I love elephants. Anyone that has ever set foot in my house, classroom or closet can assuredly confirm that statement.
For years, I’ve been collecting elephant mementos. Initially a bi-product of living in South Asia, this inadvertent habit became an intentional pursuit when I decided to attend Tufts University. Plushy pachyderms and carved statuettes were no longer just cute finds, they bore resemblance to my university mascot: the much beloved and renown Jumbo the Elephant.
After leaving his native home in Sudan, by way of London, Jumbo came to America and fulfilled the American Dream; he became a super star. His headlining performance in Tufts alumnus P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” garnered multitudes of spectators. Everyone was eager to witness a mammoth mammal perform dainty tricks. His adorable visage and persona became the spokes-animal for several emerging consumer products. Indeed, his colossal celebrity even instigated a new entry for the word “jumbo” in the dictionary: something very large.
Unfortunately, in 1885 Jumbo was killed in a tragic accident. In the midst of a circus move gone awry, the valiant Jumbo propelled his considerable girth in front of an oncoming locomotive to save baby elephant, Tom Thumb, and his human handler, Scott, from certain death. Not only did he safeguard his companions, but he charged the train to halt the engine and prevent further peril down the line. This sacrifice embodied his indefatigable spirit and deep love for his circus comrades… At least, so went the story that I heard from my student guide on a university admissions tour. In reality, this story was Barnum’s media spin on a grim circus calamity and his attempt to capitalize on elevated press coverage.
While the heroic characteristics this alternative narrative eulogizes are deservingly aspirational for Tufts students, the real story of this elephant – displaced, exploited and dead due to negligence – speaks volumes about a culture of ignorance and selective observation surrounding animal welfare in the global entertainment industry. In particular, elephant maltreatment and abuse. It is easy to think that because we love elephants we are showing love to them. Nonetheless, in reality our desire for closeness and observing their awesome nature may be doing more harm than good.
I recently learned more about this predicament on a trip to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. Though thousands of miles and over a century removed from Barnum’s circus, the underlying issue of animal welfare remains much the same.
Historically, domesticated elephants have played important sociocultural and economic roles in South and Southeast Asia. They’ve helped with major construction projects, transported heavy resources, featured in festivities and religious ceremonies, and bolstered a tourism industry adoring of authentic cultural experiences and unique photo-ops. According to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, there are between 2,000-3,000 wild elephants in Thailand with an additional 2,700 “domesticated” elephants .
With such a large proportion of Thailand’s elephants falling under this latter label, what do we know about the lives of domesticated Asian elephants?
Countries like Thailand have heavily integrated elephants into economic sectors such as logging, entertainment, and tourism. Since the Thai government banned logging in 1989, most domesticated elephants today work in one of the latter two industries. With lifespans similar to ours, some living over 90 years, many elephants spend decades working in one, if not multiple, fields.
At first glance, this seems like it could promote positive symbiotic relationships between these animals and their humans. In exchange for physical labor or performance, elephants receive care and a reliable food source in an increasingly urbanized region. Their owners and mahouts, or keepers, prosper economically and are thus able to sustain a dependable livelihood. In tandem, this relationship could perpetuate a rich set of cultural traditions and norms that help preserve Thai heritage and attract foreign tourism and opportunities for economic growth.
While anomalies certainly do exist, such animal-human interactions are rarely based in mutualism.
In the middle of a lush jungle, on a modestly constructed platform, I sat with my small “Care for Elephants” tour group overlooking a serene landscape. A small river and acres of green grass melted into distant farm land and the densely forested hills. We mulled through lunch quietly, watching ants scurry across the scaffolding and listening to one of our merry elephant companions forage among the tall jungle grass.
With a diffident sigh, our tour guide recommenced sharing the history of our group. Of the three elephants we spent time with, Mae Ploi (45), Mae Teo (40) and Tong Ma (38), all were rescued from elephant trekking companies. These companies had not always treated them well. Off-white scars on Mae Ploi’s legs and neck serve as visible reminders of deep gashes from her former life. Only rehabilitation though positive human interaction, especially that with their new caretakers, has helped these elephants reconcile with their domesticated lives. These caretakers (they have one each) spend every day with the elephants building rapport, trust and using positive reinforcement to help overcome their negative associations with humans. These men are often Burmese migrants or members of disenfranchised hill tribes in Thailand who depend on income from their work with the tourism industry. Our guide explained that they, like himself, all had to make the conscious choice to work at Elephant Nature Park (ENP) which is a “no-ride” Park and thus handles elephants quite differently from the majority of Thai tourism organizations today.
