One of the typical tourist experiences in Thailand is to attend an elephant show, where one can see elephants doing tricks, spinning hoops with their legs, playing with balls, turning in circles, the things everyone has probably seen in a circus act. Their mahouts, or keeper/trainers ride their backs as they “play soccer” with others or race from one side of a field to another.
All looks cute and happy to the unsuspecting tourist, but most do not know what goes on behind the scenes.
The Ugly Truth Behind Domesticated Elephants
To have an elephant submit to being enslaved, they are separated from their mothers when young, and put through a “crush,” where they are tied by all four limbs and/or confined to a tiny cage.
For the next three to seven days, the animal is beaten, stabbed, teased, and otherwise tortured, until its spirit is crushed and it listens to humans and obeys. Four out of ten elephants put through this will not survive the abuse. The other six will continue as working elephants, in whatever capacity their owner can manage.
What Working Elephants Do
Some will end up on the city streets, where they beg for money from tourists. Babies and handicapped elephants are more valuable in this profession, because cuteness and pity attract more money.
Max, an enormous male elephant who died earlier this year (April, 2009), was hit by a truck and dragged through the street, which permanently injured his legs but did not kill him. He continued to beg in the streets until he was rescued and spent the final 6-1/2 years of his long life at the Park.
Some elephants end up logging, in neighboring countries such as Burma, since logging was banned in 1988 in Thailand, in a move to try to protect the remaining forest. Many logging elephants suffer injuries from landmines or falling logs, in addition to wounds that get infected, parasites, and exhaustion.
Forced So-Called Breeding Programs
Many elephants, especially the old or handicapped, are forced into “breeding programs,” where females are restrained by all four limbs while a bull elephant rapes them.
One of the females at the Park, Medo, limps from a broken hip and back as a result of such a forced mating. The male elephant was so vicious, and so heavy, she was left screaming and bleeding and nearly died. She spent three years fighting for her life, and the next 15 years in isolation, before finding freedom at the Park.
Other animals become trekkers, forced to carry tourists on their backs for hours daily, in wooden seats atop their backs, which often cause infection and pain.
Some animals become enraged after years or decades of abuse and turn on humans, injuring strangers or their handlers, and sometimes even killing their mahouts.
Many animals are given drugs: sedatives to keep them quiet when in stressful conditions; uppers to keep them working even when they have no strength or will to continue.
Sometimes animals give up hope and stop eating, or refuse to continue to work, lie down, and do not get up.
Owners resort to beating them, shooting them, poking their eyes out, anything they can, to get the animal up again. A non-working animal means no money coming in, a lot going out, for the up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of food an elephant eats every day.
A Ray of Hope
For some elephants, Lady Luck steps in to help. The Elephant Nature Park, in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, is a sanctuary where rescued elephants are allowed to live freely. They can mingle with others, or not, depending on what they feel like. Many choose to spend time alone, recovering from mental problems, such as fear, rage, depression, or catatonia.
Most join with others in small groups, who stay in contact and form lifelong bonds of friendship and nurturing. Some animals are reunited with friends they have known earlier in their lives. Often the animal’s history is unknown, but sometimes we can piece enough together to figure out that two elephants used to beg in the streets of Bangkok years ago, for example, and rediscovered each other at the Park.
History of Elephant Nature Park
Started in the 1980’s by founder Sangduen (“Lek”) Chailert, the Park strives to be more than just a home in the mountains for rescued animals. Other programs work to educate mahouts and elephant owners and provide free care and medicine to working animals; provide jobs and income for neighboring villages, who grow pesticide-free crops for the animals; spread the word and educate people about working elephant reality; and protect the remaining forest.
How You Can Help Elephants
You can help by volunteering for a day, overnight, or longer, at the Park. You can work planting fields and building a natural sanctuary in Surin Province in Thailand, with the eventual goal of one day housing 300 elephants. You can spread the word about what goes on in the elephants’ lives. You can choose to not give money to businesses who enslave animals and force them to work for our entertainment. You can refuse to buy ivory or products made with it. Most African elephants who are killed are poached for their tusks, which are carved into trinkets.
Elephants are a source of income for people in Thailand. The government has been unwilling to enforce laws, not that there are many. Domestic elephants are treated as livestock, with no regulations or protections. There is no humane society, no society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, no laws against cruelty or abuse whatsoever.
