Elephants are simply amazing creatures. One cannot help being awed in their presence. They are complex beings – intelligent, gentle and curious.
In Asia, there are many places to get close to elephants, some ethical and others less so. Although you might expect it to be easy, sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.
This is the first in a series of articles on what to look for if you want an up-close experience with an elephant – this one is dedicated to elephants on the streets.
If you see an elephant begging on the streets, please don’t buy food to feed him or her, take a photo or interact with him or her. Not only is it illegal in Thailand to buy food for and feed an elephant on the streets – with fines for you and the elephant’s mahout (human carer) – it’s a terrible and often abusive life for elephants.
In the busy tourist areas on the streets, it’s easy to see how out of place these elephants are. To start, elephants sway when walking and the often narrow footpaths can be treacherous. Elephants can bump into any number of objects, hot food pans on food carts is just one example. It’s dangerous both to both the elephants and the street vendors.
This baby elephant, pictured (courtesy of Associated Press) fell into a manhole in Rayong (about 150 kilometres south-east of Bangkok). With the help of a bulldozer, it took several hours to rescue this elephant and she survived. Sadly, it was reported that the elephant and her mahout later returned to begging on the streets.
Elephants are the largest living land mammal and require approximately 200 kilograms of fresh food and, in hot climates, up to 200 litres of clean water daily. Foods in such quantities are not naturally available in inner cities and, if they could be sourced, it’s unlikely a mahout living on the streets could afford them.
Not only is there a lack of food in the city, elephants can get sick from breathing exhaust fumes and drinking dirty water. They can suffer eye calluses and tuberculosis as well as leg and feet injuries.
As they often live on the outskirts of the city, they often have to walk to and from work on hot roads which is painful to their sensitive feet. They’re also frequent victims of vehicle accidents.
Elephants are sensitive creatures. As the Elephant Charter states, ‘elephants are unusually intelligent and perceptive; they exhibit the advanced traits of empathy, self-awareness and complex emotions, expressing an interest in their own lives and [in] the lives of those to whom they are attached’.
Imagine, then, the impact of loud noise and music and crowds of people night after night. Elephants forced to beg on the streets experience fear, stress, disorientation and beatings. They are also sometimes drugged. These factors can contribute to an elephant’s physical and/or mental breakdown. When this happens, elephants have been known to rampage in order to escape.
So debilitating is this life for elephants, the Elephant Nature Foundation claims that an elephant’s life expectancy is reduced by half when they are forced to live on the streets. This is beneficial to neither the elephant nor their mahout who relies on the elephant for their income.
Elephants and their mahouts who sell bags of sugarcane, pineapples and bananas to tourists also have to contend with drunk tourists, who can frighten elephants with erratic movements and unpleasant behaviour.
Despite all the evidence and the fact that in 2009 the Thai government banned elephants from city streets, some mahouts still bring their elephants to the city to beg.
To support the ban, the Thai Government funds programs such as the Chang Yim Project (Smiling Elephant Project) which was established in 2009 to buy elephants from their mahouts and relocate them to the National Elephant Institute in Lampang. Other organisations like the Elephant Nature Park and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary also do their best to intervene and provide funds for an elephants in need of rescue. There’s still a lot of work to do, however, and funds are sorely needed.
Not only are there organisations helping, but some individuals are too, like Jack, a young New Zealander who visited the Elephant Nature Park and made friends with an older elephant named Lily. Since his visit with his family, he’s been raising funds through Facebook to buy an elephant from the streets and relocate it to the Elephant Nature Park. If you want to find out more about Jack’s efforts, visit his ‘cause page’ on Facebook.
American artist, Connie English, is another individual helping who is about to embark on a community arts project in Thailand to assist Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary build an elephant medical clinic. Click here for more information on Connie’s project.
If you know of any others that are helping, we’d love to hear about it.
So, if you see an elephant and their mahout begging in the street, you are encouraged to call the local police or an elephant care society – some of which are listed below.
If you want an up-close experience with an elephant, please resist the temptation on the streets, there are plenty of places in Thailand you can visit which use more humane practices with elephants. These experiences can be both humbling and breath-taking and we’ll discuss them in later articles this week.
Tomorrow’s article is on elephant entertainment.
Text: Lisa Louden