A video which appeared last week has left the Internet in a state of glee. We are, of course, talking about the adorable baby elephant taking a bath in Thailand! If you love elephants–and how could you not?–it’s sure to put a giant grin on your face.
And we certainly enjoyed the video too, but it also led us to some extremely unsettling articles about how some elephants are treated in the country. Don’t worry, though–it’s not all bad news!
First, let’s start with the video of the baby elephant bathing at ElephantStay , located in the Royal Elephant Kraal about an hour from Bangkok.
▼It’s like a puppy!
ElephantStay is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to protecting and rescuing elephants that often face abuse at the hands of their handlers (called mahouts) in Thailand. Many in the country make their entire living from tourism and baby elephants are a great source of income, as tourists often head to Thailand hoping to see the adorable creatures playing or doing tricks.
Unfortunately, doing tricks and running into the ocean aren’t exactly natural instincts for baby elephants, which means they need to be trained.
One way of training of a baby elephant is called “phajaan,” which apparently means “to crush,” and the name, sadly, appears to be accurate. Brent Lewin, a photographer who captured a training session on camera, described what he saw for NBC in 2011, reporting that the elephant was tied up and beaten. He does emphasize, though, that not all mahouts train their baby elephants this way, and that some use positive reinforcement instead of employing violence to break their spirits.
Adding to this is the work forced on these “street elephants.” Common throughout India as well as Thailand and other countries, according to EleAid , an elephant conservation and protection group, street elephants are elephants that are brought by mahouts to urban areas to beg. As EleAid explains, in the past, mahouts worked with their elephants in the lumber industry in rural areas, but once logging was banned, they started coming to cities to entertain tourists. Of course, urban environments tend not to be great for elephants–they face a host of problems from not having the mud they need to protect their skin from the sun, to getting hit by cars.
▼A video from the Mahouts Foundation on some of the abuse elephants face.
What we found most shocking was learning how some mahouts mistreat their baby elephants: driving nails into their ears to force the creatures to play in the ocean. Again, we want to emphasize that this is only some mahouts–there are a growing number of foundations and businesses dedicated to training elephants humanely and establishing safe places for the animals.
One safe place is the Elephant Nature Park , which allows people to volunteer or come for day trips to spend time hanging out with the elephants. Elephant Nature Park, whose founder Sangduen Leck Chailert, has won a number of awards for her work, allows the elephants to walk around relatively freely. And at the Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary , which is focused on providing a habitat for elephants to live and reproduce naturally as well as assisting local mahouts in caring for their elephants by offering medical help, small groups of volunteers can stay on-site and help with feeding and watching the animals, usually for three to five days. The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand also has an Elephant Refuge where the elephants have access to forests where they can “roam around in their ‘original, natural’ habitat.”
▼A video about the Elephant Nature Park and its founder Sangduen Lek Chailert.
Which brings us back to ElephantStay, where the video of the baby elephant bathing was apparently filmed.
Looking online, we’re seeing both positive and negative things written about the organization. For example, in 2012, Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, criticized ElephantStay on Twitter for being part of the problem. Wiek is no stranger to confrontation though–his refuge, along with Elephant Nature Park, was raided by Thai authorities in 2012 , allegedly for “custody of undocumented wildlife.” However, Wiek and others were adamant that the raid was the result of political corruption and “retaliation for drawing attention to recent elephant poaching,” and, in fact, after two years, the organization was cleared of all charges by a Thai court. Project Elephant has also criticized them , partly due to a video showing an elephant dancing to music allegedly filmed at ElephantStay. We also can’t help wondering if putting chains on the elephants is the best practice, but it may be necessary to ensure the safety of guests.
On the other hand, ElephantStay is a refuge for elephants escaping abuse, and they have garnered a huge number of positive reviews on TripAdvisor . Additionally, the founder of ElephantStay, Laithongrien Meepan, has won an Outstanding Social Contributors Award, presented by Thailand’s Ministry of Culture. We’ve obviously never been to ElephantStaty, but if you’re interested in getting a better picture of the place, you can read about one visitor’s experience on Perceptive Traveler .
In the end, even if ElephantStay isn’t perfect, we have to applaud them and all the refuges we’ve mentioned for working to make the lives of elephants in Thailand better. If you have been to any of these places, please be sure to share your experiences in the comments – we’re hoping to hear some happy stories!
Sources: NBC , EleAid , YouTube (Mahouts Foundation) , ElephantStay , WFFT , Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary , Elephant Nature Park