Two Stories: Elephant Heaven & Hell
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ACTIVISTS DENOUNCE THAILAND'S ELEPHANT "CRUSHING" RITUAL
By Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Today
October 16, 2002
It's a sound not easily forgotten. Just before dawn in the remote highlands
of northern Thailand, west of the village Mae Jaem, a four-year-old elephant
bellows as seven village men stab nails into her ears and feet. She is tied
up and immobilized in a small, wooden cage. Her cries are the only sounds to
interrupt the otherwise quiet countryside.
The cage is called a "training crush." It's the centerpiece of a
centuries-old ritual in northern Thailand designed to domesticate young
elephants. In addition to beatings, handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger,
and thirst to "break" the elephants' spirit and make them submissive to
"It's a ritual that exists, in varying forms and degrees of cruelty, in
virtually every country in Asia that has domesticated elephants," explained
Richard Lair, an American expatriate and international relations officer for
Thailand's Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang. Lair has studied
domesticated elephants for more than 20 years and is author of the UN report
Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity.
"The people believe that to control the animal they have to do something to
make the elephant feel fear and pain," said Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, a
well-known Chiang-Mai-based activist who runs Jumbo Express, a program
bringing free veterinary care to these animals. She's an outspoken critic of
Born in the small mountain village of Baan Lao, in Northern Thailand,
Chailert's devotion to elephants began at an early age. She is the
granddaughter of a shaman, a traditional healer, who received an elephant
named Golden One as payment for saving a man's life. From the time Chailert
was five years old, "Goldy" was considered a part of the family. Elephants
have been a core part of her life since.
Chailert runs a sanctuary called Elephant Heaven for abused elephants and
constantly campaigns on their behalf. Her exposure of the brutal crush and
her conservation campaign has raised international awareness and also
provoked local resistance.
Beasts of Burden, Cultural Icons
Thais often say elephants helped build their nation. For centuries they were
Thailand's tanks, taxis, and bulldozers. As such, a contradiction developed:
These beasts of burden became cultural icons. They are symbols of the king's
divine right to rule, of good luck, even religious icons.
But the elephants' status as cultural icons hasn't stopped a slide to
near-extinction in Thailand. The World Conservation Union, based in Gland,
Switzerland, lists the Asian elephant as endangered.
A century ago, there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand. That number has
fallen 95 percent, primarily due to loss of habitat. Of the 5,000 elephants
left, about half are domestic, according to Lair. Little is done to protect
them, although they remain an important part of the Thai economy.
Thai law is ambivalent. "Domestic elephants are considered livestock," said
Lair. "Under Thai law, they're no different from buffalo or cattle." Small
fines, rarely enforced, are the only penalties for abusing livestock.
Most domestic elephants now work in tourism. Worldwide fascination with
these giants fuels a thriving industry. Travelers from around the world pay
top dollar to take elephant rides in the forest, or watch them perform in
shows. But the process of domesticating these animals is something few
Brutal Training, Black Magic
For example, elephants in the crush are taught to raise their feet on
command so owners can easily move them. Men give orders enforced by stabbing
at the animals' legs with sticks that have nails on the end. Mistakes are
punished with beatings.
Elephants are typically covered in bloody wounds and rope burns when
released from the crush after three to six days. They are quickly tied up
again; the training continues for weeks.
"They say they have to let the elephant taste pain, then the elephant will
understand how to listen," said Chailert. But brutality can produce the
opposite effect, she argued.
Traditionalists defend the crush. Saehai, a 91-year-old shaman from Chiang
Dao who goes by only one name, has been a spiritual leader of breaking
ceremonies in northern Thailand for half a century. "Only one way to do
this, not any other," he explains firmly. "If elephant doesn't go though
this, elephant can't be tamed."
Villagers believe the shaman uses black magic to help tame the elephant and
sever ties to the mother. Saehai feels pride in his work because domestic
elephants generate much-needed income in undeveloped areas. He is an honored
guest at every village he visits.
