At some point in our lives, many of us will have knowingly or unknowingly supported some form of animal tourism. Whether we visit a zoo, a circus, ride an elephant, or take that essential Facebook selfie with a sedated tiger. Most of us will do so without batting an eyelid. Sadly, Elephant tourism is today characteristic of much of southeast Asia; the Phajaan ceremony is where it all begins.
Lets face it, how many of us have ever stopped to think about the detrimental effects of elephant tourism? I mean, how do these highly intelligent and incredibly powerful animals find themselves subservient to humans, performing the most unnatural of tasks in the first place?
The answer lies in what can only be described as an incredibly sad and disheartening story. So disheartening in fact, that it leaves me wondering what it means to be a so-called “intelligent” species. Collectively, we have failed to honour the dignity of some of the most majestic creatures to have ever roamed the earth.
There is nothing intelligent about poaching and torturing animals. Ignorance, politics and tribalism have played key roles in what we see taking place in much of the world today. As a result, elephants have become a symbol of tourism, most notably in southeast Asia.
The Plight Of The Elephant
For years, elephant tourism has subjected countless elephants to the shameful acts of street begging, circus performing, forced breeding, elephant art and elephant back riding, not to mention industrial logging.
If you suspect for a moment that elephants enjoy the “glory and limelight” of the circus environment, or that they have no qualms with taking humans for a ride, you couldn’t be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, it is this very fallacy that is responsible for their ongoing plight. Somehow, we hold this misconstrued idea that, like dogs and horses, elephants have been bred for our service, and thus riding them seems trivial to many of us.
But, what if I was to tell you that an elephant only allows you to ride it out of fear. Fear of being subjugated to the same torture that imprisoned it in the first place? Well, that’s exactly what I’m about to tell you!
The Phajaan Ceremony – Breaking The Spirit
Although elephants cannot be domesticated, they have been tamed for hundreds of years. And while it is “possible” to tame an elephant, manipulating them for riding, or the more labour intensive task of logging requires a tonne of effort. In Thailand, the process by which elephants are forced into submission is known locally as a Phajaan ceremony, often referred to as “breaking the spirit”.
The Phajaan ceremony has its routes in tribalism. The idea being that a tribal shaman could expel the elephant’s wild spirit, forcing it into submission. After all, an elephant wouldn’t otherwise wilfully do so.
Phajaan literally means “to crush”, and a Phajaan ceremony lives up to its name. Elephants endure an intense week of physical and mental torture, forcing them into submission.
The process begins by stealing a young elephant from its mother. Young elephants are then subjected to “the crush”. It is here that the elephant’s feet are shackled while it is simultaneously starved. Let us not forget, a wild elephants spend 16 hours a day foraging.
As if this wasnt enough, the elephants are continually beaten with an array of weapons. Special attention is often paid to prodding and bashing their sensitive inner ears and trunks.
Once their Mahut (owners) are convinced that the elephant has been defeated, training begins. With its “wild spirit expelled”, an elephant will now comply to the every command of its Mahut. The video below is disturbing, but clearly demonstrates the aforementioned process.
An Elephant Never Forgets
Thousands of elephants are captured, tortured and abused each year. Of these, hundreds are rescued. Sadly, these rescued elephants are today a product of their past. Free as they now are, they still carry the physical and mental scars of a grim past.
Visiting these elephants in Thailand is a heart wrenching experience. Elephants, blind and deaf, with severe mental disorders, still carry the scars of what were once deep infected wounds. These scars mark the points of impact as bull hooks were once anchored into their heads.
Elephants with dislocated hips are a fairly common site as you roam the sanctuaries of Thailand. Forced breeding and landmine injuries being the ultimate cause.
Dislodged backbones, another common injury, are caused by poorly fitting saddles and excessive riding. The list is injuries are endless.
What Can You Do?
The most obvious solution to the problem of elephant abuse is the propagation of education. The driving force behind animal tourism, are the tourists themselves. Without an audience, the industry would simply fall apart. For this reason, we strongly discourage the riding of elephants, the purchasing of elephant art and attending animal circuses. The following is a quote from a committed elephant volunteer…
There is absolutely no such thing as a good elephant ride, or a good circus, or good elephant art, and it’s all for one main reason – elephants are taken from the wild and beaten for several days until their spirit is broken and they become submissive to humans. They are then forced to do these unnatural activities by having bull hooks and nails dug into their heads to make them cooperate. If you thought they were trained using hugs and treats, think again. What you’re seeing is not a happy elephant but one that has lost its right to object. The only decent elephant tourism is watching elephants be themselves at a sanctuary, and I’m more than happy to recommend some. Elephants are not vehicles or performers, and should never be used as such. – Alan Duffell
By boycotting elephant tourism and spreading the word, together we can raise awareness. Admittedly, the problem won’t dissolve overnight, but you’ll be surprised at how many people are simply unaware of what is going on.
Finally, you can support elephant nature park at www.elephantnaturepark.org or find out how to join one of Thailand’s elephant voluntary projects here