Ok, so maybe the title is admittedly clickbait, but you’re here now, and this is important. Please keep reading to see how the COVID crisis is leading to a great deal of suffering in Asian elephants and many other species used in tourism attractions.
Asian elephants have been a staple of the the logging industry in Thailand—and other Southeast Asian countries—for hundreds of years. Throughout the 20th century however, those creatures were eventually replaced by machines that could do the job faster and more efficiently.
Because of this, elephants made the transition for use in the travel sector, where they’ve earned their keep by entertaining western—and more recently Chinese—travelers for decades. Its no secret that tourists will pay good money to watch elephants perform tricks and even more cash for the opportunity to ride one.
Most travelers have no idea about how the elephants are treated while working under these conditions. Many have suffered a GREAT deal of abuse throughout their lives and during their training.
For example, babies are usually taken away from their mothers and put in a “crush” for several days without food or water. Made from logs, the crush is designed to keep them confined, slowly crushing their body and preventing them from moving.
As you can imagine, this causes the young pachyderms a great deal of pain and anguish as they are nearly starved to death while being simultaneously being tortured. This heartbreaking process is used to break their spirit, causing them to submit to their captors.
Once that happens, they are primed to be trained so they can be ridden and perform in front of unwitting tourists.
Elephants used for riding in tourist attractions are led with a bullhook that can be used to stab them when they aren’t doing exactly as they’re instructed. In Thailand, and throughout most of Southeast Asia, these creatures are considered property and are seen as nothing more than money-making assets. As a result, they are usually treated as such.
Lek Chailert – Our Hero
Thankfully, the elephants of Southeast Asia are lucky enough to have a real-life hero fighting for them. A diminutive Thai lady by the name Sangdeaun Chailert has devoted her entire life to improving the welfare of the creatures. Nicknamed “Lek”, which means tiny in Thai, she has become a symbol for the ethical treatment of elephants throughout the country.
Lek has a dream that ALL elephants around the world can roam free, make natural bonds, play, love, and live. More importantly, her goals is that those animals are NEVER ridden, NEVER exploited, NEVER abused, and NEVER led with a bullhook.
Over the years, Lek has created the Elephant Nature Park, which is a massive preserve on the side of a mountain where the elephants can be free to do all of the elephant things that they would in nature. Since the Thai tourism industry usually views the elephants as a commodity, they are often discarded as soon as they become sick or unable to perform.
Lek never refuses an elephant a home at the Elephant Nature Park, however, allowing all to live there peacefully. When visiting the park, you will see blind elephants, elephants with deformities from logging, elephants who are sick or injured, and more recently, some baby elephants that have been rescued.
In addition to running the preserve, Lek also travels around the world, showing other elephant camp owners how they can treat the animals ethically and still make money. She instructs them on how to end elephant abuse and halt riding operations.
She knows she can’t save all of the creatures from that environment, but she can improve the lives of the elephants by helping to change the business model.
I have personally been at the Elephant Nature Park when they introduced a new bull elephant that has recently been rescued. In the beginning, he was terrified, stressed, and unruly.
While I was there, I watched Lek sit down between the big elephant’s legs, wrapping her arms around one of them. Then, she began singing a Thai lullaby, which immediately soothed and relaxed the animal. In response, the big bull wrapped its trunk around her, as if returning the embrace.
I’ve never seen someone so tiny who was so fearless. It was almost as though the elephant knew that his life of suffering was over, and he was going to get to live out his golden years being loved, respected, and FREE.
Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park depends greatly on donations from their foundation (you can read more at: https://www.elephantnaturepark.org). The primary source of income for the Elephant Nature Park, surprisingly, is tourism. The style of tourism here is much different though.
When tourists come to the Elephant Nature Park, the elephants don’t work for the tourists, the tourists work for the elephants. Tourists pay to spend the day (or days) there, preparing the elephants’ food, cutting fruits and veggies, cleaning the accommodations, and sometimes even playing with the elephants in the river. It’s educational tourism, and the money brought in is used 100% to take care of the rescued elephants.
COVID 19 Impact on Thailand Tourism
Due to the COVID pandemic, Thailand has closed its borders for nearly eight months now and isn’t scheduled to reopen until sometime in 2021. As a result, the owners of the “bad” elephant camps have been discarding their animals at an alarming rate. Without tourist to fund their businesses, they can no longer afford to care for the creatures. Since they aren’t making any money, they have become even more disposable.
Of course, Elephant Nature Park also has almost no tourists at the moment, but they are still doing everything they can to rescue and take care of the elephants from other parks and owners. Lek knows that without her help, they’ll be killed or left to starve. The pandemic is indirectly leading to suffering in the animals used for animal tourism (both good and bad) at levels that have never been seen before.
What can we do to help?
1) DONATE – Please, this has never been more important than it is now. Animals are starving all over Southeast Asia, and Elephant Nature Park is doing the best they can to rescue as many of them as possible.
2) VISIT – If you’re in Thailand, going to Thailand (or surrounding countries), please do your homework and visit ONLY the animal rescues who are genuinely “Saddle’s off” and abuse-free. You can read more about this on the Elephant Nature Park Facebook page.
3) SHARE THIS – If nothing else, please share this to raise awareness. Thailand will open up sometime next year for tourism. Every single informed tourist who chooses an ethical animal attraction to visit, as opposed to one ripe with abuse, helps us fight this battle against abuse one dollar at a time.