Like many rural villagers, Saehai argues that to control animals that can
eventually weigh as much as 10,000 pounds, it's essential they fear their
keepers. He believes it's the only way to safeguard against the animal
kicking, goring, or otherwise injuring people with whom they work.
Chailert believes it's time for Thai people to rethink the centuries-old
tradition. "I think it should be stopped. We have many different ways to
train elephants; we don't have to be so cruel." She argues that positive
reinforcement is a more effective and humane strategy for training these
Are there alternatives?
Elephant management techniques in the United States used corporal punishment
and negative reinforcement to train elephants until about 30 years ago, when
a new method began to emerge.
"We started changing our training methods [over the last few decades]
because we had the technology and the know-how," said Carol Buckley,
co-founder and executive director of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald,
Tennessee. "The new technique is called 'protected contact,' and it's used
in more than half of accredited American zoos."
The new training depends on rewards, not punishment.
"In a nutshell, when the behavior of the animal approximates the target of
behavior, you reward them," said Jeff Andrews, Animal Care Manager at the
San Diego Wild Animal Park. He is in charge of training the African and
Asian elephants at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
Chailert hopes to change how the next generation of domestic elephants is
trained. With a tradition so deeply engrained, it won't be easy.
The crush thrives in isolated villages where narrow dirt roads are the only
connection to the outside world. Few outsiders venture into these remote
areas. Isolation is what allowed the crush to continue unchanged for
hundreds of years, and protects it still. Chailert is one of the only people
calling for change.
REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: ELEPHANTS HEAL AT THAI "HEAVEN"
By Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Today
October 17, 2002
Jennifer Hile, a freelance journalist and documentary-maker, spent two and a
half months in Northern Thailand investigating the plight of domestic
elephants. During her visit she sent frequent dispatches to National
Geographic Today. This one describes her experience with elephant orphans
and "Elephant Heaven" -- a sanctuary for abused elephants founded by
Sangduen "Lek" Chailert. Chailert is a well-known Chiang-Mai based activist
who runs Jumbo Express, a program bringing free veterinary care to
It's not easy babysitting an elephant. I spend most the day running around
after four-month-old Geng Mai, making sure a bottle's on hand when he's
hungry, and shooing him out of bamboo huts where his caregivers sleep at
Geng Mai was orphaned at three days old. His mother was shot after wandering
into a corn plantation. When villagers stumbled on him three days later,
they called Lek Chailert, who hauled him to her sister's farm in the village
of Sampayang, in Northern Thailand, to nurse him back to health.
I showed up in Thailand two months ago to make a film about why Thailand's
domestic elephants are in so much trouble, and what's being done to save
them. It's been invaluable getting to know the animals under Lek's care.
Their stories represent the plight of so many elephants here.
The first thing Geng Mai teaches me is how curious these animals are. He
uses his teeny three-foot trunk to get into everything. It's the equivalent
of a Hoover vacuum, a water gun, and a lawn mover. Nothing escapes his
attention, including my camera. He hooks it with his trunk and fogs up my
lens every time I swoop in for a close up.
Ascent to "Heaven"
When he's older, Lek will take Geng Mai to a mountain top sanctuary she runs
called "Elephant Heaven" just an hour north of Chaing Mai. She created this
place for domestic elephants she rescues from abusive owners -- a big
Most mythical heavens have a bathing ritual at their entrance; this place in
no exception. When Lek and I arrive at Heaven, nine adult elephants and
their mahouts were waiting for us at a river that runs the base of the
mountain. Elephants love baths -- it's a chance to cool down, as well as
wash off insects or any injuries.
From there we hitch a ride on some of the elephants up to Lek's camp -- a
two-hour ride to the top of the mountain. There are no seatbelts, no
saddles. I sit behind the animal's head, one leg behind one of her ears, and
try not to look down. For 7,000-pound Mae Perm, I am the equivalent of
wearing a small backpack.
