Rachel Mathews is an attorney and the director of the Captive Animal Law Enforcement division of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Foundation. She works in behalf of animals, particularly elephants, who are held captive in circuses and roadside zoos. Her team's many victories include prompting animal circuses to shut down or go animal-free, rescuing a long-suffering elephant from the exhibitor who neglected her for decades, and championing California's statewide ban on using most animals in circuses. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.
By now, many travelers are turning their backs on the obvious cruelty of elephant rides, and more than 50 companies, including Fodor’s, refuse to offer them in their itineraries. Tourists have seen numerous videos and photos showing elephant calves—many of whom, according to a report released by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the international body that regulates trade in endangered animals, have been kidnapped from their homes and families in nature—shoved into wooden cages or tied up with ropes and beaten mercilessly for days until their spirits are broken and they become fearful and submissive.
Tourists have also seen plenty of evidence that once elephants are trapped inside the tourist camps where they’ll toil until they die, mahouts (handlers) armed with bullhooks—these resemble a fireplace poker with a sharp hook on one end—force them to trudge up and down the same path hauling tourists on their backs, even when they develop painful foot, leg, and back problems. And tourists have seen what results when a stressed, frustrated elephant tries to fight back.
As awareness spreads of the abuse at elephant entertainment operations, demand for elephant rides has decreased. So, many of them have rebranded, adding compassionate-sounding words such as “sanctuary,” “rescue,” “refuge,” “foundation,” or “orphanage” onto their names. In almost every case, the name may be different but the cruelty is the same.
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Although there are no official numbers, the most widely used method to train elephants used for tourist encounters in Cambodia, India, Thailand, and other countries is known as the “crush” process, in which calves’ spirits are broken through the threat of physical punishment.
Some of these newly branded elephant exhibitors continue to offer elephant rides, while others focus on different types of experiences, such as elephant painting, walking, and bathing, telling tourists that they’re helping to provide the animals with needed care. But what they don’t tell tourists is how these elephants end up in the camps in the first place.
Elephants live in matriarchal family herds in which several generations help raise the young. Males stay with their highly protective mothers until their teens, and females stay with them for life. In many cases, trappers capture juvenile elephants in nature, tearing them away from their families and killing mothers and other herd members as they try to defend and protect the babies. These captures destroy entire families.
TRAFFIC, a leading international wildlife trade-monitoring network, exposed in a 2014 report how tourists are driving the capture of wild elephants. The organization found that trappers corral young elephants into pits, often forcing already-captive elephants to participate. According to researchers, when older members of the herd try to fight to protect the juveniles, they’re frequently shot with automatic weapons. As TRAFFIC’s report explains, “Recently, with the change in market demand for infants and juvenile elephants, as well as the greater availability of firearms, poachers in Myanmar are reportedly increasingly using automatic weapons as part of the ‘pit-trap’ approach. Mothers and female minders are often extremely protective of wild infants they are guarding, making it difficult for the poachers to capture them. Using automatic weapons, the protective members of the herd can be easily killed and the infants removed. The body parts from the slain individuals can then also be sold for profit.” Captured elephants are often injured and sometimes killed when they fall into the pit. Altogether, an estimated 5% to 30% of elephants die during capture and training.
Over a two-year study period between 2011 and 2013, at least 79 elephants were captured in Myanmar and sold into the Thai tourism industry. The report lays out that “a capture rate of 100 elephants annually would lead to the extinction of Myanmar’s wild elephant population in less than 30 years.” TRAFFIC reports that in addition to habitat loss and fragmentation, “[l]ive capture of wild elephants, previously for logging but now increasingly for tourism, has played a key role in population declines: it is now considered a major threat to wild elephants.”
Smuggling elephants across borders is relatively easy. TRAFFIC reports that while some countries have enacted legislation purported to regulate the elephant trade, “given the clandestine nature and high value,” oversight is minimal, enforcement is rare, and border agents commonly accept bribes to look the other way. The organization noted at least one instance in which a politician and authorities were instrumental in elephant smuggling in Thailand’s Ratchaburi Province.
A 2017 report published by the CITES secretariat further confirms that tourism is a “major driver” of the illegal elephant trade.
And after their capture and transport, the “crush” process begins.
In order to make elephants—who are remarkably intelligent, have a strong sense of self-preservation, and will defend themselves—obey their human captors, they are subjected to days of torture so severe that some don’t survive.
Still-nursing calves are dragged away from their mothers, immobilized inside wooden cages or tied down, terrified and burned with fire, and beaten mercilessly for days or weeks while being deprived of food, water, and sleep to be “trained” to work. The process is called “the crush” or “phajaan,” which means “breaking the love between,” in reference to separating babies from their mothers.
Natasha Daly, a writer with National Geographic‘s Wildlife Watch investigative reporting initiative, exposed extreme abuse of animals used for wildlife tourism in six countries: “Phajaan is the traditional—and brutal—days- or weeks-long process of breaking a young elephant’s spirit. It has long been used in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia to tame wild elephants, which still account for many of the country’s captives. Under phajaan, elephants are bound with ropes, confined in tight wooden structures, starved, and beaten repeatedly with bullhooks, nails, and hammers until their will is crushed.”
