- - Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Leaving Chiang Mai, Thailand, and driving through the hills and mountains, I was giddy with anticipation. This was the day I had been most looking forward to during my time in that country. My heart pounded, and I could feel my nervous excitement as the car crunched up a dirt road.

And suddenly, there they were. Two massive and beautiful elephants and two babies – not even 2 weeks old – running and falling over their own chubby legs, much like newborn horses. I was nervous to interact with these babies. Wouldn’t the mother be protective?

Not at all, I was told. She knows no harm will come to them here.

With a huge smile, I knew I had found the right place to interact with these gentle giants. I had done my research, but found varying degrees of what “elephant conservation” means in Thailand.

It is hard to travel to Thailand and not interact with elephants in some manner. They used to be the country’s national symbol, and images of these creatures permeate almost every tourist guidebook. Through centuries in that part of the world, elephants have been used for transportation, logging and were even instrumental during times of war. In 1989, the Thai government banned all logging in protected areas, which put many logging elephants out of work. However, this coincided with the rise in tourism, which was able to employ many elephants.

Unfortunately, human exploitation has led to a rise in threats against Thai elephants and a dramatic decrease in their numbers. It is thought that there are approximately 1,000-2,000 elephants living in the wild, although there has not been an official record since 1991. These numbers continue to decline because of loss of habitat. There are three-times as many domesticated elephants than there are in the wild. Generally, the elephant populations in the wild continue to decrease, while the domesticated numbers increase.

Another big problem is illegal capture and trade for use in the tourism industry. Elephant-related tourism thrives here because foreign visitors all want to pay good money for the privilege of riding one, or watching them do tricks – painting or even kicking a soccer ball. But the unfortunate fact is that wild elephants must be tamed before they can be ridden, and this is accomplished through a brutal process called Phajaan, or “the crush.”

This is not to say that elephants should not be domesticated. Tourism is most likely the future for them, rather than their roles in past centuries. However, the challenge now is to make it as elephant-friendly as possible. An elephant’s mahout, or handler, can use a variety of means to control the animal. Some still utilize the metal bull-hook, nails and even slingshots to the eyes, while some use positive reinforcement – such as food and words – instead of beatings.

And the most common activity for tourists, riding atop the back of an elephant in a wooden box, can actually cause them great harm. Their spines were not designed to carry weight in the middle, where the seats are placed. However, they are able to cope with weight around the neck and shoulders, where a mahout traditionally sits.

Many tourists are simply thrilled to have a photo taken next to and atop an elephant, without realizing the intrinsic torture this animal experiences on a daily basis. Elephants have complex social systems, much like humans, and are highly cognitive. But many of the tourist organizations keep the elephants chained up where they cannot socialize, play or comfort the other elephants, which ultimately can have a devastating psychological effect.

The good news is that the wider elephant tourism industry recognizes the need to curtail abuses, although there continues to be disagreements about what the levels of abuse would be. Before, no one believed you could control a five-ton animal without a metal hook, but that belief is slowly changing as many have begun to instead use a bamboo stick. It’s a start.

I personally wanted to correctly experience the caretaking of an elephant, without the use of any violence. I found a few elephant conservation farms, such as the Elephant Nature Park and Patara Elephant Farm, which have a well-defined focus on elephant welfare and reproduction.

Ultimately, I went to Patara, where I spent a day working with my own elephant and its mahout, learning the Thai words and hand signals that would control the animal, how to check to make sure she was healthy (including sniffing and sifting through her dung – which wasn’t as bad as you would think), feeding her, and riding bareback through the jungle to the river where she was bathed and scrubbed clean.

This was a much more authentic and personal elephant-friendly experience with Thailand’s emblematic animal, one that you wouldn’t have simply riding in a wooden box or watching them paint pictures.

So while brutal elephant training has been a traditional practice in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years, the problem now is that most captive elephants are used for the function of entertaining tourists rather than the former traditional purposes. Our demand for rides and circus acts leads to more baby elephants being kidnapped from their mothers. Officials estimate that one Burmese elephant is smuggled into Thailand every week to be sold into the tourism industry.

This will continue to be an ongoing dialogue about what is safe for elephants, economically viable for their caretakers and entertaining for visitors, which will hopefully ultimately lead to a more humane industry.

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