Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Plight of the Domesticated Elephant in Thailand

Once upon a time in a land called Thailand, there was a beautiful young elephant named Jokia. She roamed freely through the jungle with her mother, grazing on grass, bananas, watermelon or whatever she could get her trunk around. She loved to bathe in the river, especially on hot days.

Then one day she was taken captive by humans and sold to a logging outpost. Her future became bleak, and the long days spent in the river were gone. She never saw her mother again.

The loggers wanted to use her to haul huge logs out of the jungle, but first they had to train her. Training meant locking her in a very small cage and stabbing her with a stick that has a nail attached to the end. This was repeated daily for weeks until her soul had been "broken" and she would obey human command.

By the time Jokia was broken and put to work, she was pregnant. When she went into labor while pulling a log up a hill, the loggers wouldn't let her stop working to give birth, so the baby rolled down a cliff to its death. Jokia sat down and refused to move, stricken with grief. Her keeper then stabbed her in one eye and partially blinded her in order to get her back to work. When she refused to work again another day, her keeper stabbed her other eye and blinded her completely for life.

Logging in Thailand was outlawed in 1989 and suddenly Jokia found herself blind and out of work. Eating about 300-400 lbs of food a day, she became an unwanted expense. But she couldn't return to the jungle, as she had no herd and her domestication left her without the proper tools to fend for herself.

If only this were a fairy tale... But don't fret, there is a happy ending to this story, at least for Jokia.

One day Jokia met a woman named Lek, who would change Jokia's luck for the better. Lek rescues domesticated elephants and brings them to her sanctuary north of Chiang Mai, where she sees that they have proper medical care, nourishment and the freedom to become wild again. It is a magical place. Jokia found happiness, and even got pregnant again at Lek's sanctuary, something that would not have happened if she still felt threatened and scared.

I met so many elephants and heard so many heartbreaking stories, that I could fill a novel with their darkest moments. Lek has 32 rescued elephants: some that stepped on land mines, some that were orphaned, some whose tusks had been poorly poached leaving them with deep infections, and many who were used for tourism and are too old and run down to work any longer. The stories of their plight and rescue are both heart-breaking and inspiring.

There are approximately 2,500 domesticated elephants in Thailand. Some beg for money with their keepers on the streets of Thailand. They drink polluted water and don't get enough vegetation to eat, nevermind the ill effects of the city sounds and lights. Some are used for trekking tourists through the jungle. Others are used for elephant shows, where they play music and paint. All of these trades utilize the same training methods used on Jokia.

But there is no easy solution. Domesticated elephants cannot be released into the wild because there is not enough jungle for them to survive within given the extensive logging practices pre-1989. So unless there is a serious shift in tourism and people are educated about the conditions, tourists will continue to fund their torture. Lek cannot solve this problem single-handedly. Until there are more elephant sanctuaries and fewer elephant shows, the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand will persist.

If any of my faithful readers ever visit Chiang Mai, I strongly urge you to spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park and soak up its beauty. I spent the day feeding the elephants, bathing them and admiring their majestic grace. They are amazing creatures and my reverence of them has grown infinitely deeper after this experience. They are enormous, yet docile. Playful and mischievous. Wise, yet innocent. Their love of Lek and the mahouts who care for them is both visible and enduring.

I have lived so many incredible experiences during this journey, but only a handful have given me the sort of inspiration that will touch me forever. This is one of them.


  1. Ok, I can no longer view your blog at work since I practically started crying in my office because of that story. It sounds like you had an amazing experience.

    Since I can't go visit, I checked out the site and bought a medical kit and some lunch for the elephants.


    PS-You should post this on facebook, too!

  2. oohhhh, so sad for jokia - i'm not sure how an happy ending it is really - she is BLIND...FOREVER = AWFUL
    AND she had to give birth in the midst of 'work' & let the baby roll down the hill to die??!?!?!?!?
    Sickening ! ! !
    i would never pay someone to let me ride an elephant for 'fun'
    i would much rather take part in their care.
    i'm gonna go barf now.
    thank you.