It's the last Saturday of the Lunar New Year holiday week in Koh Samui, Thailand, and excited Chinese tourists are lining up in the humid morning sunshine to climb onto a wooden platform and see the world from the back of an elephant.

Half a dozen tired-looking animals, with bench seats roped to their backs and led by mahouts (handlers) armed with bull-hooks, carry the holidaymakers on a 20-minute ride up the rutted tracks of a hillside some 2km from a string of resorts overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. As the elephants plod wearily, with couples and families snapping pictures from their backs, it seems a harmless and even sedentary way to spend a day away from the beach.

What the majority of visitors at the busy Island Safari wildlife park - many of whom booked their treks before leaving home as part of a package - do not realise, however, is that the rides have just restarted after a 13-day halt following the death of a Western tourist, who was gored and trampled to death. The elephant that killed 36-year-old Gareth Crowe and injured his teenage stepdaughter is shackled to a tree in full view of holidaymakers, just a few metres from the route on which the tourists are being taken.

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The elephant - 13-year-old Golf - rocks his head back and forth in what a leading wildlife campaigner says is a sign of "deep psychological disturbance", after having been isolated and tied up for nearly a fortnight. Park employees tell tourists he is sick and recovering from an injury, and that the park was closed for renovations.

The future for Golf is not clear; it is feared he will be quietly moved to another wildlife park and put back to work in a highly lucrative business in which an elephant can change hands for between US$40,000 and US$60,000.

What happened at Island Safari and the way a number of similar incidents have been handled raises troubling questions over the safety and ethics of elephant trekking in Thailand, a destination for four million visitors from mainland China and Hong Kong this year.

Crowe, from Scotland, died and Eilidh Hughes, 16, was injured when Golf threw them to the ground and attacked them after the Myanmese mahout, Saw Win Tun, got off to take pictures of the visitors. The 37-year-old handler was arrested and charged with failing to keep control of Golf after the February 1 incident. The mahout told police Crowe aggravated Golf by offering then withdrawing bananas, an allegation the deceased's stepdaughter has denied.

Police say it was Saw Win Tun's actions in getting off the elephant that led to the tragedy. Golf is thought to have become enraged because he was in what is called musth - the frenzied state male elephants go into during the mating season. The elephant is also reported to have been hit repeatedly by the mahout with his bull-hook in a desperate effort to bring him back under control before the killing. But as far as any official sanction against the park is concerned, the arrest of the mahout and the 13-day closure seem to have brought the issue to a close.

Island Safari visitors pay the equivalent of HK$325 each for a tour that includes an elephant show, a monkey show, a visit to a waterfall and demonstrations of Thai boxing and cooking, but begin with the trek.

AMONG THE FIRST OF THE morning's visitors are truck driver Antony Frith and his wife, Sue, from Britain, who booked their holiday, including the elephant trek, through a travel agent and left home after Crowe's death. They appear to be the only visitors aware of the incident, which received relatively little coverage internationally.

"We talked to our travel agent about cancelling the trek when we heard what happened but we decided to go ahead in the end," says Sue, 57. "We didn't realise we would be going to the same place where that terrible thing happened, though."

As they wait for their ride, the couple are shocked to see a mahout using his bull-hook to repeatedly hack at an elephant's head as he tries to guide the animal towards the mounting platform.

"You can see the scars on the elephants' heads where they've been beaten," Sue says. "It makes you feel quite depressed to see what goes on here."

Questioned directly about the incident, managers at Island Safari claim they have made two major changes since Crowe's death: now only female elephants are used for rides and mahouts are barred from getting off to take pictures of tourists.

But the apparent mistreatment of animals at the park extends beyond trekking. After the rides are over, visitors are herded into a small dusty arena where two young elephants kick footballs, spin hoops and sit up on their hind legs. In a tasteless finale, a French tourist is persuaded to lie topless on the ground while one of the elephants simulates kissing him and massaging his groin with its trunk in what the smirking compere calls a "honeymoon massage".

"It's disgusting - it's just so cruel," says another visitor, backpacker Amber Metcalfe, 23, who is horrified at the way the elephants were shackled in a small enclosure before the show. "Those poor elephants were on really short chains and they were shaking their heads from side to side repeatedly. They shouldn't be treated like that.

"We only wanted to go on a tour of the temples, but anything you book here always includes an elephant show."

That show is followed by an equally degrading display in which chained monkeys ride tricycles and perform push-ups and prayers. Visitors are then taken to a bamboo hut yards from where Golf is shackled for a Thai cookery demonstration. Tourists are taken in turns on a circular ox cart ride around the block and then taught how to prepare a Thai salad while, in the back-ground, Golf swings his head back and forth and lets out the occasional high-pitched howl.

People living next to the park say Golf "screamed and screamed" when he was first shackled in the clearing after the tragedy, suggesting he was being beaten. They say they shouted at park employees: "Don't kill him!"

Office staff at the resort later confirm the isolated elephant is Golf. One of them says she has been told he will soon be transferred to another wildlife park in Thailand.

"I don't know if he has been sold," she says.

Rogue elephants in Thailand are often "laundered" by being switched to different parks and put back to work, according to wildlife campaigners.

At least seven people have been killed by elephants at wildlife parks in Thailand in the past year, according to Thai newspaper reports - five of them mahouts who were in some instances killed in front of the tourists atop their elephants. In August last year, a terrified Chinese family of three had to be rescued after the elephant they were riding in the northern Thai resort of Chiang Mai gored its mahout to death in front of them and ran off into the jungle with them still on its back.

