Riding an elephant on holiday is on millions of people’s bucket lists. But few are aware the elephants in the popular tourist hotspots of Asia are an endangered species that is dwindling fast. So fast they could be extinct within this current generation. Neither do people know about the brutal abuse that goes on behind the scenes of the elephant tourist trade…
Last month pictures went viral of an elephant called Sambo lying dead on a dusty street in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Sambo, estimated to be 40 years old, died from a sudden heart attack caused by exhaustion whilst giving tourists rides in the blistering heat. Sambo walked the same uphill routes, carrying tourists for an arduous 15 years.
Sambo’s tragic end scratches the surface of the endemic suffering, exploitation, premature deaths and declining numbers of Asian elephants. 20th May marks Endangered Species Day – and whilst the threat to African elephants is more widely known – Asian elephants have been abandoned.
Yet the remaining number of Asian elephants equates to just five percent of the surviving population of African elephants.Figures obtained from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) state the African elephant population has dwindled to around 470,000. In Asia, the estimate is 40,000. It’s a huge decline from the one million Asian elephants that lived in the beginning of the 20th century. Furthermore, their numbers have decreased by 50 percent in the last 60 years alone. The majority of the elephant population remaining today is situated in India and Sri Lanka at around 30,000. The rest are spread in other countries across Asia. Tourist hotspot Thailand has 2,500 – 3,200. In Cambodia, poor Sambo’s home, only 250 – 600 are left.
Scientific research proves elephants are one of the world’s most intelligent animals. They have 300 billion neurons in their brains (as much as humans). Like us, elephants are capable of problem solving, cooperation, empathy and grief. They are the only species, other than humans, known to perform a mourning ritual around death and to visit family ‘graves’. Elephants also have a similar lifespan to us and should live 70 years.
Throughout history to possess an elephant symbolised noble men and royalty who reigned with power, wisdom and justice. Elephants were owned by the world’s greatest warriors when marching into battle. Their use goes back as far as 218 BC, when Hannibal of Carthage, now in Tunisia, recruited elephants for his war against Rome. He crossed the Alps to victory in Italy whilst riding an elephant, followed by 40 other elephants and leading a 20 – 40,000 infantry of men. After thousands of years going to work and even battle for humans, mankind has repaid elephants by driving them to near extinction.
CEO and founder of Save the Asian Elephants (STAE), Duncan McNair spearheads the charity’s campaigns, policies and initiatives to lead a very modern battle for elephants’ mere survival.
STAE lists three major factors causing the decline of Asian elephants. Loss of natural habitat: the destruction of forests and elephants’ migratory routes for farming and development. Migratory routes play a crucial part in the way elephants find new mates and breed. Ivory poaching: Asian male elephants have decreased in huge numbers due to the demand for their tusks. Tourism industry: ill health, a decline in breeding and preventable deaths caused by unnatural captivity and unfettered, unregulated commercial exploitation.
Duncan McNair explains how elephants are captured and put through a brutal process called ‘pajan’ to break their spirits to facilitate their use in tourism, festivals and temples:
“Baby elephants are snatched from their mothers and thrown into isolation at ‘training’ camps, which I call death camps. Horrific torture ensues to break their wild spirits by subduing them using pain and fear. These helpless creatures are often beaten to death.”
“Caged in a small wooden enclosure for months on end, an elephant will be tied with ropes and chains. It’s beaten and stabbed with bullhooks by elephant handlers called mahouts. A ‘bullhook’ is a wooden pole with an iron spike that rips and wounds the elephant’s tough skin until it bleeds or chunks of flesh are ripped from its body.”
After years of oppression and tormenting, elephants can snap. One such time is when Golf the elephant in Thailand killed the British tourist, Gareth Crowe. Witnesses living nearby allege they heard Golf’s harrowing screams as he was shackled and mercilessly beaten for hours on end as punishment. Film footage emerged of Golf chained to a tree and repeatedly rocking his head back and forth in mental turmoil. Golf has since been put back to work, a decision that disregards the elephant’s welfare and tourists’ safety.
At the Guruvayoor Temple in Kerala, Southern India, several elephants have been beaten to death, one such time was reported to STAE as recent as April this year.
McNair visited Guruvayoor temple in 2014 and 2015. He comments, “I want to emphasise my admiration and great respect for Hinduism and its spiritual beliefs. Thus, I view the abuse and neglect on the temple grounds in the name of festivals and money as a repudiation of Hinduism’s core values.”
Describing what he witnessed:
“Elephants are shackled to trees and look weak, sick and showing the signs of mental disturbance. Some had one smashed (lame) rear leg and were standing on three legs. Some were even blinded in one eye. I saw one mahout dabbing paint on a horrible great livid wound between the elephant’s shoulder blades (probably caused by bullhook stabbing). A Professor of Animal Welfare who took me round there broke down in the car park afterwards. He said some of those elephants are in such a bad state they would be best euthanised.”
In 2015, McNair also visited a site used to prepare elephants for commercial use. The camp is in a forest near Mysore in Karnataka, India. McNair describes his walk around the compound:
“Several elephants were contained in crushing cages (kraals) and were looking scared and lonely. I was told they are sometimes kept there several months to psychologically wear them down. One curious baby elephant approached and greeted me with its trunk outstretched. A mahout took a rod and hit him hard on the head, making a sharp cracking noise. It jumped back in pain – tears streaming down its face.”
Determined to end what could be decades of abuse and neglect for this baby elephant and many others, STAE engages with and exerts influence on policymakers in UK, EU and Asia to bring an end to this cruelty. The charity wants to see elephants introduced back into the wild. But while there is a market for keeping and riding elephants, they want to ensure that the health and wellbeing of captive elephants are protected. The charity’s new initiative is a UK veterinary student volunteering scheme to work with Indian vets at key captive elephant sites.
McNair recently gave speeches to veterinary students at Liverpool University and Reaseheath College in Cheshire. STAE also plans to introduce the scheme to universities in Nottingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cambridge, London, Surrey and Bristol The veterinary placements include places where elephants are commonly used for tourist rides, such as Kerala and Rajasthan.
STAE has also created easy ways for the general public to participate in the calls to end the exploitation of elephants. This includes signing their petition and writing to David Cameron to implore him to increase pressure on the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendara Modi, to implement policies to protect elephants. STAE also calls for Modi to designate India’s reserve forest land as a sanctuary for elephants. In the UK, STAE proposes a change to the law so advertising of elephant tourism is banned until proper, regulated standards are upheld. Last but not least, the charity pleads for people to walk away from tourist attractions exploiting Asian elephants.