Lek Chailert, Elephant Crusader
Why would one tiny woman choose to go up against an entire nation and the Thai culture, who supposedly reveres elephants and claims their presence as domestic animals is part of the culture that cannot be changed? Find out for yourself in this video interview:
Hear what happened to one elephant, that made Lek swear to take on this life mission, no matter how enormous the odds.
Lek also tells the story of blind Jokia and Mae Perm, the grandmotherly female who adopted her, digging ditches around Jokia and covering them with grass. What caused them to do such a strange thing?
Amazing Grace: the Elephant who was blind but now can see
Jokia is blind because her former owner shot her eyes out with a slingshot and arrows, trying to get her to stand up and go back to work. She had given birth while logging, but her baby rolled down a hill and died. Distraught and depressed, she lay down and refused to work. When she came to the Park, Mae Perm immediately adopted her. Now they are constant companions.
I had a chance to witness Mae Perm’s astounding gentleness for myself firsthand on my visit to the Park in November, 2009. I chose to spend my Thanksgiving Day with the elephants.
At feeding time, blind Jokia stood patiently, with her mouth open, ready to accept any food that came her way. Other elephants pulled food from our hands, wrapping their muscular, strong trunks around pumpkin, sugar cane, watermelon, and hands of bananas. When I fed Mae Perm, I noticed her gentleness immediately. Her tenderness was astounding. She lightly grasped the food and pulled it softly into her mouth.
After lunch time and a quick dip in the river, she and Jokia stood side by side on the river bank. I scratched and rubbed Mae Perm’s side with my hands, and she leaned her tiny (in comparison to the other adult elephants, that is) body into me. She is one of the smallest adults in the herd of now 35 animals.
Some facts about elephants:
These are Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, the smaller cousins to African elephants. Asian elephants have smaller, rounder ears, two bumps on their foreheads, and only the males produce large tusks.
Lifespan is similar to that of humans: between 70-90 years if they have a happy life.
Mistreated animals live only about 50 years.
They are endangered and live in parts of Thailand, Malaysia, India, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Bangladesh, and southern China. Adult females, babies and young males live in small herds in jungle areas and are very elusive and difficult to spot. Older males are more solitary and spend time with other males or come together with groups to mate.
Elephants are Herbivores
They are vegetarians and consume up to 300 pounds of grasses, fruits, bark, and leaves every day. They weigh between 5,000-12,000 pounds (2,000 to 5,000 kg) and stand 6 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters) tall. Pregnancy lasts 22 months, and cows usually give birth to one calf every two to four years. Babies (calves) are about 3 feet tall (0.9 meters) and weight 200 pounds (90 kilograms).
Their trunks contain about 100,000 different muscles and have one finger-like projection at the end. They use their trunks to smell, breathe, pick up things, wrap around trees and logs, lift, carry, pull, suck and spray water and dirt. They are highly sensitive and tactile and touch each other often, putting their trunks into each other’s mouths, stroking each other gently, and sniffing.
How Do Elephants Communicate?
Vocalizations include trumpets, moans, bellows, gurgles, and rumbles. Studies with African elephants have found low-frequency (below the range of human hearing) sounds that travel for several miles and are believed to be used in communications with faraway herds.
My favorite is a hollow, low, smooth rumbling sound they make, which is a kind of calling, like, “I’m over here, by the way.” To listen to elephant rumbles and other vocalizations, go to http://www.elephanttag.org/Professional/professional_discoveries.html
Amazing Elephant Memory
An elephant never forgets is popular saying, which points to an amazing memory. Lek tells the story of a mahout she tried to hire, and how one elephant’s behavior forced the man to tell the truth about what he did to the elephant twelve years earlier.
For More Information
I’m privileged to have been able to spend time with these gentle, intelligent, gigantic, powerful animals. I have witnessed firsthand how graceful, emotional, and sensitive they can be. You can read about my day at the park here.
For more information, go to elephantnaturepark.org
You can also support the Park by purchasing one of my elephant products, which have been designed with photos taken at the Park. Part of the proceeds from the sale of all elephant products at my store will be sent back, to support the important, heartfelt work being done by Lek, her staff, and numerous volunteers.
Find elephant products at my shop.