In 2013 I travelled to the Thai island of Phuket for a short holiday with my brother and some friends. Like many tourists visiting Phuket, most of our time was spent either relaxing on the beach or drinking in bars. However, not wanting the whole week to be a drunken blur, we looked into some local excursions that we could do during the day. Almost the first thing we came across was the chance to visit a sanctuary where we would get the opportunity to ride an elephant. As a life-long animal lover with a particular fondness for elephants, I couldn’t say no.
The day of visiting the sanctuary soon came around. We hopped in the car and headed out of town towards the mountains. I had never heard much or read anything about elephants used in tourism so had no idea of what to expect. The fact that I didn’t do any research before agreeing to the trip is something that I’ll always regret; I guess excitement just got the better of me.
This was no sanctuary. Instead, what we arrived at was a dusty clearing just off the side of the road with a tall wooden structure assembled there for visitors to get on and off of the elephants. A nearby path led away from the road up the mountain, and that was it. There was no sign of anything that even remotely resembled a sanctuary. I should have been more alarmed then, but I was assured that this was perfectly normal, and that the elephants do live in a sanctuary but are brought out to this area during the day.
Just a short wait later we climbed aboard our elephant and were led up the mountain track by the mahout, who soon climbed up onto the back of the elephant’s head. It was at this point that I noticed the stick the mahout was holding, with a sharp metal hook protruding from the end. I also noticed that the elephant’s skin was covered in scars.
After our elephant ride I sought out the information I should have researched beforehand. Now that I had seen firsthand that these animals were being exploited, I had to know the extent of the cruelty I had just contributed to. What I learnt was heartbreaking. Naturally these creatures do not wish to be ridden by humans, so they need to be “tamed”. The method used to tame the elephants is called “Phajaan”, or crushing, and is designed to divorce the elephant from it’s spirit, leaving it under the control of it’s handlers.
The reality of this procedure is that elephant calves are removed from their mothers at a young age and forced into small cages where their front and back legs are stretched and bound with ropes. Often deprived of food and water, the baby elephants are beaten with sharp objects, stabbed and burnt whilst being continuously screamed at. The objective here is to make the creature so terrified of it’s human captors that it will do anything to avoid being hurt again. This cruel treatment is carried out relentlessly for days or weeks, until the young elephants are completely broken and their handlers have gained absolute control. A tool that is commonly used during and after this procedure is the bull-hook, the very weapon I saw our mahout wielding on the day of our elephant ride.
Whenever you see an elephant performing tricks, painting pictures or allowing humans to ride on it’s back, the process of Phajaan has been used on them. Genuine elephant sanctuaries rescue elephants from places that promote these kinds of activies, and would never allow them to carry on under their care. Whilst you are able to visit the elephants in these sanctuaries, walk along side them and even feed and bathe them, you will never be allowed to ride them. If rides are offered, then you are not dealing with a true rescue sanctuary.
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The cruelty of animal tourism doesn’t stop at elephant rides, however. Arguably one of the most popular tourist activities in the world is swimming with captive dolphins (or watching them perform), yet this is also one of the most cruel. Often illegally captured from the wild, dolphins are separated from their families and sold off to tourist attractions and parks all over the world. As highly social animals, this has a hugely traumatic effect on the dolphins, particularly the youngest ones who would naturally stay with their mothers for up to six years in the wild. The dolphins will then be placed into small enclosures either alone or in incompatible groups meaning that their complex social structure is disrupted, causing long-term psychological damage. In addition, the small enclosures themselves cause extreme stress to the animals, who would usually swim up to 40 miles per day.
The fact is, whenever you see animals being used as tourist attractions there is sure to be cruelty involved. Wild animals such as tigers do not willingly sit for selfies with tourists and will therefore have been submitted to a lifetime of cruelty in order to subdue them. This may include beating, burning, drugging and more. In addition, animal “attractions” such as these are often only available in countries where it’s much easier to circumvent animal protection laws so it may be impossible to lodge any successful complaint against the abusers. The only way we can hope to ensure these practices do not continue is to stop funding them, and to encourage others to do the same.
Thankfully more and more tourists are becoming aware of the cruelty within the animal tourism industry. With increasing pressure from consumers to see the unethical treatment of animals brought to an end, holiday providers are also starting to distance themselves from the activities. Just last year TripAdvisor announced that they would no longer be selling tickets to elephant rides, swim-with-dolphin experiences, and attractions that allow visitors to pet tigers and other exotic animals. A more recent addition to this movement is Expedia, who have announced that they will no longer promote any activities involving elephant entertainment. Even in China, with it’s famously poor animal rights record, three prominent tourism companies have already taken a stand and ceased promoting activities that involve elephant rides and elephant entertainment. They join the 160 travel agencies worldwide who have now committed to not promoting elephant-based tourism.
This is all welcome news, but there is still much to be done. Despite the number of operators who are turning their backs on these cruel practices, the huge increase in tourist numbers to countries such as Thailand means that more and more animals are still being treated inhumanely. According to a report by World Animal Protection: “Tourism to Thailand doubled from 15.9 million to 32.6 million visitors between 2010 and 2016, contributing to a 30% rise (1,688 to 2,198) in elephants held in captivity for tourist activities“. What this tells us is that relying on tour operators to end the cruelty isn’t enough in itself – we the consumers need to ensure we are actively spreading the message that animal tourism is never acceptable.
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