but neither should they be under any illusions: tourists who pay to ride elephants support the continued exploitation of wildlife.
I don’t know whether that elephant in the river really was enjoying itself, as I do recall a bull-hook, but I often find myself hoping so. I could tell the elephant on Samui wasn’t happy, and I wish it could know how sorry I am. I will never forget either of them.