13 Jun The Harsh Truth About Riding Elephants in Thailand
Like most people planning a trip to Thailand, I had my heart set on riding an elephant. It was on the top of my bucket list and I was anticipating on finally crossing it off. I was imagining how incredible the pictures would turn out, sitting atop an adorable elephant in the midst of the jungle. I mean, who doesn’t want to come back from Thailand saying they’ve ridden on one of these gentle giants?
As it turns out, riding an elephant is no longer on my bucket list, as in removed for good. You see, before our trip to Thailand, one of our friends had mentioned elephants have weak spines and can’t support the weight of humans. This startled me, so I did some research. There is gruesome truth to elephant tourism in Thailand that most people aren’t aware of — I don’t blame them. We’re heavily influenced by the photos people share on social media, and of course a picture on an elephant has got to be one of the most epic shots ever, considering elephants are such photogenic creatures.
But here’s what you didn’t know about these elephants in Thailand.
THEY DON’T LIKE BEING RIDDEN ON
Riding an elephant is by far one of the most cruel wildlife entertainment activity. Period.
For starters, it isn’t in an elephant’s nature to be ridden on. In fact, they absolutely hate it. The only way to make this possible is to crush their “elephant spirit”, also known as the Thailand tradition, the Phajaan. This method is a cruel act which consists of poaching baby elephants (usually between 3-6 years old, sometimes younger) away from their families and training them to become submissive to humans. Of course, elephants are highly protective of their infants, so in order to prevent being attacked by them, they must be killed. This brutal act is witnessed by the baby elephant. I’d like to mention that these fragile creatures are extremely family-oriented — they love sticking together in herds. So can you imagine what these elephants go through when they are torn from their families?
BREAKING THE ELEPHANT SPIRIT (PHAJAAN)
Once these baby elephants have been captured, they undergo the most excruciating training. They are either confined in a small hole in the ground, a tight crate, or tied up in every way possible, unable to move as their legs and trunk are stretched out by ropes. And it doesn’t stop there. These poor babies are ritualistically stabbed, burned, and beaten with sharp bull hooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails. They slash the elephant’s skin, pierce their heads, and stretch out their ears. They are also starved, and deprived of sleep and water. This will go on for several days or even weeks to instill fear in the elephants, forcing them to submit to their trainer.
Don’t believe me? Watch this video if you dare:
Here’s a famous photo of a tortured baby elephant captured by Brent Lewin:
Okay, I don’t know about you, but when I get a paper cut, that sh*t hurts like hell. I can’t even imagine the pain and suffering these elephants undergo. Their wounds are left untreated and it’s not just physical torture they experience. The Phajaan mentally manipulates the minds of these elephants, leaving them mentally and emotionally abused, lonely, confused and isolated.
Because elephants have exceptionally good memory, they will never forget this torment. This is why they are continually beaten throughout their lives with bull hooks and nails long after the Phajaan. Their mahouts (trainers) do this to remind them of their place, so that they don’t act out when they are being ridden on, or when they are forced to work in the tourism industry. These fearful elephants have no choice but to abide, just to avoid being hurt again.
Are you convinced yet?
It’s terribly saddening to see our own kind abusing their power and treating these poor elephants like slaves. Have we not learned through our mistakes in history?
Despite the size of these gentle giants, they have weak points — the spine is one of them. They cannot support the weight of humans. When they are constantly carrying people on their backs, it can lead to permanent spinal injuries due to inflammation between the vertebrae and pressure to nerves. Asian elephants have protruding spines, making them more vulnerable to pressure. Imagine carrying a 50 pound backpack on your back all day. I know I immediately get back pains when I carry just my laptop alone in my backpack for only a couple of hours. It’s not any different for elephants, except they don’t actually have a choice. They can’t take breaks anytime they want.
What’s even worse is riding an elephant with a Howda (saddle/chair) on their back, It rubs against their sensitive skin causing blisters that can eventually lead to infections. In addition, elephants used for trekking causes wear and tear on their feet. Doing this long-term also causes foot infections and injuries.
When you’re trying to go against nature, you will never win. This goes to saying that because it’s not in an elephant’s nature to carry anything on their backs, there is a huge risk of them going on a rampage. There are numerous stories of tourists dying by being thrown off and then attacked by an elephant. You better believe that these emotionally unstable and worn out elephants could have outbreaks at any moment.
