To Chang or not to Chang

Chang in Thai means elephant. Elephants are the symbol of Thailand and evident on t-shirts, pants, statues, etc. Chang is even the name of a popular beer. However, elephants are without a doubt the most exploited animal in all of Thailand.

As I prepare to leave Thailand and think back about my time here, one thing that still sticks with me in a bad way is a visit to an elephant camp during my first week as part of orientation.

I was conflicted about the visit in the first place and my roommate chose not to even visit. I decided that I wanted to see it, if only to use it later in a forum such as this to admonish the behavior of the people towards the elephants. I understand the allure for everyone to ride and interact with these beautiful animals and I also understand their role in the history of Thailand. However, at the elephant camp we visited, I simply saw the exploitation of these animals.

There were three things in particular that especially concerned me:

1) The first is a matter of genetics. An elephant does not have a weight bearing spine so to put a human, let alone a large, uncomfortable seat, on the neck and spine of an elephant is troubling. Even riding in it as a passenger made me fearful as the elephant trudged along and the weight shifted from one side to another. I chose not to take photos so that I could maintain my place on the seat and not fall.

2) The second was the use of force and threats to the elephants. Each handler had a large hook to force the animal to do what the handler wanted. As I rode atop the elephant, the handler continually hit the elephant on its head for no apparent reason. Hearing the connection between the wooden and metal handle of the hook with the skull of the animal made my own head hurt. I grimaced every time they connected. Additionally another elephant near us decided to takes its time going up a hill which did not please its handler who began hacking at its legs to force it to go faster. Pretty soon we saw blood begin to trickle down the leg of the beautiful pachyderm. We mentioned this to our handler who notified the other handler. He got down from the elephant and rubbed dirt in the fresh wound.

3) Finally, the baby elephants were sexualized in a completely unnecessary way. During the “show,” audience members were encouraged to lie down and have a baby elephant step on them. Women laid face down and a foot was placed on their bottom. Men laid face up and the elephants used their trunks to hit the groin area. Now why my fellow orientation members would willingly choose to do this I do not know but I know I felt extremely uncomfortable and angry at the exploitation of the baby elephants.

In an effort to keep this blog semi-brief and not go on a long tirade, I will only briefly mention the process that these elephants go through to become “domesticated” or “tame.” They are tied up, beaten, and caged. Zoos in the United States have even stopped with this method, choosing to use reward based systems.

In doing research for this blog post, I came across the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai which provides a home for elephants who were abused and used for logging, trekking, or street begging. After reading more about the organization, I decided that a trip up north was a must so that I could have a rewarding elephant experience. I was able to take part in a new program involving four elephants whose owner recently decided to follow a positive reward model versus a punishment model. We followed them (notice I did not say rode them) through the jungle and went at their pace. If they stopped for a snack, we stopped for a snack. There were no hooks or abuse. At the end of the day we went to the main camp and treated the elephants to snacks and a “bath” where we simply threw buckets of water on them. The elephants at ENP have evident signs of previous abuse – broken legs, blindness, scars, repetitive motion (a sign of stress and abuse), and sagging skin around their neck from where the harnesses of the seats for tourists pulled for decades. As I was there, I wondered how long it would take for the baby elephants we previously encountered to show similar signs of abuse.

If you visit Thailand, I encourage you to still have an elephant experience but choose an experience that is meaningful and does not promote the continued exploitation of these animals. Become educated and informed about how elephants have been used in Thailand and then make educated choices about how you chose to interact with these amazing animals. In this case the only way to make a difference is to make a change.

I will close with a quote from a Edwin Wiek, head of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand which rehabilitates abused animals to the wild, regarding the recent tiger temple raid.

“Tourists should realize that when they take a selfie with tiger or an elephant that a lot of animal cruelty is behind that picture.”

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