Millions of tourists flock to Thailand every year to view its magnificently diverse landscapes, embrace the rich Buddhist culture, and dine on the exotic local cuisine. Itineraries also often include an elephant trek through the country’s dense rainforests or a visit to one of Thailand’s many flamboyant animal circuses. Unbeknown to many of these tourists, the animals that perform for their pleasure, have undergone many hardships in the process of their domestication – perhaps none more so than the Asian elephant.
The world’s second-largest land animal – runner-up only to the African elephant – has been an iconic symbol to the colourful kingdom formerly known as Siam for thousands of years. But much like China’s Giant Panda and the Bengal Tiger of India, Thailand’s national animal is fast becoming an endangered species.
Commonly used in warfare in earlier years, these graceful beasts have more recently been domesticated and pressed into service in the logging and tourism industries. Logging was banned in Thailand in 1989 and up until then, had been a prominent factor toward the rapid acceleration of deforestation within the country. Ironically, the working elephants contributed to the destruction of their own habitat, and in collaboration with the fact that their owners had no further practical nor profitable use for them, they were subsequently sold into the tourism and entertainment industries.
Elephants are naturally wild animals and although attacks on humans are extremely rare, necessary precautions must be taken due to their colossal size and astonishing strength. Within local communities in Thailand it is believed that to become sufficiently obedient to interact and work with humans, elephants must go through a ritual named Phajaan.
As young as four years old, the infant elephant is separated from its mother to undergo a severe, almost humiliating taming process conducted by men known as shaman. The young calf is confined into a small space and held tightly in place using constricting ropes and chains. The procedure involves physical torture including poking and prodding with sharp implements such as knives and bamboo sticks with nails embedded in the end. Other methods include food, water and sleep deprivation. The elephant must endure this until the shaman senses that it has become submissive enough to work for its owner.
Almost all of Thailand’s domesticated elephants – whether rode whilst trekking, performing tricks or street begging – must endure this gruelling ritual. It’s an unpleasant reality unbeknown to the majority of tourists who arrive in Thailand expecting an authentic encounter with wildlife. However, there are opportunities for tourists to experience encounters with these majestic beasts that are not detrimental to their welfare.
Nestled in a remote valley amongst northern Thailand’s lush green hills lies an animal rescue and rehabilitation sanctuary named Elephant Nature Park (ENP). Located around 60 km from Thailand’s second-largest city, Chiang Mai, ENP offers its visitors a unique experience that sets it apart from many other wildlife sanctuaries. Founded in 1990 by twice awarded Thai Woman of the Year Lek Chailert, the sanctuary currently provides a retirement home to around 40 elephants rescued from the tourism and logging trades. It is also a haven for cats and dogs that were victims of the 2011 floods.
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