Between the stories of our guide, educational videos we watched on our way to ENP, and some reading, it is clear that elephant abuse is an extensive issue in not only Thailand, but many of the countries around the region like India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos. In fact, on the same day that I visited ENP, the BBC wrote an article about cruelty in the elephant tourism industry.
“Domesticated” elephants, or elephants in captivity, are taken from their mothers as babies. Not only is this often violent process itself traumatic, but recently captured elephants are put through a week-long training called “Bigan” or “elephant crushing” in which they are chained and trained with negative reinforcement to fear and obey humans. In order to be trustfully domesticated, their wild nature has to be broken. This process can often be so rough that elephants have been known to try to commit suicide by stepping on their own trunks, thus reinforcing the need for tight restraints in the eyes of the trainers.
Once engrossed in the entertainment or tourism industry, mahouts are known to use long metal hooks, nails, or even long finger nails to invoke pain and command compliance. Whether prompting elephants to do tricks in a circus on their hind legs or carry a honeymooning couple through a jungle trail, these techniques depend on obedience through fear of punishment. These experiences can lead to both physical injury and mental trauma, not to mentioned may ultimately end up making elephants more dangerous to tourists.
While this may seem like projecting human sentiments onto animals, elephants have complex emotional experiences and responses, though different from our own. A great deal of research has been done into the complex inner processes of elephants, as detailed briefly in the figure below.Listening to these stories and statistics, my first reaction was sadness and empathy for these gorgeous creatures. It is easy to connect with abused animals and to imagine that they deserve better. My second reaction though, was a creeping guilt.
I can personally recall riding an elephant at least once on a tour in North India. I recall vividly the initial thrill of being atop an elephant, and then the slowly diminishing enthusiasm as we slowly hiked up to a mountain temple and my physical discomfort grew from being jostled side-to-side. It never occurred to me the extreme discomfort of the pachyderm under my seat or that the “driver” in front of me was essential stabbing the elephant periodically in the back of the neck to keep us moving upwards.
It is appropriate to feel guilt about this experience. Yet, how could I have known better? When a practice is so prevalent and commonly accepted, how can we recognize its potential harmful impacts?
Well, one idea is to focus on developing compassion. It is tempting to excuse this incident of elephant riding because I could have been no more than 12- my judgement and reasoning muddled by a frenetic adolescence. However, in just a few years of teaching, I’ve met a plethora of youth advocating for animal rights and other causes about which they care deeply. I believe compassion and empathy have little to do with age and more to do with awareness of one’s surroundings. As such, a key to ethical interaction is being aware of how our actions are impact all beings around us, not just the most obvious.
A second issue for my 12-year-old self was that neither I nor my family had any past experience or knowledge to suggest that what we were doing caused pain. Riding atop an elephant is sign of cultural celebration and tradition in India. Cultural and social depictions of elephants paint them as tolerant, gentle giants. Plus, when you interact with elephants, you support the umpteen people dependent on them for livelihood and security. With these prominent realities at the forefront, we were ignorant of how our actions could be fuelling cruel industry practices. Thus, a second key is to actively research and inquire as to what possible issues could arise from one’s actions.
Ultimately, elephants should never domesticated for human entertainment. However, those that have been subjected to cruelty and abuse should be treated with respect and kindness. When engaging in elephant or any animal based tourism, there is a fine line to walk between encouraging an industry that captures wild creatures to commodify them and encouraging more sustainable, humane industry practices by supporting individuals and organizations choosing to practice more ethical tourism.
It is not in my control to change my past experiences; however, with more knowledge and hindsight, I can hope that my future tourism will be more mindful. I can also attempt to influence others. So, if you would like to learn more about how we, as tourists, can help care for rescued and rehabilitated elephants, hover over or click on the images below for more information.