The perils of speaking about Thai elephant exploitation
- Published: 13 March 2012
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13 March 2012
Elephant riding has long been championed by tourist operators within Thailand. The Tourism Authority of Thailand promotes it with a dizzying excitement: it claims elephant riding is an “integral part of all tourists’ visits”, that “there are few experiences in Thailand more iconic”, and that “riding atop one of these intelligent yet gigantic creatures is often the highlight of one’s trip to Thailand”.
The activity is presented as an exhilarating, not-to-be-missed experience of a lifetime.
Not surprisingly, absent from the over-hyped descriptions of promised tourist thrills is the reality of abuse, over-work and exploitation of tourist elephants. Missing from the glossy tour leaflets is mention of the phajaan training ceremony, the brutal sustained abuse young elephants are forced to endure in preparation for a lifetime of carrying tourists, performing in animal shows, and even painting pictures for tourist amusement.
A blow-by-blow of the phajaan doesn’t make for light reading. The confining and beating with metal hooks and sharp implements, the deprivation of sleep and food, and the ultimate breaking of the spirit to transform Thailand’s “intelligent yet gigantic” creatures into mere shells of submission, consequently renders them more malleable to an industry with a lot to gain.
And also a lot to hide. The cruel training ritual inflicted on all domestic and tourist elephants is the industry’s dirty little secret.
As is the illegal poaching and trading of elephants within the country, alleged to have links to Thai government officials and prominent businessmen.
Complicity and cover-ups
Recent weeks have seen two leading Thai wildlife charities subjected to raids by Department of National Parks (DNP) officials. In February, the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) faced several days of raids resulting in the violent removal of 103 animals from their sanctuary in Phetchaburi. At the time of writing, only three animals had been returned.
Founder of WFFT, Edwin Wiek, had penned a letter to a Thai newspaper only days earlier, in which he outlined the issue of baby elephants being poached from the wild to supply Thai elephant camps. He estimated that over half of all young elephants in tourist camps were “wild-caught”.
Wiek suggested a cover-up had taken place over the recent deaths of six elephants within two national parks. Despite claims by a government official they were likely slaughtered for “bush-meat”, Wiek believed a more realistic scenario was they’d been killed to obtain their babies for tourist elephant camps.
In addition to detailing the huge financial incentives driving the demand for wild-caught baby elephants, Wiek alleged that “influential people” buttressed elephant trafficking and that bribing of officials was standard.
There is strong indication that the ensuing harassment of WFFT’s sanctuary just days later was no coincidence, and was directly linked to Wiek’s explosive claims rather than DNP’s stated need to urgently sight legal documentation for the animals under WFFT’s care.
In strikingly similar circumstances, shortly after Elephant Nature Park (ENP) founder Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert was interviewed on Thai TV about the illegal elephant trade, the DNP converged on her park’s Chiang Mai grounds.
The elephant rescue and conservation group was raided three times by the DNP in February, ostensibly to seize illegally kept wild elephants. Upon finding none during the first two raids, officials conceded that there were no wild elephants housed among the park’s herd of rescued elephants.
Yet, DNP officials returned to the park several days after Chailert joined Wiek and elephant conservationist Antoinette van de Water for a Bangkok press conference, where they discussed the illegal elephant trade.
Staff and volunteers staged a protest as officials again entered the park, but no confiscations or arrests were carried out – despite a tip-off that they would. However, DNP have pledged to return, purportedly to chase up documentation for several elephants at the park.
Punishing the protectors
The harassment of wildlife campaigners in Thailand is not without precedent.
Antoinette van de Water, founder of elephant conservation group Bring the Elephant Home (BTEH), has worked to protect elephants for a decade in Thailand. Fresh from the Bangkok press conference and the protests at the Elephant Nature Park (a group she has worked closely with for years), she tells The Scavenger that she is proud of the work BTEH has achieved for the benefit of elephants.
But she admits her efforts have sometimes come at a personal cost.
Two years ago, a media storm erupted in reaction to revelations about the forced breeding of elephants in van de Water’s book, The Great Elephant Escape. She was accused of lying and fabricating the information, and of insulting Thailand.
In statements to the media, so-called elephant “experts” tried to discredit van de Water, denied that forced breeding happens, and declared that she should be deported from Thailand.
“I received some serious warnings. I don’t get scared easily, but this made me feel at least a bit uncomfortable in Thailand”, reveals van de Water. “Even organisations I used to work together with didn’t speak out to defend me. It’s all about the political position, and this is more important than animal welfare, I learned”.
During her 10 years in Thailand, van de Water has witnessed elephant abuse first-hand, including the cruel training of baby elephants. From experience, she knew how problematic it was to raise these issues publicly and that she risked getting “in a lot of trouble”.
Her frustration grew as it became clear it would be difficult to fight “the corrupted powerful gang of people” at the heart of the elephant trade.
