Beasts of burden: Hooks, chains and pain - How Thailand's elephants have become symbols of despair
In the first part of a series looking at Thailand's changing relationship with its elephants, CNA explored how the animals are made to perform unnatural acts - such as dancing and painting - for people's entertainment.
BANGKOK: Kluay Hom’s world is concrete and chains. He stands in his own filth, shackled by the ankle, eyes leaden and head heavy. He tilts back and forth, his movements like a metronome on a constant loop.
Light shines into the enclosure - it is a hot day - but this emaciated shadow of what a young elephant should be will not come out. Kluay Hom’s legs are contorted and his spirit seems broken. He is eight or nine years old.
In adjoining pens, four other elephants pace back and forth, a typical symptom of stress in animals held in captivity. These are the stars of Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo, but they are generally kept away from public gaze when they are not performing.
Their home is underneath the grandstand of the dirt-covered performance arena.
The zoo, just south of Bangkok, is a relic of the past, the likes of which have been swallowed by time in many countries. Not in Thailand.
It is a place where chimpanzees sit in cages wearing human clothes and diapers and where a lethargic tiger circles on the spot struggling against the chain on its neck. Visitors can watch crocodiles being teased in murky green pools before sitting down for a crocodile meat soup at a nearby restaurant. Wooden signs with cracking paint around the complex read “Please Be Kind To Animals”.
And then there are the elephants. Under a high sun and temperatures close to 40 degrees, a performing quartet is dressed with golden sashes and bright red headpieces. As "Gangnam Style" blasts through a speaker system, the elephants perform an array of tricks: Standing on their hind legs, throwing darts at balloons, kicking footballs and painting with their trunks. It is one of seven shows they will need to repeat throughout the day.
Their tamers - known as mahouts - are always close. Poking and pressuring. They conceal sharp pieces of pointed metal in the palms of their hands. Bullhooks and nails are common tools to discipline performing elephants, with pain used to train and control. When contacted by CNA, the managing director of the facility declined to comment about how elephants are treated there.
READ: 'If there’s no blood, how can it be afraid?' - The making and breaking of Thailand's elephants
On this day, there are just a few visitors spread throughout the concrete seating of the stadium. They seem to enjoy the performances of the elephants, passing money into their trunks at the show’s conclusion and posing for photos beneath their heaving torsos. Just nearby, other tourists pay to ride saddled elephants. Kluay Hom, hobbled by his injured leg, is not part of either.
This is typical of routines being carried out in elephant attractions right across the country. Despite wider campaigns to put an end to such activities, key industry players have told CNA that they believe such practices are as prevalent and popular as ever.
“As a Thai, I always think that the elephant is symbolic of the country and that they were living with respect,” said Sangdeaun “Lek” Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park and leading animal welfare activist in Thailand.
“Humans always think we are better than the other species. We always believe that other animals are designed on this planet for us. We think we are clever,” she said.
“In real life, I have witnessed a lot of cruelty.”
It is estimated that there are about 4,400 domestic elephants in Thailand. More than half of those animals are working in the tourism industry, a number that is still on the rise. Over a five-year period, there was a 30 per cent increase in elephants being used in the tourism industry, according to a 2017 report by Protection for Animals.
Elephants as a tourist attraction bloomed after the Thai government banned logging in 1989. Until then, they were used to drag timber through thick jungle.
After the logging ban, visitors to Thailand came to associate elephants with riding, trekking, and, eventually, circus-like performances as their owners sought new ways to earn money from their animals.
The death of one industry gave rise to another.
Today in Thailand, there are dozens of elephant attractions within zoos, at riding camps, in sanctuaries and on beaches. Tourists, from Thailand and overseas, continue to pay to interact with elephants in a variety of environments - some where animal welfare is a priority, others where that is less important.
The elephant industry has never been tightly administered and tourism businesses have operated without any official controls for decades. Animal cruelty standards have only recently been formalised - the first law came into operation in late 2014 - and even by the government’s admission, they are vague and hard to enforce.
Welfare standards for elephant camps remain voluntary. Inspections are sporadic, penalties are can be a maximum of two years prison or a fine of US$1300, and responsibility for maintaining standards is made problematic by bureaucracy, with elephant care overseen by three different government ministries.
“The law is not fully complete,” said Somchuan Ratanamungklanon, the deputy director-general of Thailand’s Department of Livestock. “It’s considered case by case, and we focus on each elephant – if it’s (physically) healthy, emotionally healthy or stressed. But if the cruelty is clear - like someone shot an elephant or hurt the animal - legal action can be taken immediately,” he said.
Frustration has grown among activist groups as efforts to save in-distress elephants or shut down operations which do not prioritise their welfare have proved futile in the face of limited regulations.
Lek said she and others have been aware for years about Kluay Hom, hidden away in the bowels of Samutprakan. Authorities have not intervened.
“There are so many animal rights people going to try and help him. So many complaints, but it still carries on for so many years. The government sent people in to inspect, the Department of Wildlife, veterinarians, they went up there with a big smile, ‘nothing wrong with that’,” she said.
“To be honest, animal welfare in Thailand is no standard. If these people still think this is right, the animal doesn’t have any hope in this country.”
A new environment minister - Varawut Silpa-archa - was recently appointed in Thailand, prompting hope that reform may be rolled out over a traditionally stubborn industry. “We need to look after them as a symbol of our country. All the torturing, the training, the circuses and everything, needs to be stopped and I will make sure it’s on my top agenda,” he told CNA.
“You don’t torture animals. You don’t ask them to do crazy things just for our entertainment.”
THE DEATH OF DUMBO
Down south, ‘Dumbo’ looked like a skeleton as he shook his head back and forth to loud dance music in front of visitors at Phuket Zoo. The three-year-old’s spine jutted dramatically from his young hide, his ribs pronounced and eyes sallow.
