Roberts: The elephant in the room
May 17, 2016
I’ve spent the last 17 days wandering around Asia. The majority of my trip was spent volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), a sanctuary for abused elephants. And make no mistake, nearly every elephant living in captivity in Thailand is abused. "Tortured" is a more appropriate word.
Before I left for my trip, I tried to brace my heart for the stories I would hear and the scars I would see. "Be strong," I told myself. If nothing else, the 70 elephants I would work with were safe. They’d never be ridden or used for logging or entertainment again. Thousands more aren’t so lucky.
My pep talk demanding I be stoic was quickly ruled ineffective minutes after arriving at ENP. At first I blamed the tears on 34 hours of traveling. The 110-degree heat. Leftover anxiety from a temporarily confiscated passport in China. Anything but what it really was: A physical reaction to man’s cruelty.
Everywhere I looked I saw elephants who had survived brutal abuse, suffering and neglect. This is the story of nearly every Asian elephant in captivity in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other nearby countries.
Many at ENP had been blinded by the lights of a circus. Others had dislocated hips and broken legs, permanently and painfully contorted. These injuries were often from logging accidents (I’ll never buy anything made of teak wood again). Despite their deformities, these elephants are the lucky ones. Those whose injuries were too severe to get the off the mountain were sometimes doused with gasoline and burned alive. An easy way for an owner to claim insurance. Other elephants ENP rescued had been malnourished, begging for food on the streets of Bangkok, the owner hoping to make a quick buck off a tourist looking for a new Facebook photo. An elephant belongs in Bangkok about as much as it belongs in New York City.
The vast majority of elephants at ENP still suffer mental problems from their days lugging tourists up and down mountains. The first several decades of their lives were spent working until they collapsed, with little rest and less food. Trekking elephants aren’t allowed to pour sand over themselves or roll in mud with tourists on their backs. So they cannot apply their natural sunscreen, leaving them blistered and exposed in 100-plus degree heat. When they aren’t hauling people up a mountain, they are chained, the metal rubbing their skin raw. When they urinate, it runs down their legs and into the wounds left by the chains, causing painful infections. Still, they must carry loads of people up and down mountains for 16 hours each day.
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But the worst part is what happens before all of this. The crush. Aptly named as it crushes the animal’s spirt.
Still nursing babies are separated from their mothers and put in a small pen. So small, they cannot turn around. There, they are tortured in the name of domestication. They are beaten, burned, stabbed and deprived of food and water until they stop crying for their mothers. All in the hopes that some tourist will pay $10 for a lift on the elephant’s back in the future.
During the crush, an elephant’s trunk is tied to a post. Otherwise, the animal will step on it to commit suicide.
After a week or so of this, the elephants are let out, terrified of their masters. Willing to oblige them in any way possible to avoid the abuse they now intimately know. It happens every single day in Thailand.
The suffering elephants endure in Thailand is truly the elephant in the room. Few acknowledge it, and fewer still do anything about it.
This column is not meant to shame anyone who has ridden an elephant in Asia. The brochures aren’t exactly transparent about the ‘training’ process. You can’t help what you don’t know. But I did write this hoping to prevent people from doing it in the future, and hopefully move the needle towards an end to elephant trekking.
This is something a remarkable woman named Lek Chailert has dedicated her life to. As the founder of Elephant Nature Park, Lek fights every day to end the abuse elephants suffer. She’s brought it to the attention of the Thai government, begging them to protect elephants. Her pleas have been met with denial. Lek’s life has been threatened many times for her work. She tirelessly tries to educate tourists who visit Thailand planning to ride an elephant, naively contributing to their suffering. She and her mobile unit visit the trekking camps, offering free veterinary care to the elephants who have survived the crush. Otherwise, their wounds would be left unattended.
When she is able to bring a rescued elephant to her sanctuary, she sings it lullabies during its journey. She assures it over and over again it’s now safe. And the elephants seem to understand this. They are certainly grateful.
The elephants at ENP watch thousands of volunteers and visitors go through the park each year. Those that have been there awhile are pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. But when Lek calls for them by name, they come running. A mess of trunks embrace her, touching her over and over to assure her wellbeing. She’s then gently nudged under an elephant’s belly so she can walk with the herd protecting her, just as they do with their babies in the wild.
It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. It drew more tears, but this time, they came because I felt so blessed to have seen this bond.
For more information about Elephant Nature Park and Lek’s work, visit http://www.SaveElephant.org .
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident, and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.