As Asia may be the most popular continent for travelling on earth, one of its most popular inhabitants is the Asian Elephant. Who doesn’t like the friendly giants? And since we love them so much, visiting an elephant project is on the bucket list of every traveller. However, there are many forms of unethical projects available in Asia. In this blog, I would like to point out background information about the Asian elephant and the projects that we should not support while travelling.
About the Asian Elephant in the wild
At the start of the 20th century, more than 100.000 Asian Elephants roamed the concrete jungles that at that time covered the Asian continent. However, the population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations due to a growing human population, being the cause of habitat destruction to make room for housing and agriculture. Through this, not many forests are left for the wild elephant population. Nowadays, elephants are restricted to just 15% of their original range while deforestation is still ongoing.
The emergence of elephant tourism
Asia has a long tradition of keeping domestic elephants. Over the centuries, they have been used for a variety of purposes. To take Thailand as the leading example: during the 20th century, domestic elephants have mainly been used in the logging industry, ironically helping to destroy the very habitat their species rely on to survive. Due to extreme flooding in 1988, Thailand set a complete ban on all commercial logging, leaving many elephants and their mahouts unemployed. As the tourism sector was upcoming during those years, many mahouts converted to trekking tours, circuses or street begging with their elephants as the main source of their income.
However, the tourism sector does not benefit the wellbeing of the elephant. It may look appealing to get at the back of a gentle giant as you might think it is not much of a difference from horse riding. But in fact, it is not ethical at all.
About elephant riding and the Phajaan
So is this form of elephant tourism unethical? First of all, before you can ride an elephant it needs to undergo a domestication training which is called the Phajaan. This is the barbaric tradition of crushing an elephants spirit. In a nutshell: baby elephants are being separated from their mothers at a young age, which is a traumatic event itself. The young elephants are being placed in a stall or cage and tied with ropes to prevent them from any movement. They are being tortured, starved of food, yelled at and repeatedly beaten with bull hooks for 24-hours a day, a process that continues for weeks.
Once their soul is crushed, the new mahout (owner/rider) comes in to ‘release’ the elephant of its abusers. He will be the one to lead the elephant away of the cage, resulting into the trust of the broken animal. Much disturbing footage of the Phajaan is available online but you can take it from me: this process is horrible and without any exception a traumatic experience to the animal.
As the bull hook is frequently being used during the Phajaan, mahouts carry the hook as a reminder to the elephant who is the boss. So even after the Phajaan, many elephants continue to suffer as most mahouts are using the bull hook on sensitive areas of the body in order to train and control the elephant. So be aware that for every form of unnatural entertainment like balancing, painting and sports this is the effect of the cruel training method that forces an elephant to act that way.
A second reason is the fact that the body of the elephant is simply not designed to act like is. For example the elephant riding. The spy of an elephant is rounding upwards, which differs from the spy of a horse. This makes it already unsuitable for carrying a heavy howdah (elephant seat) itself, let alone when it is loaded up with tourists.
While many tourist love to get in touch with elephants, they may not always be aware of this background information. I am not proud to say that I made the elephant riding mistake myself back in 2010, here pictured at the back of an elephant in Bali.
But the silver lining is that awareness is growing. This pushed demand for ethical elephant tourism, slowly converting more mahouts and their elephants to the ecotourism industry. Nowadays, a wide variety of this kind of ethical elephant tourism is available in Asia. Read my blog to learn more about 5 ethical elephant day-trips in Thailand.
- The truth about elephant tourism in Asia, the Rough Guide
- Ethical elephant tourism projects, Ears Asia
- The history and future of elephant tourism in Thailand, WFFT
- Deforestation in Thailand, Wikipedia
- Asian Elephants, WWF