When I was nine years old, my big dream, the biggest, dreamiest, dream I could dream, was that one day I would be able to work as a volunteer in an African village.
I used to watch those commercials that would come on way past my bedtime. The ones with the children, hungry and sad, and think that my love for them would make it better. That if I could just be there to show them how loved they truly were, maybe it would all be okay. I suppose that sounds painfully naive, but that nine-year-old way of thinking has never really left me.
In fact, it has infiltrated every aspect of my life. And no matter how many times I’m shown that maybe I’m wrong, that maybe I can’t save the world, I just keep thinking I’ll fix it all — the broken hearts, the hurt, the hunger — with my unshakeable love.
And so too did I think that this love of mine could fix the truly gross treatment of one of the planet’s most magnificent creatures — the Asian Elephant.
A simple google search will tell you that the history of the Asian Elephant is a tragic one, indeed. Ancient Indian texts suggest that they have been used for human consumption for up to 5,000 years. First, as warm blooded battle tanks; war elephants, gentle giants fighting on behalf of men. Then, for centuries after, they were used as laborers; forced to lug logs until nearly 80% of their would-be habitat was depleted. In 1989 the Thai government passed a ban on logging in order to preserve what was left of the country’s forests: a victory for the environment but a catastrophe for the elephants and their owners. Desperate for income after the loss of their livelihood, the owners turned to the tourism industry.
Once upon a time, being an elephant owner was an exclusively respectable and generational livelihood. A line of elephants passed down through a line of men; a longstanding relationship that generally bred deeply ingrained respect. But with this surge in elephant tourism, owning elephants became another quick way to make a buck. A hobby for the nouveau riche to entertain despite their lack of knowledge about the proper treatment of the animals. It became so popularized that even the longtime owners felt they had no choice but to lend them to exploitation.
And so these beautiful beasts were sent off to be entertainers, performing tricks and indulging tourists with long treks through lovely landscapes (quite literally back-breaking work as the spine of the Asian elephant is inherently curved and not designed for bearing weight.) More were illegally traded or captured and forced into work.
Now, if you will, please take a moment to imagine just how much mental and physical harm it would take to break a 6-12 ton creature into absolute submission. Starved, sleep deprived and brutally beaten with metal hooks, they turned these mountains of majesty into puppets for our blind merriment. And though this all sounds like part of woeful but distant past, these atrocities are happening right now, as I type, and still, as you read.
But my love can save the world, right? So why can’t it save my giants?
I began searching for an elephant reserve at which I could volunteer my time. I wanted to distribute some of my love to a few of the beasts of burden who had finally been rescued from hell and given new life. I wanted to support a company that did right by them.
I did my due diligence, determined not to give any of my hard-earned money to an organization that perpetuated the harmful treatment of my beloved beauties. And after months of scouring the internet, I was certain I had found the right one.
Their platform was one I could get behind. It was labeled a sanctuary. No riding. No Hooks. They bought elephants from riding camps so that they could provide them with a safe place to live. Their website said they wanted all elephants to be free and happy and healthy, just like I did. I rummaged through site after site and not a bad review was written about the place. So I booked a week long stint as a volunteer at a camp outside of Chiang Mai.
When we arrived at the first camp, we were told we would experience a morning with the elephants like a tourist would. We sat, cross legged on wicker mats as we were taught all about the history of the Asian elephant and the relationship between them and the Karen people; a hill tribe that makes up an ethno-linguistic minority in Thailand. Karen people are ingrained in the fabric of the Thai elephants history, often acting as their mahouts: the elephant’s keeper or trainer. More often than not, mahoutship is a family profession. A young boy will be assigned to a young elephant and the two will spend their lives bonded together. The mahouts will tell the elephants where to go and what to do. They may grab their ears to lead them, they told us, but don’t be afraid. It doesn’t hurt them. The mahouts love their elephants.
Finally we were led down a big hill and introduced to them. We stood there, face to face with creatures that looked as though they stepped right off a page of Where the Wild Things Are. We fed them bananas and knobs of sugarcane with our bare hands.
I got close to one, the matriarch of the herd. I held a banana to her lips and she licked my fingers as I gently pushed it against her tongue. I rested my hand on her cheek and looked deeply in her eyes, every fiber of my being silently singing her the love song I was desperate for her to hear.
An impatient sound woke me from my trance. A young woman with a go-pro who wanted me out of her shot.
I stood back and watched as a group of 20 crowded around them, awkwardly and hesitantly shoving food in their mouths without any trust in the animals gentility, snapping selfies and running away to show their friends. It very quickly occurred to me that this didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel natural. And these creatures, these things of fairy tales, were not being respected and admired the way they so deserved.
