The Plight of the Asian Elephants

– Posted in: South East Asia
Thai Elephant Ceremony

Elephants have been exploited for thousands of years and never more so than now, and likely never as much as they are in Thailand today. Although the elephant is Thailand’s national animal, holds a prominent place in Thai culture and was once highly revered, of those few that have survived most are now treated with heinous abuse.

For centuries elephants were used throughout South East Asia, as ceremonial mounts for those held in high esteem. During various conflicts elephants were used for transportation and up until 1989 were employed (legitimately) for commercial logging.  Up until then, they were plentiful. There were many thousands of them. Until rampant deforestation.

Illegal logging is common throughout South East Asia. In Thailand population growth, land speculation, the expansion of agricultural land mainly for “cash crops”, and the banks, which foreclosed on many farmers unable to make high-interest payments on loans, driving them into the forest for survival, has and still contributes to the continued deforestation of Thailand.

Thailand landslide due to Deforestation

Thailand landslide due to Deforestation

After heavy flooding occurred in Thailand in December 1988, washing away soil from the deforested slopes and causing massive flooding, the government banned all logging. Too late to stop the damage though because suddenly the price of timber tripled in Bangkok and consequently so did illegal logging and the increase in slash-and-burn agriculture. Virtually all of the primary forest in Thailand has disappeared and the greedy Thai timber companies have spread their tentacles into neighbouring Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Thailand, once a major exporter of timber, now has to import their wood.

It’s a hopeless situation whilst Thailand is fraught with corruption. People in high places in Thailand, government officials in particular (mainly military officers) profit greatly from illegal logging and related activities. They don’t give a toss about the fate of the small rural populations or Thailand’s forest.

What’s all this got to do with Elephants?

Elephants are expensive to feed. Requiring approximately 10% of their body weight in food per day, an Asian elephant needs to consume about 150 – 200 kilograms of vegetation and drink about 200 litres of water each day. (Of the food they eat, they only digest approximately 44%). They’re expensive to keep!

With the disappearance of the forests in Thailand, the major form of employment for the elephants in Thailand has also gone;  elephant owners have to find other ways for their elephant to earn it’s keep. The increase in tourism not only in Thailand, but throughout South East Asia has opened up new ways for the Thai elephant owners to put their elephants to work.

Elephant Rides in the Heat of the Midday sun at Angkor, Cambodia

Elephant Rides in the Heat of the Midday sun at Angkor, Cambodia

  • Elephant rides – often on sealed or concrete roads, in extreme heat, carrying the heavy combined weight of tourists, mahout, and saddle (howday). The pads on the elephants’ feet were not designed for hard surfaces, nor were their backs designed to carry heavy weights.
  • Begging in the streets – outlawed but it still takes place
  • Painting Pictures – have you ever seen an elephant holding a paintbrush in its trunk on the streets in South East Asia, or in a video on Youtube?
  • Performing other tricks –  for tourists.
  • Zoos
  • Circuses

How are Elephants Trained for the Tourist Trade?

They’re tortured. That’s how. The Thai have a special name for it: phajaan” or “Crush”. The trainers systematically break the young animal’s will and spirit through torture and isolation after separating it from it’s mother.  The young elephant is restrained within a small wooden “training crush” , beaten, jabbed, and starved into submission. 

Elephants used for logging are mostly over-worked, and forced into submission with the use of chains and  “ankus” – a sharp metal hook used to stab the elephant in the head, and in areas like the mouth and inner ear, where the animal is most sensitive. Ankus are used by the mahouts on the majority of the elephant riding tours in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I witnessed this practice in both of my recent trips to South East Asia. 

Elephant Populations

Obtaining accurate data on conservation matters is a grey area in South East Asia. Governments suffer from inertia and corruption and conservation is not high on their list of priorities.

According to reports obtained online which, while they may or not be entirely accurate, show that Asian elephants are disappearing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that there are only 30,000 Asian elephants remaining throughout the entire world. 

  • Vietnam – According to some reports, there were approximately 1,500 to 2,000 elephants in 1980. Today they may number as few as 70. Many NGOs claim there are only 10 to 15 wild elephants left in Vietnam.
  • Cambodia – Asian elephant population is likely between 250 and 600.
  • Thailand –  In Thailand there is an estimated 3,000-4,000 elephants. Around half of this number are domesticated, the remainder living wild in National Parks Reserves. Some 300 are suffering under appalling conditions in Bangkok.
  • Laos –  1500 elephants remainng, 560 of these are domesticated and working with their mahouts.

Elephant attractions are both popular and profitable in South East Asia. Consider the information throughout this post and then wonder what happens to the elephant when it becomes ill from overwork, lack of food and water, depression  (yes, they can and do suffer from depression), and abuse? Proper veterinary care is unaffordable for the majority of the owners.

Whereas both male and female African elephants have tusks, only male Asian elephants do. With poaching for ivory being rampant in South East Asia, what happens when most of the male Asian elephants have been killed for their tusks? Fewer males for breeding,  means less the genetic viability.

Be an Ethical Tourist

Don’t be fooled by the claims most of the elephant riding tours and elephant trekking companies make. Do your homework. Most of the elephant tour operators in South East Asia work their elephants into the ground until they drop with exertion, starve them, and abuse them.

If you really love elephants as I do, check out the various sanctuaries listed on my next post. It IS possible to get up close and personal with an elephant, get to know more about these beautiful animals and in doing so, assist in their welfare along with the welfare of the indigenous and disadvantaged people in the nearby villages.

Riding an elephant in Thailand is a direct contribution to a heinous circle of abuse. Buying a ticket for the experience is financially supporting the elephant’s exploitation. Don’t do it! Share the information with anyone you know who is anticipating a trip to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia!

Elephants are now a highly endangered species.





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