With a wave of the mahout's hand, the heavily-saddled elephant lifts its front leg and allows the handler to climb on top of him. Tourists wait nearby, lining up to go on an exotic ride of a lifetime on the back of an elephant. Outwardly, the elephants seem to be healthy and happy. Behind the scenes, however, a much crueler state of affairs exists.
When the elephants aren't working, they're likely to be kept inside concrete pens and shackled by short chains in separate areas, preventing these highly social creatures from having contact with one another. Eventually, they start to sway and bob their heads in a state of boredom, loneliness, and frustration. Come daylight, they're taken away to perform for the tourists once again.
It's been well documented that elephants at tourism venues will have almost certainly endured a lifetime of abuse. For in order to domesticate an elephant, a process called 'breaking', 'crushing', or 'phajaan' is needed, which involves applying physical restraints including chains and rope, punishment with bull hooks, and the deprivation of food and water to young elephants that have been taken away from their mothers.
This in effect breaks their spirit and forces the animals to submit to humans so they can learn unnatural tricks and behaviours. Often, the elephant calves die from being apart from their mothers and subjected to severe physical and psychological trauma: it's been said that only 1 in 3 survive the breaking process.
If they do survive, however, the heavy chains, shackles and bullhooks become a part of their everyday life to remind them of human dominance and their need to comply. For a species that is already on the path towards extinction, it's difficult to comprehend how this kind of treatment is legal.
This video shows the breaking process. Warning: may disturb some viewers.
There are 40,000-50,000 elephants left in Asia and 25 percent of them are captive. Within the 25 percent, 3000 are used for tourism and a recent report by World Animal Protection reveals that most of them are being kept in cruel and inadequate conditions.
Many also develop active lesions on their backs from heavy and inappropriate saddles and are forced to work with enduring injuries. Frighteningly, the number of elephants used for entertainment in Thailand has also increased by nearly a third in 5 years, some of whom would have been sourced from the illegal wildlife trade.
It was also found that many of these tourism venues provide little to no educative value to its audiences on the state of these creatures in the wild- a missed opportunity, especially in a region where the elephant is already endangered due to human activity.
While elephants have been used for labour for thousands of years, much has changed about what we know of them now, and it's troubling that we allow such innocent and intelligent creatures to suffer a lifetime of punishment.
In the past few decades, they've been found to be more intelligent and empathetic than thought, raising questions about how we treat them and whether they should even be kept in captivity at all. Public opinion is also changing: a survey found that 80 percent of respondents think that wild animals belong in the wild, and would prefer to see them in their natural habitats.
In the same vein, Lonely Planet recently made an announcement that they will no longer promote elephant rides or shows. They join a larger sentiment of more than 160 leading travel companies, including Qantas Vacations, who have signed a pledge to stop promoting tourism involving elephant entertainment, including trekking, rides and performances.
May this be a sign of more commitments to come to protect the elephant, a decrease in demand for animal entertainment, and draw us closer to a day where no elephant shall ever have to be broken ever again.