Elephants in THailand

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Here in Southeast Asia humans and elephants have been working side-by-side for 4000 years, even depended on each other for survival - similar to the way horses were integral to life in many Western countries. Elephants rescued hundreds of people during WW1. Elephants plowed rice fields in the remote Karen hill tribe villages where there were no roads. Elephants helped build Ankor Wat.

In the past, Thailand’s forests teemed with a vast wild population estimated at the beginning of the 20th century to be in excess of 300,000, with a further 100,000 domesticated elephants. Presently in Northern Thailand there are no wild elephants - because there is simply no habitat left for them. Over the course of the last century, elephants’ natural habitat was taken over by “civilization”: villages and cities chopped up the jungle with roads and sold swathes of it off to make room for industrial agriculture. In reality, palm oil is a much bigger threat to elephants than tourism.

It’s so important to keep an open mind so you can learn. Most people naturally have a strong emotional response to the domestication of Thai elephants, but it’s good to also have an informed one. Chains, for instance, are often presented as unethical. But skillfully used chains actually benefit elephants. The mahout cannot be with his elephant 24 hours a day, so when he is resting, the elephant is chained. Without large, expensive enclosures, chains are the only measure of protection to ensure the safety of both humans and elephants. Otherwise, elephants attack each other, get hit by cars, electrocuted by fences, injure/ kill humans and destroy crops in neighboring farms. At night elephants are tethered with long chains of up to 20-30 meters, enabling them to be constantly moved to new natural food sources and to graze within a large circle defined by the length of the chain. Additionally, metal chains are the best tether for an elephant, as it does not chafe their skin like nylon or cotton rope.

And with regards to training, I soon realised that without teaching an elephant to understand certain commands, vital veterinary care is impossible. These elephants are now trained with positive re-enforcement at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. TECC uses Target Training and employs very skilled trainers who have been pioneering a non-invasive method of training and improving it year after year. They teach all mahouts to carry a kaw, or a bull hook, in order to keep themselves, other humans and other elephants safe. Elephants are still huge animals and can be very dangerous at times: the mahouts are tasked with saving human and elephant lives. But there is a huge difference between carrying a bull hook for safety and using it to train an animal through negative reinforcement.

To be clear - Chai Lai Orchid is not a “sanctuary”. The term “sanctuary” is often misused by captive elephant facilities, in an effort to differentiate them from other places with alternative management styles. At present, no tourism-funded ASEAN elephant facility meets all the requirements that define a true sanctuary. But I do think of this place as a haven.

I did think about trying to buy elephants to rescue them from abusive owners, but experts explained that buying elephants financially rewards owners and provides the lump sum to buy new elephants which are then trafficked from the wild. So instead we rent the elephants here, to keep the heavy metal chairs off their backs and make their lives as pleasant as possible. By developing positive communication with the camp owner, we have encouraged him to vastly improve his practices. It’s not perfect. It’s an ongoing process. We believe though that in this way we can show camp owners they can still make a profit while treating the elephants humanely. If successful, I think many elephant camps will adopt our model and improve the lives of more elephants - in fact, we have already seen that happening at the camps up and down our valley.

My hope for the future is that Thailand’s large domesticated elephant population can be used to maintain genetic diversity and help the survival of wild elephants in Thailand. If managed carefully, the tourist industry can ensure that large numbers of elephants will remain cared for and protected for the foreseeable future.

Thank you so much for supporting us and what we’re trying to achieve here.

Warmest regards,

Alexa Bay and the Chai Lai Orchid family