“Over it already?” I turned to find a tall, tattooed and bearded boy, standing beside me. One of the leaders of our tour and a man I would become good friends with throughout the week. He said it with a cheeky grin, poking fun at the way I had removed myself.
“I’m in awe of them,” I told him, “Just trying to give them some space.” He nodded as if he understood and appreciated the sentiment.
We completed the day’s activities, rubbing the elephants down with mud and washing them off in a waterfall. I wasn’t enjoying it the way it seemed the others were. I wasn’t taking much joy in throwing buckets water of water towards their faces… I just kept staring at their eyes.
That evening we made our way to the camp where we would spend the rest of the week. We were cooked a delicious homemade meal by the Karen people who owned the property and when dinner was done we began drinking happy water; a strong liquor that I can’t tell you much about other than that I had quite a lot of it that week.
Another one of our tour leaders, a wonderfully kind and fun-loving Karen man and a lifelong mahut, talked with us about what our program would entail. Somewhere in the conversation he informed us that because it was night-time the elephants were chained up. The lot of us, all animal lovers to an extreme degree, went rigid in our seats. But our friend began to explain:
You see, we live in a rural area where there are a lot of farms. The elephants can consume a massive amount of crops in just one evening. Farmers, defensive of their livelihood, will protect it at all costs, sometime shooting the elephants or poisoning them. It is for their safety that we chain them up.
We still weren’t so sure.
It was then added the chains were attached to just one foot. They were not so strong that if there was an emergency, the animal couldn’t break it. The chains were long enough that even while constrained by them, the elephants could still move about. They all had access to food, water and trees for scratching. They are no longer wild elephants, he went on. They can’t care for themselves the way they ought to. And because they associate people with food, they might follow anyone they came across in the jungle, including those who mean them harm or would return them to riding camps just like the ones they were saved from. Don’t worry, he said, it’s just at night when the mahouts are asleep.
I could understand the logic, but still, I struggled with it.
My bearded friend and I stayed up drinking happy water, talking about books and our dreams for the elephants long after everyone else had gone to bed. He told me that it wasn’t perfect, but it was the best option right now. I went to bed consoled, drunk and totally unaware that by the next afternoon every bit of magic would be gone from that place.
The morning tour group had come and left. We participated a bit, but it was still a little uncomfortable. I brought up to a couple of the other volunteers that it felt as though the elephants were performing. They said they agreed. They were glad they weren’t alone.
A few minutes after the songthaews carted the tourists away, I headed up to where the elephants hung out and slept so that I could have some time alone with them while it was quiet. I picked up a stack of corn stalks and lugged them up with me, an intended offering of friendship. As I got to the top of the hill and rounded the corner, I stopped in disbelief.
The oasis I had designed for them in my mind was quite the opposite. A small, barren, circular space littered with garbage. Piles and piles of it. Wrappers and bottles and empty cup-of-noodles.The trees of which they spoke were the dead, jagged corpses of once living things. Nothing an 8 ton giant could scratch it’s massive sides against. There was no water source. No hose. No food.
I walked dumbly towards the large, male elephant and dropped the corn stalks in front of him. Staring for a moment with incredulence, I turned slowly to another volunteer behind me…
“Are those chains? Is he chained up right now?”
She nodded, looking sad.
It was a short chain. No longer than his body. And there was nothing around him but broken sticks.
“But the tourists just left a moment ago…”
“They were all chained up when I came up this morning too. I think it’s all the time.”
She began to paint a picture of the morning scene. All of them chained up. The male, standing before me now, had wrapped his chain around his body and was tugging as he let out mighty roars. She told me how the mother of the young baby elephant swayed back and forth with a far off look, and one of our favorites, Jack, did awkward grapevines, his feet getting tangled in the metal links. She was describing all of the signs of captive animals in distress.
I began to cry. Massive heaves of sadness. She hugged me and pet my hair with maternal sweetness. “I know,” she told me, “I’m feeling the same way.”
We went back to our hut and the two of us, along with another volunteer who didn’t like what appeared to be happening, sat in silence as I tried to stop my tears. Our bearded tour leader came in and asked what the problem was.
I began expressing my disappointment at how this is not what they told us it was. I accused them of disingenuity. I said how angry I was that my money was supporting the mistreatment of the animals I loved so dearly.
He hung his head sadly and said how sorry he was over and over.
Throughout the next week more and more was revealed to us, and very little of it was good.
The elephants weren’t fed as often as they should be because they had to be kept hungry if they were going to be social and allow the tourists to hand feed them. If customers weren’t on site, they were chained up almost all of the time. The people at the camp insisted that too much freedom made the elephants unruly. A couple of the volunteers were sure they saw some mahuts jabbing the soft underside of the trunks with knives and scissors hidden in the palms of their hands. We watched as the elephants performed at the command of their mahuts; “kissing” tourist after tourist on the cheek so that they could get their photo op. I constantly wondered how lines of people never questioned how they trained wild, 6,000 pound animals to do tricks.
