The mightiest of all land mammals, the elephant is a sight to behold. Seen on TV, or even in a zoo, they don’t adequately convey a true sense of their size or power. But as you watch your four-year-old daughter scrubbing the back of one as it lays down in a river, three times her height laying on its side, you begin to appreciate the majesty of these great beasts. And when you look into their eyes, you can see them smile, just like the famous eyes of the Irish, or yet weep like the eyes of a mythological goddess.
To me, there is no justification for the treatment used to ‘tame’ these gentle giants. Using methods so cruel that they would be considered barbaric and criminal in the West, the ‘breaking’ of a young elephant consists of locking them in one place for days at a time using a bamboo cage, starving them, and subjecting them to beatings, stabbings, and assault with hooked poles.
The Mahouts are the young men who bond themselves to the elephant in this process, and they become the caretaker, rider, and chief companion for the duration of the elephant’s life. These young men devote themselves to the Elephant, and perhaps out of fear, or concern for their own safety, feel that cruel and painful treatment is the only way to bend a young elephant’s will to their own. They follow a routine that has been established for hundreds, or perhaps thousands of years, and those sorts of customs are hard to break.
The elephant was used in Thailand primarily as a working beast for the logging industry until a total ban on logging in 1989, when the negative impacts of logging were seen to far outweigh the benefits. Since then there has been little for the domestic elephant to do to earn their keep. The wild elephant is seen as a nuisance, a crop destroyer and a potential danger, and is in grave threat of extinction in Thailand due to poaching and outright murder of these great beasts.
Tourism is providing one of the only industries for the domesticated elephants, and that relies on cruel treatment to keep them in line, not to mention the harmful and back breaking practice of carrying passengers in carriages on their backs. Some elephants roam the city streets with their Mahouts, begging for food and performing simple tricks to entertain tourists, painfully enduring the noise and pollution of city life in the act.
One lady is trying to make a difference, despite overwhelming opposition to her plans. As one of the national symbols of Thailand, you would think that a champion of Elephant rights would be celebrated, but sadly, that is not the case. ‘Lek’ Chailert has been working for years to create a safe haven for domesticated elephants, causing controversy, and even receiving scorn from her own family. But she has thus far succeeded in her quest. Her Elephant Conservation Park hosts over thirty resident elephants, mostly abandoned or abused beasts that she has taken under her protection.
So, we, who were determined to ride an elephant as a ‘thing to do when in Thailand’, found out the truth of the elephant tourist trade, and how harmful it is to an elephant’s spine to ride one, and decided to check out the conservation camp instead. Thus it came to be that I stood watching both of my children happily scrubbing and splashing a great beast that could easily have rolled over and squished them flat. I had no worries of that happening however, as the elephants seemed to share a genuine, almost compassionate concern for the other living creatures around them.
At feeding time, just before the river bathing, we (cautiously at first) held out fruits and vegetables for our gigantic friends to eat. After a while, we became comfortable enough with their gentle nature to empty the giant baskets that had been set out for their brunch. Elephants eat about 150 kilos of food per day, which makes meal time a shocking experience, akin to watching a Midwestern family set themselves upon an all you can eat buffet. Effortlessly devouring whole watermelons and heads of cabbage, they seemed to have a bottomless stomach, and would gently tap you on the shoulder with their trunks to remind you that there was still food in their giant basket that they would like to eat, thank you very much. I’ve started using the phrase ‘I’m hungry enough to eat like an elephant,” which sounds far more appealing than the thought of eating a horse.
After the Elephants were thoroughly satiated, we were allowed to feast at a banquet of our own, although the food was somewhat nicer (and fresher) than the market cast-offs we fed to the elephants. All manner of wonderful and organic Thai dishes were laid out at a buffet, and we feasted to our hearts content.
After this, we walked in a grand procession with the elephants down to the river, where we were geared up with buckets and scrub brushes. The elephants waded into the shallow river first, the Mahouts astride their bare necks (which avoids causing them spinal damage), gently urging them down, surfing elephant style, as they laid down in the brown water. They then turned us loose on the hapless beasts, and it became a sort of elephant bathing party. The only thing missing was some bubble bath.
Water was flying everywhere, scrub brushes were furiously scrubbing, and everyone was having a great time, especially the elephants. The joy in their eyes was as tangible as it was in all of those partaking in the festivities. Cleansed and contented, the beasts were eventually led away to rest for the afternoon, and the group was led off on a tour of the grounds with more elephant facts and discussion. Violet was content to play in the river, so Cyrus went with the tour, while Theresa and I stayed to enjoy the scenery and relax on our first day out of the city in some time. It was an amazingly beautiful experience that chokes the back of my throat and stings my eyes with the memories.
As the tour returned to the main building, we made our way back to join them, and the rest of our afternoon was spent watching a documentary about Lek and the elephants. There was a certain irony in watching a video about the elephants while they were a stone’s throw away, but the video conveyed information that was both heartwarming and gut wrenching.
There were gasps of astonishment and cries of emotional pain from the viewers at witnessing how the elephants are treated and raised. At the conclusion of the film, the silence spoke louder than words, reeking of the disappointment and shame that can come from our perceived human superiority, and the horrors we can inflict upon our fellow inhabitants of this earth. I was very grateful that Violet fell asleep for the part where they showed the elephant beatings during their ‘training’ and part of me wished I could have slept as well. The fear of man is a powerful thing, but knowledge is stronger. Lek’s work is an inspiration to us all to remember that animals are as deserving of rights and freedoms as any of us.