The Elephant in the Room: Thailand's public shame

Feature by Oliver Gaywood | 12 Apr 2016

While the elephant has special significance in Thailand, the creature is often subject to forced labour and cruel treatment. We hear the story of Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert's sanctuary in Chiang Mai, and its work to protect elephant Jokia and other animals like her.

Like many Thai elephants, Jokia used to work in the logging industry. It's not hard to see why the locals wanted her help: with heavy logs to move, elephants were often the easiest way of getting the valuable commodities to an area where they could be sold.

Jokia, like many others, was not well-rewarded for her toil. Most were underfed while many were given drugs to keep them working round the clock. Jokia was forced to work through a pregnancy.

As well as while she was expecting, Jokia was forced to keep going while she was in labour and in the important few hours after her baby's birth. Unsurprisingly, not long after her child was born, he died.

Grief-stricken as any mother would be, Jokia went on strike. To encourage her back into servitude, the loggers fired slingshots at her eyes. At first this had no effect, but one of the mahouts (elephant keepers) hit his target, causing Jokia to lose sight in that eye. Jokia lashed out at her tormentors.

When an elephant attacks you, she doesn't have many weak points to go for. Jokia's mahout decided to defend himself by going for her remaining good eye. He stabbed and stabbed, finally hitting his target and subduing the angry animal.

Having lost her first child and the sight in both eyes, Jokia was hitched up to a tree and forced back to work.

Elephants and Thai conservation laws

Around 95% of the Thai population is Buddhist, a religion that puts a large emphasis on the importance of life in all animals, in particular the elephant. This revered animal has spent time as an icon both on the national flag and the country's coins, but is quickly losing its high status.

Wild elephants in Thailand are protected by conservation law, although it may be too little too late. In the middle of the 19th century, it was believed there were around 100,000 elephants in Thailand. As of 2010, that number was down as low as 3000. The conservation law, however, only covers wild animals: any captive elephants are classed as livestock and their rights are almost non-existent.

Because of their strength, many elephants have been employed in logging, but that activity became illegal in Thailand in 1989 when it was noticed that, without trees in place, flooding and mudslides during the annual monsoons claimed more and more lives.

Some elephants were kept for the black market trade and some were sent to bordering countries where logging was still permitted. For others this change in law led to a career change. A lucky few were released into the wild but the majority were sold on to circuses, animal trainers or to mahouts who would force them to beg on busy city streets. This last practise is illegal in most of Thailand, although fines are small and rarely imposed.

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Most elephants in captivity are female. These are still magnificently strong, but they have less aggression than the bulls. Female Asian elephants, unlike their African counterparts, do not grow tusks, which gives them one fewer weapon to scare their captors. Regardless of being the fairer sex, female elephants can still easily overpower a human and could kill one with a well-aimed trunk swing. So how do mahouts convince elephants to work for them?

The most common practise is a crush cage. This contraption looks like a prison cell and is generally only a little bigger than the elephant, preventing the subject from sitting, lying down or turning around. The elephant will be restricted with chains and ropes to keep her from moving. The chains also cause cuts and wounds.

The purpose of the crush cage is to subdue the elephant and kill her spirit. Her sentence will be three or four days, during which time she'll be starved. If the elephant tries to move into a more comfortable position, she will be struck or stabbed. If she reacts to this, she will be attacked again. At some point, the elephant's designated mahout will climb on top of her so she gets used to carrying a person. From this vantage point, he will strike the elephant's head. Similar techniques are used to teach and encourage an elephant to play football, paint a picture or perform countless other circus tricks.

Sangduen Chailert, or Lek, as she's nicknamed, came from a poor hill tribe in northern Thailand. Her grandfather was a healer and one grateful patient gave him an elephant, Tongkum, to thank him for his work. Lek's grandfather loved his elephant and to Lek it was clear that the elephant loved him back. When the grandfather died there was a clear change in Tongkum's behaviour and within a year the heartbroken elephant died too.

The time spent with Tongkum had a huge effect on Lek's life. After graduating from university, something practically unheard of for someone with her upbringing, she worked in the elephant tourism industry. Lek quickly realised that many of the working elephants didn't get the same loving attention Tongkum had received.

The campaign for elephant rights

Lek began to campaign for elephant rights and better treatment of the majestic animal. Some of her work was not well received, and led to bricks being thrown through the window of her agency's office.

Realising that something major had to be done, she sold everything she owned to rent land from the government. Using this ground she was hoping to give a second chance to injured, abused and orphaned elephants. Unlike other elephant parks, Lek's would focus on giving her animals as natural a setting as possible, even if that meant forgoing typical tourist attractions.

Opposition to her work was everywhere. Some locals feared the elephants escaping. She was labelled a rebel for going against Thai traditions. In the early days, the government sent many inspectors to try to catch Lek breaching any of the myriad rules they'd set. Foreign visitors, though, are completely enamoured with Lek and her work. Thousands visit annually, as day-trippers and as volunteers. The locals have come around, too.

The main reason the government isn't enthused by Lek's work is because animal tourism is a huge moneymaker. If you look at any travel guide for Thailand, you'll see countless pages dedicated to monkey performances, tiger photos and elephant painting. Not many visitors look too closely behind the scenes: at the cramped living conditions, the de-clawings and druggings or why exactly the mahout stands next to his elephant where the crowd can't see the weapon he's concealing.

Although only a tiny percentage of the country's animal tourism, Lek's Elephant Nature Park is changing the way visitors to Thailand interact with animals. Unlike similar establishments, this venture is a non-profit organisation that doesn't put on shows, it doesn't let visitors ride the elephants and all its training is done using positive reinforcement.

Elephant Nature Park
One of the residents at Lek's Elephant Nature Park

Volunteers take part in all areas of the elephant's day, from preparing meals to feeding them hand-to-trunk and bathing them in a river. They're given opportunities to speak to mahouts, guides, vets and the park owners. For someone who wants to see an elephant up close and interact with one, without the chains and threats of violence, options such as these are a breath of fresh air.

When Lek first saw Jokia, she was overwhelmed by her suffering. Lek spoke to Jokia's owner about buying her but, despite her condition, was quoted an exorbitant price. Eventually the two came to an agreement and Lek had her first blind elephant to look after.

Things didn't begin smoothly; Jokia still had to be transported back to the park. After being severely mistreated by her previous owners, she didn't know what was going on or if it was to her benefit. The journey to the park normally takes around four hours but ended up taking more than eight as all was done to soothe her.

When Jokia arrived at Lek's park she had no friends and no family. If this situation occurred in the wild, she would be left on her own to fend for herself. In the sanctuary, things work differently. Mae Perm, an elephant in her 90s, took a shine to Jokia and became her adoptive carer. The two spend their days together, with Mae Perm leading the new arrival round the park.

Jokia celebrates her 15th year of retirement in 2016. She may have been robbed of her freedom, her eyesight and her chance to become a mother, but if you visit the park today, you'll see she holds no ill feelings towards humans and will happily sniff them out, extending her trunk in a friendly greeting.