Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Surin Elephant Roundup, a government-sanctioned festival celebrating Thailand’s revered Asian elephant. The multi-day event draws large crowds all eager to witness elephants showcasing their amazing abilities. Elephants dancing to Gangnam Style, throwing darts to pop balloons, playing an organized game of soccer and even walking upright to slam dunk a basketball were all on display.
I think it’s safe to assume that everyone knows these skills are not natural for elephants to perform. No one would expect to witness a wild elephant in the jungle throwing something with its trunk at a target or walking upright on her hind legs, let alone kicking a ball or painting. Elephants are trained to do these tricks, and they’re smart enough to learn over 200 commands.
The Surin Elephant Roundup is a festival that attracts flocks of Thai and international tourists to an otherwise sleepy place. The natural forest habitat of the Asian elephant has been completely logged, and in its place are acres upon acres of rice fields. Surin province was once the heartland of Thailand’s wild elephants. Now, there are zero. Not a single wild elephant exists in Surin. There are, however, approximately 300 domesticated ones.
It may not be obvious, but in order for a new generation of elephants to be employed in the tourism industry, they must first be domesticated. Otherwise, it would be extremely dangerous to interact with these massive animals. After all, even trained elephants have been known to injure, sometimes fatally, their mahouts (caretakers).
The Surin Elephant Roundup requires all of the employed elephants registered in the province to return each November for the festival, regardless of where they’re currently working. Some make the 20-hour journey from trekking camps north of Chiang Mai, where others are trucked in from their street-begging night jobs in Phuket. The saddest journey of all, though, is when baby elephants are kidnapped from their mothers in the wild jungles of Burma, and illegally smuggled across the border into Thailand. These babies, scared beyond belief, are chained to females that have no milk to give, nor any interest in caring for babies that don’t belong to them.
I saw a terrified, motherless calf and my heart still breaks when I think of her. I know what her next chapter will be: if she survives the next year or so without the important nutrients only found in her mother’s milk, she’ll be malnourished when her mahouts force her into the torturous domestication process, known as the Phajaan in Thai. In English, the process is known as “the crush”, where young elephants are imprisoned in a cage so small they can’t turn around or lie down for 3-7 days, while they’re beaten with bats, poked with nail-studded sticks, and gouged with bull hooks incessantly until the elephants lose their spirit. Below is a video of a typical Phajaan, and I warn you, it is extremely graphic and disturbing:
At the Elephant Roundup in Surin, with excited onlookers all around, I only saw the bull hook serving as a constant reminder for each elephant to behave. After all, an elephant never forgets. Behind the scenes, however, like the morning before the chaotic elephant buffet at the festival, I witnessed its return to the weapon it is:
The elephant buffet is one of the main events of the festival and since many high-level Thai politicians and dignitaries are in attendance, the elephants must look their best. I was lucky enough to get behind the scenes and watch dozens of elephants getting scrubbed clean by their mahouts, interjected with whacks or pokes of the bull hooks.
The aforementioned buffet was the most heart-wrenching for me. I walked through the fruit- and vegetable-lined streets of downtown Surin, along with thousands of other tourists and over 200 elephants. I saw an elephant unsure of his footing, afraid to step on a tourist who wasn’t aware he was caught between two elephants. I saw elephants overeating, instinct telling them to eat the food offered but their stomachs refusing to accept anything else, and then throwing up. I saw beautifully clean elephants in the hot sun for hours, without mud on their skin for protection. I saw young elephants rocking in fear, with their mahouts forcing them to street beg for tiny sticks of bamboo, when the abundance of free food could have fed an entire village. And I was asked whether I needed a taxi ride back to my hotel, with the driver pointing to his elephant.
I know I’m not the only one that understands that kidnapping baby elephants from the wild, or torturing them into submission, or watching them perform tricks, or hiring them like taxis is wrong. But, stepping from behind the scenes at the Surin Elephant Roundup to see massive flocks of tourists thrilled at what they were able to witness, I never felt so alone in my beliefs.
Without a tourist industry supporting festivals like the Surin Elephant Roundup, or at elephant trekking camps, or at zoos and circuses, future generations of elephants will have a better chance at a cruelty-free life.
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