Those who survive—injured, traumatized, and depressed—are sentenced to a lifetime of forced servitude and denied everything that is meaningful to them.
Physical and Emotional Damage
Numerous independent elephant experts have found that elephants who are subjected to the “crush” process often develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is exacerbated by mahouts’ use of fear to control the animals. One wrong move and an elephant may feel the sharp pain of a bullhook being gouged into the sensitive area behind their ears—a favorite target for handlers. The ever-present bullhooks also serve as a constant reminder of the far worse punishment that will befall an elephant who disobeys after the paying customers have gone.
Dr. Gay A. Bradshaw, a psychologist and ecologist whose decades of work have focused on animal trauma recovery, has published many articles and books on PTSD in elephants and other animals. In a 2016 study of Asian elephants held at two facilities in Thailand, most of whom had been used for begging, logging, riding, or other types of performances, Dr. Bradshaw and her colleagues determined that 74% exhibited symptoms of complex PTSD (c-PTSD). The team drew this conclusion: “Our results formally describe in the concept and methods of neuropsychology and traumatology how capture and captivity effected to control and exploit elephants causes severe psychological suffering and breakdown: in technical terms, c-PTSD. The terror and pain experienced by elephants during violent forms of the phajaan, in addition to the psychophysiological damage caused by separation from mother, family, and community, profoundly damages elephant minds, bodies, and society.”
If handlers don’t want paying guests to see a bullhook, mahouts have been observed carrying a wooden rod or another less frightening-looking device, which they might say is a guide to help direct the elephant, but has the same effect on the elephant. Examples of this can be seen in PETA’s eyewitness footage taken at the Chitwan Elephant Festival in Nepal and in photos from PETA Asia’s exposé of Thailand’s Samutprakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo.
In nature, elephants spend their days foraging for fresh vegetation, playing, bathing in rivers, and traveling many miles a day with their families. In tourist camps, they have little control over their lives. They may not be able to socialize with other elephants whenever they want, cool off in a river when they get too hot, rest in the shade, get a drink, or make other choices for themselves. They could be forced to work all day doing whatever handlers and paying visitors tell them to do. These animals, who naturally avoid humans, can be coerced into constant unwanted physical contact with them.
When the elephants aren’t working, they are commonly chained—often on concrete, stone aggregate, or compacted earth floors. Long hours spent standing and walking on hard surfaces that bear no resemblance to the soft forest floor are one of the major reasons why captive elephants often suffer from serious and debilitating medical issues, including painful nail abscesses, foot infections, arthritis, and lameness.
At night, they’re often bound with chains so tight they can barely move. Chaining elephants contributes to the progression of arthritis, as the animals are denied the ability to engage in natural movement and exercise. The chains cause deep, painful cuts on their legs and often lead to musculoskeletal issues. Chaining takes a severe toll on elephants’ mental health as well, and it’s common to see them exhibiting signs of extreme psychological distress such as repetitive swaying or head-bobbing. Chaining elephants as a routine form of confinement is widely condemned, including by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
PETA has documented cases of elephants suffering heart attacks, collapsing, and dying while being made to entertain tourists. Others have retaliated against their handlers, lashing out in anger and frustration after years of abuse, and have injured or killed mahouts and guests.
These animals are routinely denied basic necessities such as nutritious food, adequate water, and needed veterinary care. Many die decades short of their natural life expectancy.
Real Sanctuary or Sham?
Just as there’s nothing natural about humans riding on elephants’ backs, there’s nothing natural about making them paint pictures for us, balance on balls to entertain us, or let us walk them, and give them baths. These activities serve two purposes: to give humans fleeting moments of amusement and to make money for the animals’ captors. They do nothing to protect the species, and they rob elephants of everything that would make their lives worth living.
Awareness of the abuse that’s often carefully concealed at elephant camps is spreading—and that threatens those with a financial interest in this lucrative industry.
Some members of the travel industry created their own “accrediting” organization to promote captive elephant tourism, called “Asian Captive Elephant Standards” or “ACES.” While an accreditation should mean that a facility meets professionally designed standards as verified by a recognized and respected independent accrediting body, ACES has no publicly available, verifiable accrediting standards beyond a few vague ideas on “camp management.” According to a report by industry watchdog World Animal Protection, of the four facilities approved by ACES, none provided elephants with adequate opportunity to socialize and roam, one kept elephants on inappropriate flooring, and another forced elephants to perform in shows. The report concluded that ACES “does not reliably identify responsible elephant attractions that prioritize the elephant’s welfare, or that even contribute to a phase-out of commercial captive elephant tourism.”
Elephant-exploiting businesses have begun telling tourists that without their money, the elephants will suffer. But PETA and animal rescue organizations around the world have offered to find safe, species-appropriate, permanent homes for these animals in true sanctuaries where they’ll never be exploited or forced to do anything that they don’t want to do.
