“I think there’s a deeper lesson, somewhere in here.” I say, clinging to a steel bar frame welded to the bed of a small truck. A plastic tarp stretches over us to shade us from the flaming Thai sun. This same tarp effectively catches clouds of diesel exhaust to perfume our ambiance, so I stick my head out of the grating to find clear air, ears flopping in the wind like those of a cocker spaniel on a joy ride. Six tourists/new friends, plus Andrew, and I cling to our places on a weakly cushioned bench as the truck weaves around mountain curves and pass motor scooters at full speed. It’s an exhilarating ride home from an even more exhilarating day.
I met an elephant. Not just one elephant, but several elephants! I even met a baby elephant. It was everything I thought it would be and more. They are cuter than I imagined, even larger than I imagined, and each have loads of personality. Now, I am riding in the back of this highway death trap afloat a high of Elephant Magic, tethered only by a higher than usual measure of existential guilt.
For years, I have imagined peering into the hazel eye of one of these 11,000 pound sentient beings, my hair fanned by the breeze of ears folding and flopping like flags. But, I had not done any research in this regard until we actually laid anchor on the coast of Phuket. “Where we should go to meet an elephant?” Andrew asks. He is as excited about the prospect of meeting an elephant as I am. I type in “Elephants Thailand” and Google quickly brings me a list of links with dire warnings:
“NEVER RIDE AN ELEPHANT!” I click.
Link after link explained a horrific tale of baby elephants captured or illegally bred for the tourism industry. “The calves are often subjected to a 'breaking in' process, which may involve being tied up, confined, starved, beaten and tortured; as a result, two-thirds may perish. Handlers use a technique known as the training crush, in which nails are driven into the elephants ears and feet and/or the elephants are subject to sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to "break" the elephants' spirit and make them submissive to their owners. Hile, J. (2002). "Activists Denounce Thailand's Elephant "Crushing" Ritual". National Geographic Society.
“What??? Noooooo!” I say. “I don’t want to support an industry that abuses baby elephants!”
Andrew blinks at me, silent for his typical seven minutes of contemplation time. He’s not ready to abandon his opportunity to meet an elephant in person. “I’m sure we can find a good place that doesn’t hurt the elephants.”
We research to find an ethical elephant “sanctuary”, an operation that purportedly rescue elephants from logging, circus, “elephant riding” or other industries that would otherwise abuse them and/or put them to death at the end of their “useful” life. These sanctuaries often boast their handlers “never use bull hooks” which is sharply pointed hook elephant handlers use to give an elephant a stab in a sensitive part of their body to get their attention. “Well, that’s good,” I think uneasily, until I read further and find that even some sanctuaries are not a reliable option for visiting elephants. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2018/aug/11/how-ethical-is-the-elephant-sanctuary-youre-visiting.
Despite all this, elephants are held in almost mystical regard in Thailand. If there is one figure that might compete with the number of Buddhas that exist in Thailand, it would be elephant figures. They are everywhere! Even the bushes are carved into the shape of elephants. Indeed, many of the temples include a theme honoring elephants, and these figures are bestowed with reverence, prayers, and offerings. All this honor reflects the elephant’s helpful history. For centuries, humans domesticated elephants as beasts of burden. Elephants helped build the strength of the Kingdom of Siam. They acted as warriors to defend the nation, provided transportation, worked to harvest trees for the logging industry, and most recently help rake in the tourist gold that flows like waterfalls here.
So, why wouldn’t live elephants be treated as well as the stone carvings that depict them?
Answer: They are expensive and hard to handle.
For much of this history, the people of the Karen Hill-Tribe in Thailand were responsible training and handling elephants. (In English, we call a professional elephant handler a Mahout.) For a long time, the art of being a Mahout was a respected profession. The Mahout formed a life-long bond with his elephant, taking on the responsibility to ensure the elephant is well fed, healthy, strong, and responsive when called into duty - whatever that might be. The elephant lived with the Mahout’s family on family land. The training and techniques to be a Mahout were passed down through generations of men to their sons. This close relationship formed a bond between the elephant and the Mahout, a loyalty between both, making both human and elephant well off and reliable workers for whatever they were employed to do.
The trouble started when the elephant’s job prospects diminished. Tanks, airplanes, and jeeps took their place in wartime jobs. Cars, trucks, and tuk-tuks replaced elephants as transportation. Then, in 1989, the Thai government tried to do something good to protect its own ecology and banned logging. As with most actions there are unintended consequences. Suddenly, the Thai Mahouts owned a 4-5 ton eating machine with the capacity to live 50-60 years, and had no employment to support it. Doing the only thing they could think of, they took to the streets with their elephants to offer rides and tricks to tourists.
Predictably, the tourists loved it.
But, this barely paid the bills. At the time, tourists were largely exploring the cities, and the cities were not a habitable place for an elephant to be. Elephants need to eat and drink a lot! One South East Asian Elephant consumes up to 150kg/330 lbs of plant matter and between 80-200 liters of fresh water per day! Add to that, the water needed to bathe the elephant, and land needed to keep it from going crazy in a confined space, and the city is a very difficult place to keep an elephant. With these realities in mind, fewer and fewer people were willing to devote their professions to being a Mahout. They simply couldn’t afford to feed their family in that line of work.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and desperate measures usually create a situation ripe for exploitation. With the elephants still looking for work, and Mahouts unable to support them, tourist operations sprung up purchasing the elephant from the Mahout for next to nothing. They did not hire and pay the Mahout, but instead hired inexperienced (cheaper!) handlers and separated the elephant from the Mahout he or she had known all its life. This resulted in less effective training and handling of the elephants, causing more elephants to go berserk. The new handlers resorted to more and more violent training tactics - until of course, the tourists complained. When tourists started complaining about bull hooks, the tourist operations removed the offending tools.
Mahouts and tourists alike began dying more frequently as a result of elephant inflicted injuries.
The Mahouts tried to explain: “I use a bullhook because some elephants we cannot control with our hands….Humans are small. Elephants spook easily and are dangerous. If elephants get scared, they kill people.” https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/05/elephants-tourism-thailand/483138/ One mahout recounted the time an American tourist told him he deserved to die for using a bullhook to control his elephant. “Then the tourist pulled out a smartphone and demanded a picture of himself, sitting on that very same elephant’s trunk.” Id.
This can’t be good for a tourism based industry! It seems it should be self correcting. But, when something goes wrong with the elephants, the Mahouts are charged with crimes relating to “reckless” behavior or negligence, but the businesses themselves are not subject to repercussions. The businesses, therefore, have no incentive to improve training methods, institute safety pro-cautions, or care for the Mahout or his family once he is injured or dead. I don’t think there is Mahout MSHA, OSHA, or Workers’ Compensation Insurance here.
So, what should we do? Many of the websites discussing these problems suggest the only ethical option for the tourist is to not go. “Don’t ride an elephant; don’t even visit sanctuaries! Neither elephants nor mahouts should be exploited for our tourism entertainment.”
I considered this suggestion for a long time, but in the end, we decided to go. More on that, in the next post.