Van de Water has found this aspect of working in Thailand so frustrating that she now feels better placed to advocate for elephants away from Thailand, and has made the difficult decision to leave.
“I am not giving up; I will stay active for animals, including Thai elephants. But I feel that I can do more, and be much more appreciated, in another part of the world”, says van de Water.
She believes that the raids at ENP and WFFT happened because Chailert and Wiek have been “very outspoken” in the Thai media about the recent elephant killings.
“I believe they [the DNP] did this to intimidate these NGOs and to save face”, claims van de Water.
Abused by the system
The relentless marketing of elephant activities to tourists falsely depicts these experiences as harmless to elephants, and often places them in a “get back to nature” context.
Suffice to say that there is nothing natural about the enforced enslavement of elephants for tourist entertainment.
Elephant riding and related activities serve to entrap elephants in a cycle of abuse while simultaneously depleting their numbers in the wild. Thus, the paying tourist becomes an accessory to elephant exploitation.
Wiek alluded to this in his controversial letter, stating that “people who ignore what is occurring effectively support the killing and torture of wild-born elephants”.
But with strong and sustained attempts to hush critics such as Wiek, unfortunately many tourists are none the wiser about elephant abuse. The industry, which reaps immense profits from appropriating elephants, has a vested interest in maintaining the ignorance of tourists.
Worryingly, Thai officials are allegedly involved in facilitating the traffic and poaching of elephants.
Van de Water says that she has encountered ample evidence of this.
Last year, her group was informed of some seriously injured elephants in Surin province. Upon arrival they discovered a severely injured young adult elephant with a tusk missing and deep cuts across her entire body. They were initially told by a mahout that he’d rescued her, but the truth was uncovered later that night: the group of mahouts had been shooting wild adult elephants in order to steal babies from the herd.
The injured elephant was captured and immediately forced into torturous phajaan training. The plan was to then sell her to the tourism industry.
Van de Water’s group asked how the mahouts could sell an elephant without any documentation. All captive-born elephants over the age of 8 are required to be registered.
“They just laughed about this question: easy! One way is to use the papers of a domesticated elephant that died already. But even easier: powerful people will just make the papers”, recounts van de Water.
Because elephants under 8 years of age don’t require paperwork, wild-caught babies are often simply passed off as the offspring of domestic elephants.
Van de Water claims that at the annual Surin Elephant Round-up, organised by the Surin government, there are scores of baby elephants. She detests the event – which features choreographed elephant shows and “performances” including football games – but attends to maintain a watchful eye. Once she collaborated with Animal Planet on the filming of a behind-the-scenes documentary there.
Physical signs of the abuse of baby elephants are clearly visible at the festival, van de Water says. “When you have a closer look at the babies, you will see incredible abuse. Head completely covered with wounds, of a baby not even a year old”.
Her conversations with mahouts at the event have been illuminating. Many admitted that they bought wild-caught young elephants, and disclosed that “very powerful and influential” people assisted with arrangements.
Van de Water asserts that the recent national park elephant deaths, which prompted Wiek’s letter to the media, did have Department of National Parks involvement. This is known within Thailand, she says, and they most certainly were motivated by the prospect of big money.
“Unless the forestry department makes a big change to get rid of corruption and start to really enforce laws, I’m worried a lot about wild elephants…. Even though many elephants die, they will still have elephants to expose: playing football, painting pictures, carrying tourists. A sad image of the future of Thai elephants, no? But this is the direction Thailand is taking”, van de Water laments.
The cry of elephants in the ‘land of smiles’
The weight of evidence suggests that the recent raids on WFFT and ENP were a form of punitive action, aiming to silence and constrain wildlife conservationists. The message is loud and clear: speak out and suffer the consequences.
But elephants don’t have the luxury of time on their side. Their situation grows ever more precarious by the year. With as little as 1500 wild elephants remaining in Thailand, the urgency for conservationists to inform the public is stronger than ever.
Elephants’ continued survival depends on these dedicated campaigners to advocate for their rights in Thailand. A successful suppression of wildlife campaigners would condemn Thai elephants to an even more perilous existence.
But the world is watching, and in recent weeks WFFT and ENP have been inundated with messages of support. Protests are being organised at Thai embassies around the world to demand the return of confiscated animals to WFFT’s sanctuary.
Although it is an uphill battle, the tenacity and hard work of many to end the illegal trade and exploitation of elephants is unlikely to waver.
“No matter how much they will try to intimidate us, the truth will come out. We have too many supporters to let this happen again”, insists van de Water.
Related reading: Wildlife tourism in Thailand: Cruel and exploitative?
Susannah Waters is associate editor at The Scavenger.
Images from top: Abused elephant in Surin; Group of elephants at Elephant Nature Park; and abused elephant in Kanchanaburi province, all courtesy of Bring the Elephant Home.