Something was clearly wrong with him but still he was made to entertain.
“We watched as tourists laughed and took selfies, all while this emaciated baby elephant stood with his eyes closed, quietly sucking on his trunk for comfort. It was truly heartbreaking,” said Amy Jones from the Moving Animals NGO, a visual project that documents animals around the world to help raise awareness of their plight.
Moving Animals gave Dumbo his nickname and launched an online petition in April calling for him to be retired and moved to a sanctuary. It was signed by 200,000 people in less than three weeks.
The attention prompted Thai authorities to visit the zoo and investigate. But within weeks, Dumbo was dead.
He had been suffering from a digestive tract infection, and while in a perilously weak state, broke his back legs and died in hospital soon after. Despite his poor health, Dumbo had continued to be used in shows at the zoo on a daily basis.
“For Dumbo to die whilst under the so-called care and treatment of the zoo shows just how neglected these animals are in captivity,” Jones said, while now pursuing calls for the facility to be shut down.
It left Phuket Zoo, a facility opened three decades ago, with just two remaining elephants. Its manager Pichai Sakunsorn defended the treatment and attention Dumbo received and said his staff were left devastated by the loss.
“We did our best in terms of taking care of him as if he’s a human. We did the best to protect him but we couldn’t predict what would happen. We were so sad,” he told CNA.
The remaining pair of elephants at the zoo have seen no respite in their show duties. The younger one, Saen Muang, stands for hours in place in between thrice-daily performances as staff try to sell bananas for visitors to feed him and photo opportunities.
When it is showtime, he is adorned with a performing outfit and is led out to the small arena, fitted with basketball hoops and balancing platforms. When it ends and the visitors disperse, the chains come out once more. Saen Muang’s mahout slaps him hard on the head and legs with the blunt end of a bullhook before walking away.
“The bullhook is for show. It’s to show them that if they make a mistake, they will be punished. That’s all,” Pichai said. “We want people on social media to understand that we love animals. Please do not attack us and say we torture animals. It isn’t true.”
TO RIDE, OR NOT TO RIDE
The prime attraction at many of the shows are young elephants, like Dumbo and Kluay Hom, which are highly in demand for photographs with visitors. However, these babies are often purchased and then taken from their mothers without an appropriate nursing period, which is four years.
“But after one year, humans take them, manipulate them, take them to train and entertain people,” Lek said.
At Sriracha Tiger Zoo, a popular zoo outside Pattaya, a packed auditorium watches another typical elephant show. The smallest in the chain of performing animals, holding each others tails as they emerge from their enclosure, is Pansa, a two-year-old female.
She is barely shoulder high next to her mahout, a tiny thing with fuzzy orange hair. She is the star in a group of elephants rolling out all the tricks - and jungle rides - for visitors. Like them, Pansa is a slave to the bullhook, which hovers at her side as she wanders with her mahout through the zoo to solicit contributions from tourists.
“Some people just want to get that perfect selfie. And their perfect selfie is sometimes torture to the animals,” said Edwin Wiek, the founder and director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, which operates an animal rescue facility in Petchaburi province.
In time, Pansa will likely graduate to becoming an elephant used for riding, just like the many others at Sriracha carrying two tourists at a time along a muddy track through a thin forest.
The debate about the ethics of riding elephants is a charged one in Thailand. Elephant businesses defend the practice, arguing elephants are strong animals perfectly capable of carrying humans on their backs. Animal groups have decried elephant riding, saying animals are overworked, underfed and kept at work until they die.
“I always say, why do we ride them? Kindness is the best choice for us. For the tourists, we have no excuse about elephant riding, about horse riding, about donkey riding. We should do better than that,” Lek said.
Some organisations have taken action. Intrepid Travel, an Australian small-group travel company, removed all elephant riding from its tour itineraries in 2013 in response to greater awareness about animal welfare and research that showed its customers would not react negatively to missing the experience.
“Our philosophy is that animals aren’t there to be utilised by humans for our entertainment. “It’s great to go and see animals, but see animals in their natural environment and not in artificial environments. That’s very much aligned with our idea of not riding elephants,” said Geoff Manchester, the company’s co-founder.
“Just because we’ve stopped, it doesn’t go away and we want to be proactive in having it much more widely stopped,” he said.
Trends are shifting in Intrepid’s favour, particularly among operators in Chiang Mai, one of the original homes of elephant riding in Thailand. There, more businesses are advertising visits free of riding, bullhooks and chains to cater to more environmentally-conscious visitors. Camps are becoming sanctuaries and elephant rides transitioning to river walks.
“Change is happening quicker than it ever did. But with the size and growth of Asian markets, it’s likely maintaining the demands as high as it’s ever been,” Manchester said.
Newer, fast growing tourism markets like China and India are filling the demand for elephant shows and riding. With the explosion of tourists from these countries to Thailand in recent years, many operators are still not feeling the financial pinch which could otherwise see them let go of their old ways.
There is also a clear fine balance between the demands of running a sustainable business and caring for animals. There should be patience as the calls for change grow louder, said Edwin Wiek.
“With so many elephants in captivity and a very limited market at the moment from tourism, it’s going to be very difficult to change everything in one month or one year,” he said.
“The boycotting of these elephant camps has a good side, basically people wanting to upgrade the standards and change the way they run their business. But at the same time, some of them are actually suffering because they can’t sustain the care for their elephants and their staff any longer. So we’ve got to be a bit careful.”
There are communities all around the country whose lives and welfare have been built on the backs of elephants. It the dusty villages of rural Thailand that are ground zero for the industry: The breeding, training and money making.
There is a long, interdependent relationship between humans and elephants in these places. And it is still built upon pain.