A few folks, Miss Kat in particular, asked me to write down a summary of what I picked up over our week together and what Lek explained to me about the Elephant Nature Park, the history of elephant use in Thailand and Lek's answers to some of our questions. I've tried my best to remember all the facts but I'd had a couple of Chang most nights so please don't expect this to be 100% accurate!
I'm afraid it's a very sad story, but if we can spread the news about the elephants’ plight and get more supporters there is a chance it will have a happy ending. There is a lot of information so we've broken it down over a number of blog posts. So here goes, part 1.
Part 1. The background to the Thai elephant decline
Long ago the Karen tribe (also called Pa-ka-your tribe) saw the elephants as part of their respective family and treated them as a sacred animal. They worked with their elephants to undertake logging in the forests and cared for them, actually thanking them every day for their work and blessing them in special ceremonies. The skills used to be a mahout were passed on from generation to generation, as were the elephants and their offspring. Although only men were allowed to become mahouts. The elephants worked and fed in the forests close to the villages and so the mahouts and their sons saw them every day.
In Thailand elephants were respected, venerated and protected. They were a national symbol of pride and strength and even appeared on the national flag. Then the Second World War arrived and the elephants along with their mahouts were used by the invading Japanese to pull and carry equipment, clear forest and build railways. Many died or were taken away to neighbouring countries.
The surviving elephants and their mahouts returned to their Karen villages at the end of the war. They returned to logging and their original way of life in the forests.
Then in 1989 Thailand banned logging. This happened for three main reasons.
1. As the demand for hardwoods increased following population growth and the new-rich middle classes in China the mahouts and elephants were forced to work longer hours. The Karen had complained to the logging companies explaining that the elephants were being overworked and demanded a reduction in daily hours.
2. There were significant international animal-rights pressure on Thailand. During the logging activities and sometimes using elephants, hunting parties would go out to trap animals to illegally export alive or for their bones/teeth/horns/ tusks/skin which had a black market value. Many large containers had been found containing live snakes, monkeys, gibbons etc at international airports and so the Thai government had been warned that unless this stopped international sanctions would be placed on Thailand. This would have been a huge problem for Thailand's commercial and tourist businesses. (Thailand is now recognised by animal right activists as the 'hub' for the very same illegal animal trades from for example Africa and India on their way to China and Japan).
3. In 1988 there were large floods in the south of Thailand killing thousands of people and the deforestation for agricultural expansion and timber was seen as a factor contributing to the floods. This was because when the trees were removed the topsoil washed away and so could no longer soak up excessive ran, this led to the rain streaming straight of the hills and causing the floods.
So after Thailand banned logging in 1989 the Karen mahouts and their elephants returned to their villages without any work. This was a very difficult time for the Karen people as they received no government support. Some mahouts could not provide enough food to feed their elephants and so were forced to sell them. This broke the connection between the mahout and the elephant. The new elephant owners only saw them as a commodity, a tool to do a job such as illegal logging in Burma or as tourist attractions.
Elephants undertaking illegal logging in Burma were in much more danger than previously. Many were mortality wounded by landmines, or were wounded terribly and forced into street begging. Inexperience mahouts treated the elephants cruelly. Some elephants were purposefully blinded to make them easier to handle.
Then the Karen people were told by some government employees that they could return to logging. These people are simple farmers and so did not realise that this was a trap. When they returned to logging the mahouts and the elephants were both arrested. There was no help or defence provided for the mahouts so they went to jail. The elephants were sold by corrupt government officials to other countries, to circuses, to poachers for their ivory and to trekking camps.
In 1987 Thailand held a country-wide campaign to promote the tourist trade. After that numerous elephant trekking camps sprung up. The remaining mahouts with elephants took their elephants to these camps. The camps were eight or more days walk from their villages. The mahouts were now far away from their families and unable to help on the farm. The trekking companies said that the mahouts could leave the elephants with them for a long-term rent and they would assign new mahouts. Many mahouts signed such contracts and were given payments in advance and so left their elephants at the trekking camps. I was told the mahout receives today 300baht a month for leasing out his elephant to a trekking camp. The trekking camp owners saw the elephants as commercial tools. Some of the new mahouts were not really mahouts at all and hence were not experienced in elephant care or welfare. So many of the elephants died. No compensation was given to the Karen mahout. In addition, the bond between the elephant and the successive generations of mahouts was broken. So the Karen culture of caring and nurturing the elephants was not being passed on, the younger generators were forgetting the true importance of respecting the elephant.
Some elephants also became street beggars. This has now been banned in Bangkok and Chang Mai, but it still continues in other tourist areas. Elephants do not like loud noises, such a cars or crowded streets. Touting elephants up to bars late at night meant many came across drunk people who would force them to drink alcohol, burnt them with cigarettes or shined lasers into their eyes. Many elephants were hit by vehicles and some died from the injuries. The owners worked them at every opportunity and they died from mistreatment and starvation. Even more upsettingly a trend towards using baby elephants has now grown, and it is strongly expected that these are captured from the wild in Burma and smuggled into Thailand.
Elephants involved in street begging and trekking are not in their natural habitat (forest). Due to over work in the hot sun, lack of health care and mistreatment they become sick, in pain, and commonly depressed and mentally unstable. This means that they have no interest in reproducing. Forced breading programmes have not been successful. Male bull elephants in musk are full of testosterone and very violent. The female elephants are often tethered with their legs apart to receive the male. The forced breading often results in major injuries to the female, including broken legs, and hips and sometimes death.
We were told how pregnant mothers were used by the trekking camps right through their gestation period. As they worked long hours in the hot sun and wore a saddle the baby could not turn in the mothers stomach. This leads to many still born births. Furthermore, many reports were received of trekking camp mothers killing her baby. They say they don't know why but I personally believe that it could have been because they were depressed and didn't want their child to have the same life as them.
Sangudan 'Lek' Challert recognised this terrible picture of elephant decline and Karen people losing their cultural knowledge and bond with the few remaining elephants. Lek spoke with the Karen people and they asked her to help them. After conducting research and speaking to many Karen tribes she decided to form the 'Journey to Freedom' volunteer programme.
For miles surrounding every Karen village huge swathes of forest have disappeared due to agriculture and timber logging
Some primary forest still remains on the highest and steepest slopes