Let go of yourself, throw caution to the wind, take in only the present moment and just feel that sense wash over you: adventure. All good advice, it is true, and a worthy slogan for your journey. Yet, when is it ever just that simple? One of the most adventurous and exotic sensations must be astride an elephant. These enormous beasts, capable of squishing all that zealous life out of you with a careless flick of their trunk, are now hinging their survival in many parts of the world on tourists.
In Africa, the Safari-based tourism industry is a huge boon to conservationists, their presence ensuring a flow of income and a certain amount of security for the lands the wildlife roams. In Asia, the case is a little different, as said roam-able lands have been diminished to almost nothing, in terms of viable habitat. In Vietnam the elephant population is all but gone. In Thailand, a slight majority of all elephants in the country are employed in the tourist trade. In Burma, logging, illegal poaching and the changing conditions in the country set the elephants on an ever more precarious ledge.
So why does this matter?
Why is it important that you are reading this? Is it not enough to be a part of this tourist economy, pay to see and perhaps ride on the back of an elephant and support their continued presence on the earth? Well yes, and no, and maybe. There are so many shades of grey to this tale that at times it is hard to discern the outline of an elephant at all.
Elephant Training Methods
Here’s the stitch: elephant training methods stretch back 2,000 years in Asia and along the way something has been lost. The exhibitions of bloody cruelty that are carried out today do bear some resemblance to the methods of old, yet the place of elephants in culture and economy has altered their perception from that of a valued member of society to a dying relic, hanging on to human civilization by a thread. The average elephant owner these days struggles with his charge as a burden, as modernity and its trappings further push the pair to the fringes.
Tourism has become the refuge of many. They beg on city streets (though that is mostly illegal), give rides and perform in circus-style shows. Along with the fall from grace has come a loss of the true core of what it means to be a “mahout”, or elephant keeper. No longer are boys taught the family profession from a young age. Many modern-day mahouts have no experience and took the job as just that: a job.
You see, training an animal isn’t just about teaching it to perform tricks. It’s a slow build of trust and mutual respect between two beings; this is a lifelong commitment to a process on the part of humans. Cultivating such a state takes much time, especially in the beginning. The shortcut is to abuse the animal so severely as to “break” its spirit, rendering it most often in a state not dissimilar to “traumatic dissociation.” This seems the easiest route, but ultimately creates dangerous and unpredictable animals, who bend only to the will of the man with the big, sharp hook.
And so it is that any elephant you see performing for tourists – and I mean this comprehensively – has been abused into submission. Methods include unnecessary separation from all family members at as a baby and a long time before weaning age, forced isolation, physical violence and emotional abuse all accumulating within the elephant as a taught fear of severe retribution upon “disobeying” an order. I feel this is not the place to go into more detail; there are plenty of resources and sanctuaries out there with great information, and you have not asked to be assaulted with horrors in the reading this passage.
Elephant Poaching Trade in Thailand
Finally, particularly in Thailand, the tourism industry is often directly supporting an illegal poaching trade, whereby baby elephants are taken from the wild and fake papers created to comply with all too easily circumventable laws on the slaughter and transport of wild elephants. Because of the stresses involved in the training process and subsequent physically, socially and emotionally poor quality of life, it is notoriously difficult to successfully breed elephants in captivity. It is not uncommon that a mother will kill the baby as soon as it is born.
Thankfully there is something you can do. When on a trip, you can decline attending an elephant show. You may decide to visit a sanctuary instead, or call the police when you see an elephant on city streets. You can choose to arrange your travel so that you leave as small a footprint behind as possible, in terms of the local scenery, local economy and local culture. The choices and behaviour of tourists have deeper reaching effects than most comprehend.