Throughout Thailand, there are countless elephant tourist parks and camps. The vast majority of these camps are commercial enterprises, making huge amounts of money from tourists keen to have their photos taken with elephant calves, bathing with the elephants or riding them, or watching them paint. Some elephants are used in performances, dressed up and forced to perform unnatural, painful and demeaning tricks.
The sad and devastating reality is that this tourist-driven demand is fuelling a huge and unsustainable illegal trade in baby elephants. Recent reports indicate that at least 50-100 calves and young females are removed from their forest homes in Burma every year and are illegally traded to supply tourist camps in Thailand. It is estimated that for every calf smuggled across Burma's border into Thailand, up to five adult elephants, including the calf's mother and other protective family members, are killed.
The forests of Burma are one of the last strongholds for the endangered Asian elephants, second only to India. But this trade in baby elephants is decimating this population- estimated at just 5,000 individuals, this population could be wiped out or damaged beyond repair within ten years.
Once stolen from their mothers and families- a highly traumatic experience- baby elephants are forced to endure the most profound cruelty- a brutal ritual called "phajaan", employed to break the elephant's spirit and to install fear of humans.
Video from World Animal Protection can be seen here:
During this process, which lasts for days, the calves are tied up, with no food and water, and beaten relentlessly, often using primitive instruments such as bamboo sticks with metal nails embedded in the ends. The phajaan process only ends once it is believed that the elephant's spirit has been banished. Many calves die from their injuries or from stress, starvation or the sheer heartbreak of seeing their family killed in front of their eyes. Those who survive are smuggled across the Burmese border into Thailand, to tourist elephant parks and camps. Beaten, starved and tortured to break their spirit, the elephants are now ready to perform for tourists. Many of them will be chained to a surrogate mother in an attempt to suggest they have been bred in captivity.
This trade is illegal and in contravention to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), of which both Burma and Thailand are members.
Please see the letter sent from the AfA to Dr. Theerapat Prayurasiddhi concerning this issue here.
The feature documentary - 'An Elephant Never Forgets' can be seen below. Joe Keogh, a comedian from Manchester, offers a great deal of insight into the living and working conditions of the many elephants used and abused in the tourism industry. Please note that some footage is distressing.