Some time ago, Emma’s post on riding an elephant in Thailand popped up in my Google alerts.
I posted a comment, and Emma and I began an exchange that lasted all afternoon and continued on email… Then Emma very graciously asked if I would write a guest post.
Elephants are much like humans
Elephants are among the most amazing beings on earth – huge but peaceable, majestic and playful (and, yes, cute), wise and long-lived. We’re naturally drawn to them.
Elephants are also one of the species most like humans
- Their natural lifespan is 60 to 70 years and follows the same progression as ours, from childhood through old age.
- They live in tight-knit families consisting of mothers, aunties and cousins, and have larger social networks of friends and acquaintances. Females stay with their families all their lives; males go off on their own or begin to travel with loose bachelor herds in their early adolescence.
- The entire family is involved in raising the young. Elephants are not born knowing what they need to know to survive — they must be taught.
- Elephants are intelligent, sensitive and emotionally complex. They have incredible memories, and strategize and plan.
Actually, it’s too bad humans aren’t more like elephants. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder of a world famous elephant orphanage outside Nairobi, says that elephants have all the good qualities of human beings but none of the bad.
Elephants in captivity in Asia
Brutality is deeply embedded in elephant training in Asia (a friend of mine who has worked with elephants in Asia for a number of years calls it institutionalized cruelty).
This four-minute video shows how a baby elephant’s spirit is broken in the crush, or phajaan. It is not easy to watch but if you can sit through even a minute of it, it will open your eyes.
This photo,which appeared on msnbc.com last year, shows a baby elephant being beaten into submission before she is smuggled from Burma to Thailand. The photo is not for the faint-hearted but the interview with photographer Brent Lewin is well worth reading.
I have no doubt that there are Asians who care about their elephants but they see them differently than we do – more as work animals. Especially in Thailand, elephants must earn their keep.
Add to that the fact that animal protection laws in Asia are lax to nonexistent and governments can be corrupt. In February, for instance, the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand was raided, allegedly because of questions about ownership of their animals. In truth, it was retaliation because the founder speaks out against the illegal elephant trade in the country.
When you’re a tourist in Asia
Unfortunately, when it comes to elephants, there are no really good tourist operations. This article ‘Why Elephant Riding Should be Removed from your Bucket List‘ sums up as well as anything I’ve read what you should know before you visit Thailand or any other country in Asia.
The problem is that when it comes to elephants you ride or watch paint or perform, it’s not what you see that counts, it’s what you don’t see. Because the breaking – the crush — and the training happen when you’re not there. (And, by the way, if you’ve seen videos of elephants painting – they’re trained and directed. Elephants have many extraordinary capabilities; fine art is not one of them.)
Another problem is that as a layperson, you or I have no way of judging an elephant’s welfare or happiness beyond obvious wounds or signs of distress. It takes someone with years of experience to see the subtle signals that all is not well.
What you can do
- Don’t feel guilty if you’ve ridden an elephant or gone to a tourist camp where elephants perform. Learn from it. We’re all learning. We want to believe the best of people, or at least we can’t believe people could purposely be cruel to animals!
- Learn about elephant tourism, especially before you visit Asia. A good place to start is the Elemotion website.
- Talk to your friends and family and anyone you meet who is visiting Asia. (And the same goes for Africa. Elephant-back safaris are to be avoided.)
- Support organizations doing good work. They include:
Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand http://www.wfft.org/
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/
Elephant Aid International (also works in Thailand and Nepal)
Elevisions – The blog of Carol Buckley, founder/president of Elephant Aid International
Wildlife SOS India http://www.wildlifesos.org/
In Sri Lanka
Amboseli Trust for Elephants – The longest study of wild elephants in the world.
Emma – Trumpets to you for inviting me to blog. Trumpets to all of you for reading. Please let me know if you have questions. I’m always happy to talk elephants.
P.S. A little about me: I’m a passionate elephant devotee who lives in Washington, DC. I’ve been involved with elephant welfare as a volunteer for about eight years. I pride myself on being a thorn in the side of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which wasted $52 million on a pathetic new elephant exhibit. And every spring, when Ringling Bros. comes to town, I photograph what I call the elephant POW march from the train to the Verizon Center. You can find my photos of the zoo and the march here (along with lots of other things you’re welcome to look at, too, or not. J ).
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