June 14, 2010
I was not at all prepared for what I would experience this afternoon. Still flying high from my experience at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, I was caught off guard as we drove north of Chiang Mai to one of the many tourist attractions that feature elephants. I was shocked at what I saw…and smelled. In fact, I had a hard time accepting everything about this elephant show camp.
More than fifty elephants, mostly adult females, were chained on concrete under a stable shelter, with no food or water in sight. They were edgy, grabbing at each other, pacing, swaying and showing signs of discomfort and agitation.
Fresh-cut grass, enough for two elephants, was bundled in a storage area out of the elephants’ reach. The place reeked of urine. I realized that the entire time at Boon Lott’s I had not once caught a whiff of urine or feces even though ten elephants lived on the property. This facility was not Boon Lott’s.
Aside from the owner and two other men, we were the only people at this tourist attraction; something seemed out of place. Where were the tourists? Where was the elephant food? Why were there nearly fifty elephants chained under rows and rows of shelters? It reminded me of a state fair with livestock in the exhibition barns. Everywhere I looked there were chained elephants.
And there were more than I thought. Around the next corner and the next, elephants seemed to be piled on top of each other. To make things even more unbelievable, there were two babies, each with an adult, in a 10×12 wooden corral.
Even though there was hardly room for the adult to walk two steps, both the adults and the calves were chained. The older calf — we were told that he was less than two years old — had chains on both front legs tied to two separate posts, severely restricting his movement. His anxiety level was painful; it was very difficult to watch him. The other calf was also chained on one front leg and his front feet were hobbled together. We were told that this calf was only seven months old.
I cannot begin to understand how these young calves can be treated in such a barbaric manner. As I watched, it seemed obvious that the adult elephants were not the mothers of these two calves. At no time did the calves attempt to suckle or solicit comfort from the adult elephant.
Their bugged-out eyes said it all. They were agitated and displayed some aggressive behavior toward the people who came near the cage. The adults were as stressed as the calves and were of no comfort to each other.
Bluntly put, this tourist attraction felt like a cross between a puppy mill and a prisoner of war camp. Elephants were lashing out at each other, fidgeting, pacing and generally acting quite stressed. In my career I have never seen such an unhealthy situation for elephants.
On top of many of the stables was storage for rows and rows of elephant saddles. In fact, even though it was the hottest time of the day, one tusker was saddled up and chained in the stall, even though not one tourist was there to ride him.
In the middle of the stables stood a small arena surrounded by wooden bleachers. Rows of painting easels, musical instruments and basketball hoops were standing ready for the next show, whenever that would be.
The owner explained that tourism had dropped off and he needed to sell some baby elephants in order to pay his mahouts, who, from what he said, had not been paid in three weeks. Unfortunately, this owner of more than fifty elephants did not think he should have to dip into savings to pay staff; if the tourists did not come, the mahouts did not get paid and, from the looks of it, the elephants did not get fed.
As we were driving out we found even more elephants crowded into more stables: a tusker in musth surrounded by other elephants and two more calves who looked less than six months old. The entire scene was devastating.
Thailand has a serious elephant problem and using them for tourism in this way is not helping the problem. The more tourists who go to these elephant show camps, the less likely it is that an alternative elephant-friendly solution will be created. But, honestly, I cannot imagine what tourists think when they visit a place like this. How can a person overlook the obvious pain and suffering? If the Asian elephant is to survive and recover in Thailand, exploitative situations like this one need to be closed down.
Thailand has a huge challenge in front of them. Definitely the solution is not easy but exploiting this nation’s treasure should not be acceptable. Hopefully Thailand will enact and enforce strict laws that will protect their elephants; the alternative is unthinkable.