Spending time with elephants in Thailand has topped the bucket list for many people across the globe. Having the unique opportunity to be in the presence of these magnificent creatures seems like a dream come true.
The tragedy is that a significant proportion of these so-called “sanctuaries” are anything but. Hidden beneath the surface lays a darker truth and one that the world is gladly becoming aware of. Yet, some choose to bury their heads in the sands of ignorance to avoid the harsh reality of the horrific suffering that these poor elephants endure.
In this article, we will delve into the reality of ethical elephant sanctuaries and the valuable lessons we can learn from them.
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Table of Contents
The History of Elephants in Thailand
Elephants have played a significant role in Thailand’s history and culture for centuries. Historically, elephants were used in various aspects of Thai society. These creatures were highly valued for their strength and intelligence, featuring heavily in transportation, labour, and warfare. As such, they became instrumental in shaping the course of Thai history.
Elephants have always played an integral part in the logging industry, where they were used to transport heavy logs through the dense forests. However, due to the negative environmental impacts of logging and conservation concerns, Thailand banned commercial logging with elephants in 1989.
A History of Mistreatment
The mistreatment of elephants in Thailand has been a significant concern over the years. In the logging industry, elephants were subjected to heavy workloads, inadequate care, and sub-standard living conditions.
To ensure that these enormous animals remain obedient, the elephants are often forced to endure harsh training methods. In a process known as phajaan, baby elephants are tortured in a week-long ordeal designed to break their spirit and leave them compliant to their captors. For the remainder of their lives, if they disobey, they are physically punished, often through the use of whips and bullhooks.
It’s such a harrowing experience, that elephants have even been known to commit suicide by standing on their own trunks causing them to suffocate in a desperate attempt to end their suffering.
Following the demise of the illegal logging industry, many trainers and owners were left with 5 tons of deadweight that had no purpose. While many were sold on the black market or trafficked for their ivory, other “domesticated” elephants were used to beg for money along the streets. They became an irresistible attraction which caught the eye of passersby and, most importantly of all, tourists.
As elephants’ interaction with visiting tourists increased, dollar signs lit up in the eyes of locals as they had finally found a profitable way to repurpose their oversized prisoners.
How Elephants are Used in the Tourist Industry
The opportunity to spend time with these enigmatic and charismatic animals naturally captures the imagination of people across the world. More importantly, people are willing to pay top dollar for the experience.
Once the logging industry had come to an end, many elephants were transitioned into the tourist industry. Visiting one of these magnificent creatures soon became the biggest must-do experience in Thailand.
It also provided much-needed economic benefits to local communities and businesses through the creation of elephant camps. Additionally, it became a far more efficient way of using their elephants, as captors could minimise the elephants’ workload and thus increase their longevity.
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The Problem with Some Elephant “Sanctuaries”
Though the logging industry may have come to an end, the abuse of elephants did not. Rather, the same problems exist and have worsened in the tourist trade.
The unquestioning obedience of these gentle creatures is not only necessary but vital – trainers can’t afford for their cash-carrying guests to be viciously attacked by a misbehaving elephant. Rampant abuse and physical violence continued in order to maintain the animals’ behaviours and to ensure they kept in line.
Many elephants are as overworked as they would have been in the logging industry. The hauling of logs has simply been replaced with long-distance treks and back-deforming tourist rides. The living conditions remain equally inadequate and the elephants lack the necessary food or veterinary care.
In this sickening puppy-mill approach to tourism, elephants are permitted and even encouraged to breed. The alternative is catching a baby elephant in the wild, which often necessitates the slaughtering of their entire pride. While some of these newborns are sold to the ivory trade, others are simply thrown back into the meatgrinder of tourism.
How Do We Know About This?
In Thailand, such acts of violence towards elephants have always been an open secret. Despite that, it is something that even local trainers locals know well enough to keep away from tourists. Misleading marketing claims some to be “ethical” sanctuaries while they still engage in abhorrent practices.
Thankfully, the awareness about the negative impacts of elephant mistreatment has increased significantly in the past couple of decades. Scientific studies have shed light on the physical and psychological harm caused to elephants, and animal welfare organizations have made sure that you are well aware of it.
The most powerful influencer of all, social media, has been at the forefront of global understanding. Disturbing images and harrowing stories flood the web, ensuring that nobody can fain ignorance of reality. It’s for that very reason that elephant riding is being irradiated. Any decent sanctuary knows that they couldn’t dare offer such a service.
The REAL Elephant Sanctuaries
Recognizing these issues, there has been a growing movement toward the ethical treatment in elephant sanctuaries.
It’s important to remember that there are still plenty of genuine elephant sanctuaries that offer responsible and ethical interactions with elephants. In these establishments, visitors can learn about and support conservation efforts without causing harm to the animals. These places also prioritize the well-being of the elephants rather than activities that exploit them.
International and local animal welfare organizations have also played a significant role in advocating for the ethical treatment of elephants. Their efforts have helped raise awareness and support for the establishment and operation of ethical elephant sanctuaries.
The Thai government has also taken steps to address concerns about elephant welfare. Regulations have been introduced to discourage the mistreatment of elephants in tourism and promote ethical practices. The result has been the proliferation of more ethical sanctuaries.
How Can You Tell Which Sanctuaries Are Ethical?
Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, some seemingly benign “sanctuaries” have learned to hide their evil ways behind closed doors and to present a much gentler facade. So the question is, how can you tell the difference?
First and foremost, diligent research is your guiding star. Online you’ll find a treasure trove of information in the form of dedicated websites, reviews and in-depth articles that delve into the ethical practices of these elephant sanctuaries. Though this information could be manipulated, certification by esteemed organizations such as the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS), World Animal Protection, or the Thai Elephant Alliance carries a higher degree of reliability.
By investigating these sanctuaries to a greater extent, you’ll uncover varying degrees of ethical conduct and be alert to the major red flags they display. For instance, the sight of elephants in physical restraints or trainers wielding suspiciously pointy sticks should set off immediate alarm bells. Not to mention that riding of any kind is a clear indication of an abusive sanctuary.
There are some sanctuaries that place great emphasis on not only animal conservation but also on the ethical and environmentally friendly maintenance of their facilities. Many of these sanctuaries offer tours of their facilities with the explicit purpose of raising funds for the care of these majestic creatures without resorting to their exploitation.
Tourists Made The Change
Despite the many flaws that often come with the toxic tourist trade, it has also become a catalyst for positive change. In an age where information is more accessible than ever, the ethical treatment of elephants has taken centre stage.
Tourists flush with cash suddenly became hesitant to spend their hard-earned cash at a place that might play host to appalling abuses against such innocent animals. It left locals with no option but to reconsider their practices once and for all.
As the tourist trade continues to evolve and the reputation of these sanctuaries becomes inescapable, the abusive sanctuaries are marginalized, allowing genuine safe havens to take the spotlight. The abuse of elephants in the tourist industry has been forced to decline. Eventually, the antiquated practice will be left to the pages of history alone.
While it may not represent a complete revolution, it undeniably signifies ongoing progress, and one we all hope to continue until the bitter end.
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