Standing in the burning heat, jabbed with metal hooks, with chains cutting into their flesh – this is the cruel reality behind elephant tourism in Thailand. And tourists from Britain unwittingly play a part in their torment. There are more than 200 unethical elephant venues in Thailand where visitors demand selfies with these majestic animals or clamber aboard their backs to ride through the jungle.
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Elephant-related tourism in Thailand is a £415million-a-year industry and is based on stealing calves from their mothers and breaking their spirits with sickening cruelty before turning them into photo opportunities. Despite the savage treatment, a proposed UK government ban on the promotion of holiday venues abroad where elephants are abused was paused earlier this year.
The process where the calves are taken to secret training camps, beaten, starved and tortured is called “pajan”.
Step one is for the beasts to be forced into a kraal or “crushing cage”. This is a wooden structure designed to keep the elephant so tightly caged it cannot move. Trainers then starve the animal and keep it awake for days on end, before beating it with wooden weapons designed to inflict as much pain as possible. The animals endure this brutality for at least six months, all day, every day until their spirit is so broken that they fully submit to the trainers.
About half die in the process while the rest give rides for tourists, perform tricks in shows or are gaudily dressed for parades.
The Express went to Thailand on a mission to uncover the suffering of elephants. One of the last stops on the trip was to Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Chon Buri where they are cruelly made to dance underwater while bobbing their heads above and below the surface. On the other side of the glass, hundreds of men, women and children sit in the crowd cheering at the acrobatics and filming it on their phones.
Life for these elephants involves a great deal of pain, fear, dehydration, malnutrition, abuse, suffering and humiliation. Many are on the brink of death and beaten with a bullhook. With its metal spike and curved blade, this weapon would not look out of place on a medieval battlefield.
Signs at Khao Kheow said their elephants were chained as a safety measure for the public “because they can be very aggressive”. They even stated that they are doing this as “animal welfare” is the zoo’s “first priority”.
The reality is very bleak, with numerous elephants swaying from side to side, an indicator of stress and ill health, and chained up with barely any room to move. The Government has urged British tourists to support “higher welfare” attractions involving animals while abroad. But at least 1,200 UK firms are promoting 277 venues and profiting from elephant torture.
Campaigners at Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) are demanding a ban on UK firms marketing holiday venues that exploit elephants.
The Animals Abroad Bill was intended to ensure that cruel animal practices overseas were not supported by UK consumers.
However, the Bill was dropped from this year’s Queen’s speech, despite former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to tackle animal cruelty. The Private Members’ Bill, tabled by Tory MP Angela Richardson, is due for a second reading in February.
The Bill, first introduced in June, would also ban live exports, and imports of hunting trophies, fur and foie gras.
STAE has spent the last three months campaigning for Rishi Sunak’s government to support these changes in the law and has received overwhelming backing from the public.
Duncan McNair, CEO of the organisation, said: “Support for a ban on such adverts promised by the Johnson administration runs across all boundaries of faiths, politics and the public, the latter now at 95 per cent.
“Will the Sunak government prove the sincerity of its declared support by backing the Animals (Low Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill, due for a second Commons reading on February 3?”
Elisa Allen, PETA’s vice president of programmes, said: “A jumbo thank-you to the Daily Express for telling travel firms there’s no excuse for elephant abuse! Elephants perform uncomfortable, confusing, and even painful tricks and give rides only because of training that involves fear and harsh punishment.
“They endure lives of total domination and exploitation, often denied food and water for many hours and kept in shackles, unable to take more than a step in any direction, when they’re not being forced to do something for human benefit.
“Our government must bring forward the promised Animals Abroad Bill, which would ban tour operators from advertising cruel animal attractions and experiences, including elephant rides.
“Meanwhile, PETA urges tourists to vote with their wallets and leave wild animal attractions off their itineraries.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and our Action Plan for Animal Welfare demonstrates our commitment to promoting high animal welfare standards, both at home and abroad.
“We know animals that are part of tourist attractions are often subjected to cruel and brutal training practices – and we encourage access to research so holidaymakers can make informed choices that benefit wildlife.”
Katheryn Wise, wildlife campaigns manager at World Animal Protection, said: “Venues that offer this kind of opportunity normalise this harmful trend that causes misery for thousands of animals worldwide.
“Captive wild animals face a lifetime of suffering just to entertain tourists.
“If you can hug, ride, touch or take a photo with a wild animal, the chances are it has suffered some kind of cruelty.
“Wild animals are not ours to exploit. They belong in the wild.”
Comment by Duncan McNair – CEO of Save The Asian Elephants
I founded Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) in 2015 after harrowing trips to India to investigate the horrors committed on the now highly endangered Asian elephant ensnared in modern tourism. The cruelty was worse than I feared.
Last month I travelled with the Daily Express to Thailand, home to three-quarters of the world’s captive Asian elephants. Beautiful and bountiful, Thailand translates as “land of the free”. Not so for the elephants.
Exploited in tourism for decades, they are snatched as babies from the wild and their protective mothers killed.
The youngsters are then isolated and starved in a “crushing cage”, screamed at whilst beaten with planks and iron bars, stabbed and ripped with knives and nails.
STAE has received reports of captive mother Asian elephants who give birth after 22 months gestation then immediately crush their newborn to death underfoot to spare the baby the same tragic life of horrors they have experienced.
We entered the enormous Nong Nooch resort in south-east Thailand with trepidation. Described as a cultural experience, in a huge rodeo dozens of traumatised baby elephants were stabbed on the head with bullhooks and behind the ears with secretly placed nails to make them dance, play football, basketball and throw darts. Some were so young they tried to cling to their mothers.
Crowds of screaming children were urged to stuff bundles of cash in the trunks of huge elephants as their tusks swung within inches of their faces. Baby elephants are chained to fences between endless exhausting “performances”. They do up
to 10 a day, bruised, bloodied and crying.
At Thailand’s Khao Kheow “sanctuary” captive elephants were forced into a large glass tank to repeatedly swim its length underwater for a few vegetables in front of rows of gawping, laughing crowds. Baby elephants are stabbed in the head with spikes to force them underwater.
While elephant tourism has boomed across this region, global numbers have crashed to barely 40,000. Over 40 per cent are in captivity, most enslaved, enduring daily violence as a reminder of their childhood torture to ensure submission for tourism.
Physically and psychologically broken, they survive just half their natural lifespan. Yet Asian elephants are vital “mega gardeners of the forests” who nourish the terrain on which we all depend, combatting our carbon output.
Provoked elephants attack and kill – STAE has recorded thousands of cases.
STAE notes 1,200 businesses peddling 300 brutal, dangerous elephant venues in the UK. Support for a ban on such adverts promised by the Johnson administration runs across all boundaries of faith and politics. Public support is now at 95 per cent.
Will the Sunak government prove its declared support by backing the Animals (Low Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill, due for a second Commons Reading on 3 February?
This article by Emily Braeger was first published by The Express on 30 December 2022. Lead Image: Elephant-related tourism in Thailand is a £415million-a-year industry (Image: Save Elephant Foundation).
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