Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Plight of the Asian Elephant Part 1

Land mine victim since 1999
Land mine victim since 2011
When most people think of elephants they think of the giants of African plains and Asian rainforests. I’ve never met someone that didn’t like an elephant. They draw big crowds at zoos and oo’s and awes on safaris and no one goes to Southeast Asia without coming back with a great elephant trekking story. Well I’ve returned from Southeast Asia and I don’t have an elephant trekking story to share. I did not sit in a wooden throne balanced upon an elephants back, nor did I watch in wonder as an elephant guided his paintbrush into a bucket of paint and across a blank canvas. I saw no elephants play soccer or dunk basketballs. I am one of a few travellers that  ventured to Thailand without any intention of buying into the typical elephant tourism.  Ok I admit that I was interested in the painting aspect but that was until I read more about it.

Did you know that a century ago 100,000 elephants roamed the forests of Thailand? Did you know that a decade ago that number was down to 25,000? How about in 2011, how many Asian elephants do you think survive today? 20,000? 15,000? How about 5,000. It took 90 years for 75,000 elephants to fade into memory and only 10 for 20,000 to vanish. It is scary to think that within this decade they may disappear altogether.

Broken back from over breeding
The Asian elephant is to Thailand what hockey is to Canada. It is a national symbol existing proudly as one of the most important cultural icons. At one time they were the nations loggers, tractors, tanks and above all, most sacred creatures.  Today they are losing their fight to have a place in modern Thailand. It is not uncommon to see a young elephant begging for money on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Carrying bags of fruit an elephant and his mahout approach tourists who pay to feed the elephant. It is an excellent way to make money but elephants weren’t meant to live in a city. They are too sensitive to vibrations and sounds to be completely engulfed by them and this environment is enough to drive an elephant mad.

Land mine victim since the age of 11 months
Elephant trekking camps exist all over the country, especially in Thailand’s second largest city, the northernly located Chiang Mai. You can’t walk 10 feet in Chiang Mai without coming across a poster and brochures embezzled with phrases like “Train to become a mahout!” “See the jungles of Thailand onboard your very own elephant!” Your very own elephant? Well how can anyone resist that! I mean I’m sure everyone has at one point in his or her life thought, geez I want an elephant! “Play soccer with the largest animal on earth!” “Watch as our elephants create masterpieces right in front of your eyes!” It’s tempting and all the hype can overwhelm even the most conscientious traveler.

Many people are unaware that many elephants used for trekking are worked nonstop. They head out with a rider or 2 and have a half second of rest before the next interested party hops onboard. Often elephants are guided by mahouts to paint using a nail concealed in the mahouts hand and pressed against the elephants trunk. People treat their cars better than many elephant trekking and elephant tourism places treat their elephants.

Of course before an elephant can be used to haul equipment or people they have to be trained. To train an elephant many believe it’s important to break its spirit. They are taken away from their mothers and put into an enclosure just big enough for them to fit. Then they are tied, beaten and starved for days until they are willing to submit to their masters. It is a shockingly cruel procedure that many deem a necessity. 

Stressed aggressive male
There is some hope however with more and more tourists jumping on the eco-friendly tour bandwagon. In part 2 of this entry I will tell what some amazing Thai's and foreigners are doing to ensure that these fantastic beasts are around for years to come! Trust me when I say you can have an amazing elephant related holiday without the hype, cruelty and cheap factor.


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