The saying goes, “an elephant never forgets.” But do these magnificent creatures, who once carried Thai Kings into battle, remember their storied past? Do they recall the days when they roamed freely through the wilds of Siam, the “land of the white elephant?” Today, a male elephant weighing in at five tons flaps his ears to shoo away flies, locks eyes with us with his amber stare, and rattles the chains around his foot while chewing on sugarcane, all under the bright sun. The histories of these elephants and of Thailand are tightly intertwined. In this blog, we’ll delve into everything you need to know about the captive elephants of Thailand.
Additionally, it’s important to note that not all captive elephants in Thailand are intentionally kept in horrid conditions. For some locals, keeping elephants has been passed down from generation to generation, and they may not have the resources or knowledge to provide proper care for these massive animals. Furthermore, due to their size and strength, elephants can be dangerous and cause harm to their owners or others around them. As a result, they may be chained or isolated for their own safety, even if it is not ideal for their physical and emotional well-being. It’s a complex issue that requires a nuanced understanding of the cultural and socioeconomic factors at play.
In addition to being sacred and revered animals in Thailand, elephants were also working warriors. They played a crucial role in the country’s history, serving as transport and even weapons in battle. Like the westerns had their horses, Thailand and many Southeast Asian countries relied on elephants for various tasks, including logging and farming. However, despite their cultural significance and usefulness, the welfare of individual elephants was not always considered. Many were chained up, some even in the scorching sun all day, without regard for their well-being. As we continue to learn about and appreciate the cultural importance of elephants in Thailand, it’s important to also advocate for their ethical treatment and protection.
Most of us have pets, such as dogs, who have been domesticated over the years from their wolf ancestors. These loyal and patient animals have been shaped to fit into our lives. However, unlike dogs, elephants do not breed well in captivity. Therefore, to meet the ongoing demand for young elephants, they are often taken from the wild. Rather than being domesticated, they are tamed and their spirit is broken to achieve a state of docility. Elephants are naturally herd animals but are often kept alone in isolation, which is cruel treatment for such intelligent creatures.
Over the course of a little more than a century, the number of captive elephants in Thailand has drastically decreased from over 100,000 to just under 4,000. As a result of the logging ban in 1989, many mahouts and owners turned to tourism to support their elephants.
However, without animal welfare legislation in place, these magnificent animals were often seen as mere possessions and subjected to appalling mistreatment. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, with the abrupt cessation of the tourist industry leading to a severe decline in the welfare of captive elephants. Many mahouts have been forced to trek long distances back to their hometowns and rely on handouts to feed their animals.
Although captive elephants in Thailand have suffered greatly, there is a glimmer of hope as the issue has gained global attention. Traditional elephant camps are now promising to abandon riding seats and adopt more ethical methods of caring for their elephants. As social conscience grows, sanctuaries are becoming more successful in attracting tourists who only want to observe elephants roaming freely. Many visitors now refuse to support the exploitation of elephants, with an increasing number rejecting the practice of riding them in chains.
The Asian elephant, having never undergone the process of domestication and selective breeding, retains its natural instincts and behaviors. A significant number of captive elephants in Thailand are taken out for foraging with their feet chained at night, which keeps them accustomed to the jungle’s environment, what to eat, and where to find water. This makes them ideal candidates for being reintroduced back into the wild, and can be released from captivity.
Releasing captive elephants back into the wild is not a straightforward process. Reintroduction must be carried out with great care and planning. The herd’s structure must be taken into account, with the eldest female elephant released first, followed by younger females and their calves to help establish a strong social hierarchy. However, the most critical aspect is ensuring their release into a safe environment that minimizes the risk of being re-captured or poached. Therefore, it is crucial to keep them within the safe haven of ethically-managed sanctuaries that are carefully monitored and policed.
Sanctuaries not only need to attract tourists but also work with neighboring communities for their success. Educating the younger generation to spot the danger signs of wild elephants’ behavior and selecting suitable sites to open their sites are crucial. Thick bamboo barricades over electric fences are encouraged to prevent elephants from straying out of sanctuaries. In the last 15 years, the wild elephant population in Thailand has seen a 7% growth, which is a promising start.
Money may be a powerful force in the world we live in, but it can also be harnessed for good. By choosing to support ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, we are sending a message that we will not tolerate the mistreatment of these majestic creatures. Our actions have the power to create change, to shift the paradigm and pave the way for a brighter future for these noble animals. Let us use our voice and our wallet to create a better world for all.
If you’d like to find out more about visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand you can read more here.