Images like these are as hard to find as they are painful to watch. On Wednesday, June 24th, British animal rights group World Animal Protection (WAP) posted a video that shows the violence "tourist elephants" are subject to in Thailand during their training. As you can see below, the elephants are stressed out, locked in tight spaces, and chained for several hours a day, to fuel the booming local tourism industry.
"Breaking" the elephant's mind
You might be wondering why they mistreat the elephants. Well, according to AFP, the goal is to "break their minds" and make them as docile as possible by using a technique known as "phajaan." The baby calves are separated from their mothers, then put under a great deal of stress through the training practices you'll see in the video posted by WAP, which was caught on tape by a hidden camera last year.
As he teaches the elephant basic commands, the mahout (tamer) pokes it with a rod surmounted by a point sharpened metal tip, which causes it to bleed. "The goal is to gain complete domination through rewards and punishments. You have to make him understand that disobedience is painful," said Jan Schmidt-Burbach of WAP. The British NGO hopes that, now that it's out in the open, these practices will be put to an end.
Treated like livestock
Furthermore, once domesticated, "tourist elephants" are considered livestock under Thai law, unlike the wild elephants that are considered an endangered species. And this status has been given to upwards of 3,000 elephants across the country, most of them used for tourism. There's been a whopping 30% increase in the number of such elephants over the last 30 years, which might be explained by a lack of regulation.
But the COVID-19 crisis may have given these elephants a chance to break free. Faced with the threat of famine during the health crisis, several hundred of them fled from empty camps to return to their native villages. This is a great opportunity to rethink the treatment and existence of domesticated elephants in Thailand, according to WAP. "It is absolutely essential to further promote tourism-based solely on observation," says Jan Schmidt-Burbach.