Before I came to work with Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand and people heard I would be heading to Thailand, the automatic question was “Oh, are you going to ride some elephants!?” A big tourist attraction in areas such as Thailand is the ‘wildlife’. If elephants are mentioned, people tend to think about riding them for an entertaining experience.
The reality: natural behaviour for an elephant is roaming in family groups, foraging for 23 hours a day, nursing their offspring for up to three years, etc. Unnatural behaviour for an elephant includes carrying a basket of humans on its back, street performing, moving into different poses for photos, etc. Being controlled by humans is not natural, and no elephant you will find in Eastern Asia was calmly brought into its life of servitude. No elephant would naturally choose this life. Unfortunately, most tourists don’t even realise this or let it cross their minds.
Any elephant in Asia associated with humans in a ‘domesticated’ situation (and remember that no elephant is domestic) has been trained to serve. This training is not done through positive reinforcement of desired behaviour, it is not done through gentle encouragement or praise over time – it is done through extreme dominance and control of an elephant at a young age so that the animal will fear its handlers, do whatever they say and not even think to rebel. In Asia there is a particular method used to dominate elephants – it is called ‘Phajaan’.
‘Phajaan’ directly translates to “breaking of the spirit”. It is a program designed to produce obedient, dependant elephants, and the method achieves this result through weeks of intense physical torture and mental abuse. First, a young elephant needs to be acquired. Handlers may obtain an elephant from an elephant farm, which is by no means ethical but Thailand is very corrupt and money can get you almost anything. At an elephant farm, young babies are easily removed from their desperately protective and confused mothers who, in the wild, would still be nursing. Elephant farms are able to physically separate females from their offspring, with the advantage of being able to reuse the cow for further breeding.
Alternatively, young elephants may be taken from the wild. Of course, as elephants naturally protect their babies, and mothers have an incredible bond with their children, they are not going to want to give their young up to strangers. Thus, obtaining a young elephant in the wild involves killing each and every unwanted member of the herd. It is a well-documented phenomenon that elephants have the ability to grieve: a young elephant is traumatised by seeing its entire family slaughtered. And of course there is the pain that each animal feels as it is killed (there is no quick way to take an elephant’s life).
After a young elephant is in the captivity of its handlers, the aim of the Phajaan program is to break its spirit. Babies will be kept in small crates similar to those found in the intensive pig farming industry. Their feet will be tied with ropes, their limbs will be stretched, they will be repeatedly beaten with sharp metal and other tools, they will be constantly yelled and screamed at, and they will be starved of food. Bull hooks (a tool used in most forms of elephant control) will be used to stab the head, slash the skin and tug the ears. The next time you see an Asian elephant used in trekking, elephant rides, movies, in a circus or any other form of entertainment, take a look at the state of its ears. Captive elephants often have shredded or torn ears from their tissue being ripped and pulled away in the training process. They also often have scars on their foreheads from deep lacerations caused by beatings.
Ropes used to tie and stretch elephants’ limbs will eventually be replaced with tight, constricting chains. Many elephants used in circuses and the like nowadays are often only tethered with a light rope, giving the illusion that they are happy and have no desire to leave their current life. In truth, the physical memory of pain suffered due to chains stops them from even attempting to escape a situation where their strength would most certainly allow them to break free. The Phajaan may last for weeks, most elephants going through it when they are 3-6 years, but they can be younger depending on the age at which they were taken from their mothers. They have no rest from physical torture and mental domination, and gradually their spirits break and their handlers achieve control.
Traditionally in Eastern Asia a mahout (elephant ‘carer’ or handler) will be sole charge of a single elephant. As a mahout ages, his elephant is passed down through his family line. An elephant’s mahout will not be involved in the physical abuse during Phajaan. In the final stage of the Phajaan, the elephant’s mahout will bring the animal its first meal with water, and will be the one to ‘release’ the elephant and lead it away from the crate. After weeks of torture, of mental and emotional abuse, of loneliness, confusion and separation, the elephant sees this human figure as its savior – the one it trusts. This is just another stage of mental and emotional manipulation, of course, but it is how a particular mahout gains such immense control over its animal.
Please, educate yourself the next time you go traveling, or to a circus, or to support any industry in which animals are exploited. Don’t turn a blind eye – find out what’s really involved, and decide if there is a better alternative or if it is worth it at all. Below I have attached a video that Edwin, the director of WFFT, put together to demonstrate the sorts of things elephants go through during Phajaan – it is not easy to watch, but the more you know, the better equipped you are. Remember: if you support elephants used in any kind of tourist venture, you are most likely supporting the capture of young animals and the slaughter of their families. You are supporting Phajaan, you are supporting the emotional and physical torture of babies. I’d like to think most people, on knowing this, would choose a different way to see and interact with elephants. Go to a national park and observe them in the wild – or if you want to get up close to elephants, spend some time at a rescue sanctuary and help rehabilitate them instead.