In 2014, PETA India rescued an abused elephant named Sunder and constructed a facility at the Bannerghatta Biological Park with more than 122 acres for him and 14 other elephants. Experts were hired to help train mahouts and veterinarians to care for the elephants without bullhooks, chains, or force. PETA India also helped to place Gajraj, an elephant who had been chained for 51 years near popular tourist spots in India, at the Elephant Conservation and Care Center in Mathura, India—a collaborative project of Wildlife SOS and the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department.
So, How Can You Tell a Real Sanctuary From a Scam?
True sanctuaries or rescue organizations do not buy, sell, or breed elephants or let them be used for entertainment. Their employees don’t use bullhooks or any weapons, and they don’t punish the animals in any other way even when out of visitors’ sight. They don’t force these animals into close, unwanted contact with humans. They ensure that the elephants have the companionship of members of their own species and provide them with a spacious habitat that resembles—as much as possible—the expansive territories that they would traverse in nature. These habitats give them the ability to exhibit normal behavior, such as knocking down trees, cooling off in ponds, and foraging for food.
True sanctuaries are often closed to the public except on certain occasions, and when they do offer tours, visitors view the elephants from a comfortable distance so as not to disturb them. Guests don’t touch them, because these places exist for the sake of the animals, not the tourists. Elephants are respected and protected there. True sanctuaries are typically nonprofit organizations that rely on donors and grants to achieve their mission of providing elephant-focused lifetime care.
The easiest way to determine whether the elephant sanctuary you’re thinking of supporting is legitimate is to check to see if it’s accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. This international organization is widely respected and regarded as setting the optimal standards for animal welfare. To qualify to carry the GFAS seal, facilities must meet GFAS’ species-specific standards of excellence for animal care, which were developed by veterinarians and experts. The sanctuary must also support and meet the overarching ethical philosophy of GFAS, which includes a strict prohibition on exploitative tourism. The standards to which an elephant sanctuary accredited by GFAS must adhere to a total of 42 pages in length. A few of the organizations doing great work to help captive elephants include The Elephant Sanctuary and the Performing Animal Welfare Society in the U.S., the Global Sanctuary for Elephants in Brazil, and Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary and the Mahouts Elephant Foundation in Thailand.
The Elephant Sanctuary
The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee, is accredited by GFAS and supplies a permanent loving home for elephants rescued from circuses, ride operators, roadside zoos, and other abusive exhibitors. They spend their days in a spacious green habitat making choices for themselves and doing only what they want to do. One of their most famous residents is Nosey, an African elephant who gained supporters all over the world as PETA spent more than a decade working to free her from her abusive exhibitor. She and her fellow residents are never forced into contact with humans, but lucky sanctuary volunteers may spot them during their workdays. Can’t make it to Tennessee? You can still watch the elephants enjoy their peaceful new lives on three solar-powered EleCams.
The Performing Animal Welfare Society
The GFAS-accredited Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California was founded by an animal trainer turned animal advocate. She realized how much animals suffer for human entertainment and regretted being part of it, so she left show business and devoted the rest of her life to rescue. PAWS offers one- or two-day educational getaways in which guests can tour the facility, learn about its rescue work, and observe elephants—including Toka, Thika, and Maggie, all of whom PETA helped rescue—from a respectful distance. Visitors who choose the two-day experience may also spot charming Ben the bear, whose rescue from a roadside zoo involved PETA, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, fans around the globe, and a free ride in a FedEx plane dubbed “Bear Force One.”
Global Sanctuary for Elephants
So far, five South American countries have banned exhibitors from making elephants perform. The GFAS-accredited Global Sanctuary for Elephants in Brazil offers them a peaceful retirement and specialized care. The sanctuary isn’t open to the public, but you can follow its Facebook page for an inside look at the challenging work of rescuing and rehabilitating elephants as well as the individual personalities of the animals.
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
Boon Lott (which means “survivor” in Thai) is a home for rescued and retired elephants in Sukhothai, Thailand. On 600 acres of forest, the animals have the opportunity to interact with each other, forage, cool off in rivers, and take dust baths—all natural forms of behavior that many captive elephants are denied. The Boon Lott team personally responds to reports of elephant abuse elsewhere, works to provide the suffering animals with relief, and, whenever possible, gets them admitted into the sanctuary.
Mahouts Elephant Foundation
An organization working to help elephants, the environment, and caretakers is Mahouts Elephant Foundation. This sanctuary currently supports four rescued elephants who live free in a protected forest near the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Visitors have the opportunity to stay with a host family in the community and can hike into the pristine forest to track and observe the elephants from a safe distance in their natural habitat.
PETA and other organizations around the world are working to get elephants out of exploitative camps and into reputable sanctuaries. Until then, we urge everyone to remember that when tourists stop buying tickets, there’s no reason for poachers to kidnap elephants, no reason for trainers to beat them bloody, and no reason for mahouts to subject them to a lifetime of servitude and abuse. The easiest way to ensure that you are not contributing to animal suffering is to choose animal-free tourist activities. We encourage everyone to ask themselves this: “Is my fleeting moment of entertainment worth an elephant’s life?”