Read about this recent indecent of a man on holiday killed by an elephant right in front of his 16 year old daughter:
There are so many stories of elephants collapsing into death for being overworked! It disgusts me that the human race is responsible for the massive decline in elephant health and population.
ELEPHANTS ARE ENDANGERED
Back in the 1900’s, there were approximately 300,000 wild elephants and 100,000 captive elephants in Thailand. Today, there is an estimated 3,000-4,000 elephants remaining. Sheesh! What a huge decrease in population. This is very devastating as elephants are such incredible animals.
AVOID THESE THINGS
What about elephant painting and circus acts?
Cruel. Cruel. Cruel.
Any time an elephant is used for entertainment, it’s usually not a good sign. Again, painting, playing basketball, standing up on its hind legs, etc., is not natural for an elephant. The reason they can perform these acts is through immense torture.
For instance, did you know that elephants who paint take about a month to learn to hold a brush properly? They have to insert the brush up their extremely-sensitive-and-full-of-nerve-endings trunk. That’s got to be awfully uncomfortable for them. On top of that, their brush movements are guided by their mahouts using painful prods. Mahouts will usually have a nail hidden in their hands and shoved into the soft tissue of the elephant’s ear. They will keep a tight grip, tugging right or left, manipulating the brush stroke of the elephant. And of course, when they fail to paint correctly, they are beaten with a bull hook.
I mean, do you seriously think elephants aspire to become the next Picasso? Have you seen an elephant in the wild painting for fun?
Furthermore, look out for elephants who are kept in chains around their ankles, and especially if you see their mahouts carrying a bull hook around because they most likely beat their elephants.
ETHICAL ELEPHANT RIDES?
What about companies that offer “ethical” elephant rides?
This is such a controversial topic, which I’m not going to discuss too much. But here’s the gist of it.
Those companies may not beat, hurt, or utilize prods such as bull hooks to keep their elephants in check, but rather treat them with respect. However, they will offer elephant rides to tourists.
Riding an elephant bareback and on their neck is the least harmful way to ride an elephant. However, this doesn’t mean that it could still potentially hurt them long-term.
My take on this is, why risk the health of endangered animals in the first place when you could interact with them in other ways?
WHAT CAN YOU DO INSTEAD
I hope that I have convinced you to remove riding an elephant off your bucket list and to stop supporting any kind of harmful elephant entertainment in general. Please have some compassion for these loving and endangered animals.
If you want to see and interact with an elephant, you will have a rather enriching experience visiting a sanctuary. You can help feed, bathe, and walk them instead. You’ll get more contact with the elephants, as opposed to just sitting on top of them. You’ll get to learn about their body language, emotions, and unique personalities. There is no better feeling in knowing you are caring for these animals and letting them be free in their natural habitat.
The humane sanctuary that I went to in Thailand was called Elephant Nature Park. I just love everything about what they do, especially how they care for their elephants. There are a lot of places in Thailand that offer the same thing.
Here’s a list of reputable tour companies in Thailand:
11 FUN FACTS ABOUT ELEPHANTS
1. The main risks to elephants is from poaching and changing their habitat by humans.
2. No, elephant’s do not like peanuts.
3. They are family-oriented. Elephant herds are considered to be the most closely knit societies of all animals.
4. They can recognize their own reflections.
5. Elephants have sensitive skin. They throw sand on their back and head to protect themselves from sunburn.
6. They sleep standing up.
7. They have insanely good memory and can recall a memory in the past.
8. They’re emotional. They can comprehend a variety of feelings including grief, joy, anger, and a desire to play.
9. It takes 2 years for a pregnant elephant to give birth.
10. They have funerals. Elephants will gather and mourn the death of elephants in the community.
11. They have the largest brains. Elephants have the most developed hippocampus than any other animal, making them excellent learners.
HELP SAVE ELEPHANTS BY SPREADING AWARENESS
I know that not many people are aware of this selfish and thoughtless act. But I hope that after educating yourself you realize that having your picture taken atop an elephant is not more important than endangering their lives.
Just because elephants don’t have a voice, doesn’t mean they don’t have the capacity to love, suffer, or feel any kind of emotion. They still communicate with us, we just aren’t listening. They have every right to enjoy and be here on earth just as much as you.
Use your voice for something good. Have compassion, do what’s humane, and help save these loving creatures by allowing them to be free and by spreading awareness to others.
And most importantly, stop riding elephants!
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