Music To Tame The Wild Beast (Part 2)
September 10, 2013

Music To Tame The Wild Beast (Part 2)

Be sure to read Part 1.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra has been entertaining tourists for over a decade. Thai elephant paintings have attracted art and animal lovers for even longer. Though fans see these works of art as a testament to the intelligence and sensitivity of the elephants, there is a darker side to the story.

‌In 1989, Thailand banned logging in the kingdom’s borders, leaving thousands of domestic elephants out of work. With their livelihoods in danger, elephants and their mahouts began performing for tourists.

Today, foreigners flock to Thailand’s elephant camps. The animals put on shows, give rides, and provide tourists a chance to feed and interact with a living symbol of Thai culture. In some ways, this is good for the elephants. Tourism provides income to elephant owners, ensuring food and care for the animals themselves. It helps educate and raise awareness of the threats posed to Thai elephants. It also keeps the centuries-old traditions of the mahout alive.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), home of the Thai Elephant Orchestra, is one such camp. In addition to training the elephants to make music and paint pictures, the Center also works in conservation, care, and research. They study the elephants’ reproduction and locomotion, run a sanctuary for weak or sick elephants, and provide mobile veterinary services for elephants all over Thailand. They also train and educate mahouts to handle their elephants safely and effectively.

Animal rights activists, however, argue that tourists camps are abusive and exploitative. One of the most contentious practices involved in training elephants is the brutal ritual of phajaan. In order to tame a young elephant, the animal is removed from its mother, locked in a tiny cage for days, then beaten, and starved into submission. Thai communities who rely on the elephants for income feel phajaan is the only way to control these powerful beasts.

Nick Kontogeorgopoulos, Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound, calls elephant tourism a tradeoff between animal rights and animal welfare. Conditions in tourist camps are highly visible to visitors, veterinarians, and government officials, making it easier to improve the elephants’ welfare.

Without tourist camps, domestic elephants would be out of work, with few options for earning their keep. As it is, elephant begging is a common problem in Thailand, with handlers leading their wards through urban streets, charging passersby to touch or feed the elephant. Compared to a life on the street, or even their former work in logging, the camps are a vast improvement.

But for many, “better” still comes up short. Poorly trained mahouts and a high throughput of tourists during the busy season lead many handlers to resort to rough methods to keep their elephants subdued. Horror stories of abuse are not uncommon.

Meanwhile, intense competition between camps keeps prices low. In order to make a profit, many camps provide poor diets, too few opportunities to rest and feed, and inadequate veterinary care. Low pay for mahouts means turnover is high, leaving them little time to bond with their elephants, and increasing the risk of abuse.

Even in well-run camps, the environment affords them little opportunity to act like, well, elephants. They’re unable to form natural herds, and the stress of their captive life makes it difficult for them to breed. Their popularity as a tourist attraction, and the difficulty of maintaining a population in captivity, has led to reports of wild baby elephants being kidnapped in Myanmar and smuggled across the border for use in tourist camps.

Legally considered livestock, domestic elephants receive little protection in Thai law. Federal regulation of the camps only increase the costs to run them, forcing owners to cut corners elsewhere or putting them out of business altogether. In the short term, this means more elephants languishing in city streets.

One alternative is establishments like the Elephant Nature Park. The sanctuary rescues and rehabilitates abused or mistreated elephants. Visitors bathe and feed the elephants, but they don’t ride them or watch them perform. Instead, the elephants are allowed to live natural lives on the 250-acre property.

Though undoubtedly more humane, these establishments are more expensive to visit and require a greater time commitment than a typical camp. Kontogeorgopoulos points out that this appeals only to a specific type of tourist, making it unlikely that sanctuaries like the Elephant Nature Park will be able to subsume the more established model.

As with so many endangered or exploited resources, the prevailing philosophy is that elephants are only as good as their economic worth. This puts a lot of power in the hands of the consumers. For visitors interested in a Thai elephant camp, this means giving your baht to a camp that emphasizes conservation and treats its elephants as humanely as possible – and passing up those that don’t.

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