Lek's camp in Heaven is a bamboo hut in the jungle. Abused elephants live
out their lives here in peace -- there are no chains, nor any 12-hour
workdays. It is a beautiful oasis and as far as I know, this private
sanctuary is unique in Thailand.
The stories of the animals here are wrenching.
Lilly was given amphetamines to work round the clock on illegal logging
until she had a physical/nervous breakdown. She was shaking, unable to eat,
and convulsing when Lek found her.
Ivory poachers drugged and chained Boon Khum -- a majestic male -- to a tree
last year, and then they took off his tusks with a chainsaw. It's like
cutting someone's tooth off right at gums -- hits all the nerves. A terrible
infection developed. The sicker he got, the more aggressive he became. When
Lek found him a few months later, she called him a "skeleton walking."
That's when she bought him, to heal him.
The smell of infection around Boon Khum is fierce. Lek and a mahout clean
out his tusk cavity using traditional Thai medicine; herbs are collected in
the jungle, chopped up, and boiled in river water. Water guns shoot the
medicine into Boon Khums hollow, infected tusk cavity.
Owners shot Jokia in the eyes with slingshots if she was "lazy" at work.
Eventually, the abuse left her blind in both eyes. She became a terrified,
aggressive elephant, which led to further abuse until Lek found and retired
her. Jokia seems peaceful now, though she bumps into trees a lot. She is
very gentle -- fearful of other elephants -- but comfortable with Lek and
her mahout. She uses her sense of touch and smell to get around, and does
None of this led to charges against the animals' owners.
No Legal Protection
There is almost no legal protection for domestic elephants in Thailand.
Despite being an endangered species, domestic elephants are considered
livestock by law -- and there are scant penalties for their abuse. Lek
recently filmed an elephant that was set on fire and burned to death by a
drunken owner. There were no legal repercussions.
Thais often say elephants helped build this nation. For centuries they were
Thailand's tanks, taxis, and bulldozers. As such, a contradiction developed:
these beasts of burden became cultural icons. They are symbols of the king's
divine right to rule and of good luck; they are also religious icons.
None of this protects them from abuse or their current slide toward
extinction. The World Conservation Union, based in Switzerland, currently
lists the Asian elephant as endangered. That night Lek makes dinner over an
open fire. It's pitch black in the jungle, far from the reach of
electricity. Her hut is on stilts -- there are no walls, just a roof, with
all of us sitting on a mat on the floor.
Suddenly, a 300 pound trunk lands on the floor. The 80-year-old Mae Perm,
the oldest elephant in Heaven, had wandered up. Elephants are so quiet, we
didn't hear her coming. It was such a magical surprise. Mae Perm was as high
as the hut's platform and looked in at us from eye level. She used her trunk
like a vacuum; there was a huge sucking sound as she landed her trunk in a
rice bowl, then flung her trunk into her mouth, blasting the rice in.
From Heaven, I embarked on Lek's "Jumbo Express" -- a program bringing free
veterinary care to remote elephant camps throughout the northern
We traveled well past the circuit of roads, hiking and traveling on a bamboo
raft that was about eight poles wide and filled me with terror every time I
pulled out my camera. Generally, we just distributed de-worming medicine to
elephants at two remote camps.
Four days of hiking and rafting left me exhausted. But the moment we rafted
back to a small village within reach of electricity and phone lines, Lek got
word that a newly orphaned elephant needed sanctuary. Baby elephants are
fragile -- we set out right then and there on a seven-hour drive into a
remote part of northeastern Thailand.
We arrived at midnight to find a terrified one-year old elephant, screaming
with grief and fear. He had never before been out of sight of his mom and
was inconsolable. His owners are from the Karen hill tribe. The next morning
we built bamboo racks around a pickup truck's open bed, piled it with hay,
covered it with leaves, and set off. Lek named the new baby "Hope."
So now I lend a hand babysitting two baby elephants in between film
projects. It's outrageously cool to be hanging out with these itty-bitty
elephants and getting such an intimate window into their world.
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