Dumbo unchained: how ethical elephant tourism in Thailand is changing the industry
Groups are trying to raise awareness of the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand and the importance of ethical tourism
Tourists love elephants. Every year, millions of visitors travelling to countries like Thailand and Cambodia enjoy riding on their backs, or watching them perform circus tricks like balancing on a stool or riding a custom-made bicycle.
But such entertainment comes at a horrific cost to the animals. In Thailand, elephant calves are routinely subjected to the phajaan - meaning "crushing" - ceremony, a centuries-old technique designed to break the animal's spirit and make it amenable to instruction.
"Calves are tethered between bamboo poles … food and water are withheld and beatings are rampant - the baby is forced into submission," says Louise Rogerson, founder and CEO of Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation (Ears).
Although the elephant is held in high esteem in Thailand - it appears on the country's flag, military insignia, beer labels and currency - the animals have been exploited through the centuries, in wars, as beasts of burden in the logging trade and killed for their ivory. Coupled with a shrinking habitat, the population in Thailand has dropped to fewer than 4,000 elephants, about 60 per cent of which are put to work in the tourism sector.
An animal welfare law adopted in November 2014 is a step forward, but animal rights groups have criticised the legislation as too vaguely worded, and enforcement is a challenge.
Much more has to be done because abuse is widespread and endemic, activists say.
Despite years of campaigning against the practice of crushing, Rogerson finds it "very difficult to convince any mahout [elephant owner] in Thailand not to put their elephant through [the ordeal]".
Many Thais working with elephants view it as the only effective way to train them (a supervisor with more than five decades of experience overseeing phajaan in Chiang Mai told National Geographic "elephants can't be tamed" otherwise) although zoos, particularly in the US have had success using methods which rely on positive reinforcement rather than corporal punishment.
Because they are so popular with visitors, demand for elephants is fuelling poaching in neighbouring Myanmar, with between 50 and 100 animals being smuggled across the border into Thailand each year.
Still, global awareness of this dark side of the trade is growing: American pop star Beyoncé caught a barrage of criticism online last year after posting a photo of herself on an elephant ride. Several travel agencies, including British-based STA Travel, have stopped selling tours which include elephant rides or shows. Charities have also begun targeting prospective tourists directly in an attempt to dissuade them from booking or taking part in animal attractions.
But while NGOs are united in condemning the phajaan and elephant rides, Rogerson says calls to boycott all elephant tourism activities are oversimplistic.
"What would happen to the elephants and mahouts if tourists stopped going and the camps run out of money? How would the mahouts feed themselves, their family and their elephant?" she asks.
Instead, she supports programmes that encourage mahouts and camp operators to give elephants a better life.
The Surin Project is among several innovative ventures working within the trade to improve conditions not only for elephants but also their owners.
"It was started to show the mahouts that there is an alternative type of tourism that they can use their elephants for, as well as getting help to look after their animals," says William Sandilands, the project's volunteer coordinator.
Based in northeastern Surin province, the project works with the government-run Elephant Study Centre in Baan Tha Klang village, which provides basic assistance to mahouts to keep them from begging on the streets of Bangkok.
Although many of the 200-plus elephants at the centre are still used in treks and shows, the Surin Project pays several mahouts to adopt more ethical practices (Some camps keep the animals shackled and working all day or overburden them with loads of more than 150kg, which puts enormous pressure on their backs).
"Right now, we have [an agreement with] 12 mahouts on the project to take their elephants off the chains for parts of the day and take them out in the surrounding forest and river areas so they can interact with each other in more natural surroundings," Sandilands says.
"We ask our mahouts not to take part in elephant shows or elephant riding to make extra money. In return they get a weekly salary and extra support to help feed their elephants."
The elephants are left unshackled for three to four hours each day which, he concedes, is "not enough."
But they must make compromises to bring the mahouts on board, Sandilands says. "If we push for too much at one time then we can lose them and their elephant … and they may go elsewhere to make money in other forms of elephant tourism.
"It's a big balancing act to get it right. The Surin Project is not perfect and has far to go to improve the living conditions of all the elephants … but it is a step in the right direction."
Volunteers work alongside the mahouts and have come to understand their situation as well as that of the elephants, which is "important in helping captive elephants everywhere", Sandilands says.
Rogerson agrees: "Many mahouts we encounter are poor; they struggle to earn a living but see no other way than taking their elephant to the camps."
The Briton, who spent 15 years running her own clothing business in Hong Kong, set up Ears after being alerted to the plight of Asian elephants. In particular, she became taken with Sombo (also known as Sambo), an elephant that had been giving rides at Wat Phnom temple in Phnom Penh for more than two decades.
"Her feet were severely deformed due to walking on the hot tarmac roads every day. She had a deep black abscess in the sole of her right foot," says Rogerson, who now splits her time between Thailand and Cambodia.
Alongside Ocean Park chief veterinarian Paolo Martelli, she led a seven-month campaign to help the owner retire Sombo.
Working within a system where abuse is widespread can often be heartbreaking, but Sandilands says there's no point in demonising elephant owners.
"The change in protecting elephants comes from the tourists themselves, demanding something else from the mahouts, the communities, the tourist authorities and the government," he says. "It comes down to what people are willing to pay for and spend their money while [in Thailand] that will help change happen."
At Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand's northern Sukhotai province, founder Katherine Connor urges visitors to put animals' welfare ahead of their own enjoyment.
Visiting Thailand for the first time in 2002 as part of a backpacking tour of Asia, Connor says she was "deeply disturbed to find that every single establishment put tourists before the elephants. Everywhere I looked, there were happy, laughing tourists and depressed, unhealthy looking elephants."
Then, she met Boon Lott, a baby elephant whose hind legs were paralysed after suffering a fall.
"He was just two months old at the time and he was the first baby elephant I had ever seen," Connor recalls. "Every time he reached up to me with his soft little trunk, it felt like he was reaching in to my soul and trying to tell me something.
"After a couple of hours of playing with him, I decided to cancel the rest of my adventure around Asia and settle in Thailand."
She began raising funds to buy Boon Lott from his owner and pay for his medical treatment; later she worked with engineers at Chiang Mai University to build the first "elephant wheelchair" for Boon Lott.
After he died in 2004, Connor established the sanctuary in his name. Funded by donations and volunteer fees, the sanctuary rescues and retires "abused and overworked elephants".
"We provide a natural and safe environment, where the elephants can relax and learn how to be real elephants again, instead of the working machines they have spent most of their lives being," Connor says.
Like Surin Project, Connor hopes that her camp can lead by example in creating a "more humane way of handling captive elephants". The sanctuary, based in a rural village near the historical town of Sukhotai, encourages visitors but limits the exposure of elephants to large crowds and doesn't allow riding or performing.
"It is the tourist dollar that is fuelling this industry," Rogerson says.
"We need the tourists to think about the life of the elephant they are riding and not to leave their morals at home. To make positive, constructive, responsible tourism decisions to prevent elephants spending a lifetime in misery."
Planning a trip to Thailand? Visit earsasia.org for a list of "elephant-friendly" projects across the country that promote ethical tourism