What seems to be a huge trend for tourists in Thailand is visiting elephant camps, where one can witness elephants performing all sorts of tricks and marvel at how intelligent these animals are.
One of these ‘tricks’ is elephant painting – a show in which the elephant is handed a paintbrush by its trainer and, through different strokes, produces images that we recognize as flowers, trees, animals…
The tourists are of course observing the entire process, after which they can pay to take one of the paintings home. One painting can cost several thousand dollars, a good earn for the elephant camp. According to them, the funds are used to help the animals and better their living conditions.
It sounds truly wondrous that elephants, just like humans have the need for a creative outlet and a knack for artistically presenting their realities. Unfortunately, it’s a scam that serves for profiting off of horrid animal abuse and the naivety of eager tourists.
Elephant Camps in Thailand
According to the Maesa Elephant Camp, they were the first ones to introduce elephant painting as a tourist attraction. The camp was founded in 1976 by Choochart Kalmapijit and is located in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Aside from elephant paintings, they offer different services such as elephant riding, walking or bathing. On their website, they state that their goal is to improve the quality of the elephants’ lives and to increase their life span. To what extent is this true?
The Camp has good ratings on TripAdvisor, and the reviews of previous visitors are quick to praise the staff’s treatment of the animals, denying any mistreatment. However, these reviews are written by mundane tourists, and their credibility is questionable at least.
Luckily, the camp has also been visited by a couple of experts, and their accounts tell a much different story. Even so far back as 2008, British zoologist Desmond Morris published an article in the Daily Mail, describing his experience at a camp called Nong Nooch Tropical Garden.
As a scientist, he was able to analyze the painting show with an objective mind. His conclusion states that there is absolutely nothing artistic going on in those shows. The elephant trainers, otherwise known as mahouts, stand next to their elephant and tug at their ear to signalize different strokes with the brushes. With every pull on the ear (usually utilizing bull hooks), the elephant produces a new line of paint on the canvas.
Phajaan – The Pinnacle of Animal Cruelty
There is an old Asian method for ‘training’ elephants called phajaan. Phajaan means ‘to crush’ as in breaking the spirit of the elephant. ‘Crushing’ is a traditional technique that employs mental and physical torture to make the baby elephant submissive to its human master – mahout.
Phajaan is used to prepare elephants for all kinds of tasks, not just painting. Thailand is known for exploiting elephants as a tourist attraction with a broad range of activities – the most popular of which is elephant riding.
First, the young elephant is removed from its mother around the age of three. This separation is too early and causes the animals to suffer emotional trauma for the rest of their lives. After that, it is taken to a ‘crush cage,’ where its limbs are bound with ropes and endure cruel stretching. The elephant will stay there for a couple of days up to a couple of weeks. During the entire time, it is deprived of food and water, beaten with sharp objects, burned, stabbed and yelled at. About half of the calves die during this process.
Following this brutal treatment, the elephant’s future mahout arrives, ‘saves’ it from its captors and releases it from the cage, therefore manipulating the elephant into trusting and obeying him. Unfortunately, the elephant continues to be subject to violence throughout the rest of its life. What’s even crueler is that the elephant will never forget the period of its ‘crush.’
How to Actually Help Elephants in Thailand
The best way to help is to spread the word. Tell your friends, your family and anyone you might know that’s planning a trip to Thailand. Share stories and testimonies from people who have been there and most importantly, never enable this kind of abuse by paying for it or supporting it in any other way.
There is a portion of captive elephants trained with positive reinforcement. There is nothing wrong with admiring their intelligence and friendliness for a small fee that will help them have a comfortable life. Despite this, it’s important to know when an elephant has been abused. The signs usually involve scars and discoloration around the ears, trunk, forehead as well as ankles. Mahouts holding bull hooks or other sharp tools are also alarming.
There has been controversy around elephant paintings since almost ten years ago, and yet this is still widely practiced in Thailand. Tourists are the only reason why this is still going on, and they need to be educated about the facts.
Being ignorant to this kind of issue is completely unaffordable and says a lot about humans as a species. Elephants are not here so that you can ride them or buy their ‘art.’ They do not exist for anyone’s amusement or Instagram picture.
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