"GOLF'S SITUATION IS SADLY not at all unusual and it is well known that the traditional methods of training elephants are barbaric and that the elephant could have been through a lot of abuse in his short life," says Louise Rogerson, founder of the Hong Kong-based Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival foundation (Ears), which promotes responsible tourism and urges holidaymakers to visit only "elephant friendly" projects and sanctuaries.

"During the musth period, bulls experience heightened testosterone and act with heightened aggression. This can last for up to three months. During this time, bull elephants should not be used for rides at all. They require peace and careful management so they are not a danger to the public and other animals. There is often insufficient land at many of the camps and the bulls, similar to Golf, are shackled to a nearby tree, causing an even greater risk factor."

Rogerson adds, "The footage and images from Island Safari are typical of what we see in the field every day. It is clear from the head-bobbing and leg swinging that the elephants at Island Safari, like elephants at many other camps across Asia, and in circuses and zoos across the world, are displaying repetitive behaviour, which is a clear sign of physical or psychological stress."

In a telephone interview, Island Safari assistant managing director Samattapong Uttama denies Golf is being sold but says, "He will never work [in Samui] again … It hasn't been decided where he will be moved yet.

"The incident was not his fault."

Asked why employees are telling visitors Golf has been isolated because he is sick and that the park was closed for renovations, Samattapong says, "Their English is not very good, so maybe they chose the wrong vocabulary or words."

Questioned over whether it was appropriate to keep Golf chained and immobile so close to groups of tourists, Samattapong - speaking from another of Island Safari's parks, in Phuket - replies, "I will look into it. I will talk with my staff." A new home is being prepared for Golf in the Island Safari elephant camp, he says, "further away [from the public areas]".

He adds, "Immediately [after the incident] I instructed all my staff to look after the very good health of the elephants, and the tourists, of course … I have instructed my staff to observe the behaviour of the elephants all the time."

Duncan McNair, founder and chief executive of Save the Asian Elephants, says Golf's behaviour shows "deep upset and psychological malfunction" and warns that if the animal is put back to work with tourists, the results could be catastrophic.

"He has already been provoked by being beaten and hurt to the point where he has reacted and it has caused a human fatality," McNair says. "It is grossly irresponsible and shows the cynical approach of those who are commercially exploiting these poor creatures to put the animal back in a distressed and potentially dangerous state in direct contact with tourists, so the whole thing happens all over again."

What most tourists who support the elephant trekking industry fail to realise is that appalling cruelty is inflicted on young elephants to break their spirit and make them compliant, he says.

"If you keep your wits about you and your eyes open you will see the many scars and bruises and beatings that have been borne by the elephants. The fact they are complicit in allowing you to ride them is simply a signification that these wild animals have been beaten into submission so as to be usable in all these entirely unnatural activities."

He calls on tourists to boycott abusive parks and travel companies to stop advertising and selling elephant rides as part of holidays in Thailand.

The most troubling aspect of the story of Golf is that there appears to be little pressure for change.

At the Namuang Safari Park - the biggest elephant trekking centre on Koh Samui, some 20km from Island Safari - mahouts can be routinely seen leaving tourists alone on their elephants while they walk ahead to take pictures of the riders. At the nearby Baanchang Elephant Park, the mahouts do the same.

"That's the way they get their tips," a tour guide who has brought a Chinese family to the park explains, with a shrug.

With so much money riding on the backs of the elephants of Thailand, and a vast new market of mainland Chinese tourism to exploit, the prospects for Golf and thousands of other captive animals trapped in the industry look bleak.

​Cruel intentions

Elephant riding has been ranked the cruellest form of wildlife entertainment in a global survey by World Animal Protection - largely because of the brutal way in which their spirits are broken.

Using data collected by researchers at Britain's Oxford University, the report by the animal welfare charity says: "To make elephants submit to giving rides, they are taken from their mothers when babies and forced through a horrific training process known as 'the crush'. This typically involves restraining them in a small cage, or tying them in ropes or chains so that they can only move when commanded.

"Severe pain is often inflicted with pointed metal 'bull hooks' or wooden battens to quickly establish dominance. This process can take between a few days and a week. This process 'breaks' the young elephant's spirit so they will accept people riding on their back or other direct contact between tourists and elephants."

The trauma can stay with elephants throughout their lives, the report says, adding: "In elephant parks they are prevented from forming natural social relationships with each other. This is hugely damaging to their physical and psychological wellbeing, as is the size of their captive world. They are often kept on chains or in small enclosures and never allowed to roam freely as they would in the wild."

Captive elephants remain one of the most dangerous animals to handle and mahouts use bull-hooks to effect control, which can cause "serious injuries including infected sores and cuts".

In its cruelty top 10, the report ranks elephant rides above taking selfies with tigers; walking with lions; visiting bear parks; holding sea turtles; performing dolphins; dancing monkeys; visiting civet coffee plantations; charming snakes and kissing cobras; and farming crocodiles.

World Animal Protection estimates three out of four wildlife tourism attractions involve some form of animal abuse or conservation concerns, and up to 550,000 wild animals suffer in such venues globally.

An estimated 110 million people visit cruel wildlife tourist attractions every year unaware of the abuse involved, the charity believes.

Words and pictures: Red Door News Hong Kong