We quickly learned the difference between a beautiful and loving relationship between a mahut and his elephant and career mahuts who were stuck with elephants they hadn’t bonded with.
Jack and his mahut, in particular, were an exemplary pair. It was a relationship clearly based in love in respect. The man never had to touch Jack. He had only to speak softly to him and the elephant would listen. I would often find them with their foreheads pressed together lovingly. And I’ll never forget the day I watched as Jack submerged himself in the water, covering his face and eyes totally, but reaching his trunk up every so often to sniff around and make sure his friend was still close by. Each time he did it, Jack’s mahut would take the trunk in his hand and place it on his cheek.
But when the bond isn’t there, it can look quite like the relationship between a master and his submissive. It gets aggressive and violent. And when the elephant has no love for their mahut, they do not easily comply.
One afternoon we stood at the top of a hill and watched as they forcefully tried to muscle Nofad, a five year old mahutless rebel child, into her mud bath with the tourists. She screamed and thrashed, dangerously rushing into a crowd of people. She fought off a group of mahuts that were not hers and escaped into the brush. We could no longer see her, but we could hear her angry cries.
One of our tour leaders came up and said we could discuss the debacle later over dinner, but could we please come down and help so that we could save face in front of the tourists? No, I told him. I couldn’t do that. I went and sat in the hut alone.
I, by no means, intend to vilify anyone at the camp or the mahuts. They are my friends and they are all wonderful and warm people. I believe that the majority of them truly love the elephants with all of their hearts. I believe that they believe they are providing the animals with a better life. And in some ways, they are. But better is not synonymous with good.
As long as tourists are allowed to personally interact with the elephants and as long as the funding for the camp depends on how happy customers are with their Instagram photos, the animals will be markedly mistreated. The camps will continue to be businesses with the main priority being money-earned and the elephants will remain exploited entertainers.
The only way to create true sanctuaries is to remove the aspect of tourist interaction. Rather than playing with the animals, feeding them and bathing them, we need to be moving towards observation. As a person who stood back and watched most of the week I lived amongst them, I can honestly say that it’s enough. And if the option is between watching elephants from an observation deck and not seeing them at all, I’m quite certain people will still pay. It’s an expensive transition. It’s the harder option. But it’s the only way for the animals to have a life free of exploitation and abuse.
The trouble lies in the fact that the we’re not just asking to change practices; we would have to change a cultural mindset. The Thai people have been living with elephants in a capacity that is simultaneously sacred and profiteering throughout the entirety of their history. They have both loved them and seen them grievously mistreated. And now a few are trying to do their part to provide them with a better life. Mahuts and owners alike are fighting to get their elephants into sanctuaries. They are fighting to provide them with a loving home. And then people from the Western world come and tell them, “This is not enough! This is still cruel! Look at how they are living. Forget mahutship! Let them be free!”
Imagine someone came to you and said that your life’s work is inhumane. That the way your father, and his father before him, made a living has always been terribly cruel. I would venture to guess that you might meet this person with some resistance. You might be defensive. Make excuses. Point out all the ways you are doing good rather than consider how you could do better. It is only human nature. And how do you argue with human nature? How do you argue with culture?
It can be done. But it has to be done carefully. With sensitivity. It won’t happen overnight. It will take decades. Generations even. To move the elephant tourism industry into one that is exclusively observatory is certainly not a thing I expect to happen in my lifetime.
But maybe Nofad’s grandchildren can have the freedom she so desires…
And that can start with us.
The people have already started showing the elephant tourism industry that they want change. They want to support an ethical company. And that is why so many of those companies have changed the language they use in their marketing strategy.“Sanctuary” “No Riding” “Eco-Tourism.” Your money is speaking and those in charge are responding. But we need to take it a step further. We can’t put on rose colored glasses and assume that just because the website uses buzzwords that the animals are truly being treated ethically.
We need to be more conscious of animal exploitation. We need to be informed about the way wild animals are “trained” to perform. When having an animal experience, we need to spend our money with companies who practice ethically, not those who simply say they do. We need to drop the naivety (talking to myself here) and recognize that it is not natural for wild animals to interact with us and that if they had the option, they wouldn’t. We need to face the fact that an elephant’s freedom is more important than our desire for a cool Instagram photo with one’s trunk wrapped around our waists.
So, let’s get informed and shout from the rooftops.
Perhaps my love can’t help the elephants, but I’m hoping my words can.