Elephant Treks – A Tourist’s Journey
By Joe Keogh
It’s the one thing that every one asks when you visit somewhere like Thailand: “Did you ride the elephants?”. It seems that it’s the number one thing on everyone’s list when they arrive. So when I first decided to take part in a documentary about elephant trekking, I was somewhat sceptical about what I was actually going to find. I mean, if so many people take part every year surely it can’t be that bad?
Because I worked in comedy and I’m relatively young to be doing this type of thing, we decided that the documentary wouldn’t really work if I was to stand in front of the camera like some amateur David Attenborough and try and reel off a load of facts that I really have no idea about. So as planned I boarded that plane with the crew with no idea about what happens in order for millions of people to ride on an elephant’s back every year.
It took a grand total of about four hours into the flight for me to see the first advertisement for a family trip to a elephant camp. At the time I thought nothing of it, now however I see it in a different light.
The first day of filming I found out what really happens. Baby elephants are taken away from their mother at a ridiculously young age and tortured and starved for days, even weeks, until they give up hope and stop fighting. Only then do the ‘trainers’ start to slowly feed them for each trick they perform, or clean the wounds they have inflicted. As someone that is constantly thinking of the next joke or wise crack to say to entertain people, my defence against the surge of emotion I felt seeing this was to make light of the situation. For the first time in my life, I was lost for words.
For the next few days I was absolutely fuming, to everyone I interviewed or spoke to I must apologise, it must have felt like they were being interrogated, I guess I was simply looking for someone to blame. Unfortunately there is no one to blame, no singular person to catch and throw in jail, because we are all guilty in some way of aiding this horrific practise. A few days in we visited Phuket Zoo (please never visit this place, it’s the worst place I’ve ever been), we spoke to a couple and at the time I didn’t realise that their interview is probably the most important part of the documentary.
They were a young couple from New Zealand on holiday and we saw them ride an elephant for a photo. When I told them about the torture they gave completely opposite opinions. The woman was horrified, almost moved to tears by what I told her. The guy on the other hand gave the exact answer I wanted – his words were “I’ve heard about that but these elephants are already here, so it wont make a difference will it?”, Yes my friend, yes it would.
You see a large amount of tourists visit these camps and zoos with absolutely no idea of what goes on for them to be able to ride these animals and that needs to change. There is also the small percentage of people that will go to these places and not care about the cruelty, all they see is their photo opportunity. Tourists will play a huge part in changing this practice; I want people to feel ashamed of where they have been and what they have done, I’m hoping that one day very soon someone will upload a picture of their feet resting on the back of a young elephant’s head and get a terrible reaction.
When I say we are all guilty of aiding this practice I don’t mean people have intentionally not cared about this subject, what I mean is that we all have a friend or relative that has uploaded a picture to Facebook or Twitter of themselves riding an elephant and we’ve most probably liked or shared it. Unfortunately every time someone likes/shares or comments on one of these photos it is making it that little bit more acceptable and means that it will continue to happen.
Unsurprisingly none of the camp owners would talk to us, they haven’t got the stones to stand in front of a camera and tell the world why they are torturing wild animals for entertainment I guess. We did however get to talk to a few Mahouts/trainers and I was surprised to find that I did actually like a lot of them, most of them cared deeply for their elephants and didn’t want to have them ridden by tourists, however it’s either that or live on the street with their family and an expensive to keep elephant. And yes I know that people out there will go with the line of “how dare we humans think we can keep an animal like this simply for a job!” However please come back with that when you are living on the street with a family to feed and no income, it’s not quite that simple.
Then we get to the sanctuaries, BLES owned by Katherine Connor and Elephant Nature Park owned by Lek Chailert. If I was to swap lives with anyone in the world it would probably be these two. Lek showed us around her sanctuary which was simply amazing. I’ve always been impressed by people who are so focused on reaching a specific goal and Lek epitomised this, everywhere we went people were interested in what we were doing, asking questions and watching (as people do with a film crew), Lek on the other hand could not have cared less that we were there, she wanted to sit with her ‘family’ and spend time bonding, singing and taking care of them, it really did take my breath away.
Katherine on the other hand completely blew me away, I had no idea who I was going to meet and I couldn’t have been more surprised. I got out of the car and saw our director talking to this woman so I walked over and introduced myself. Straight away she started talking about one of her elephants that was sick and needed to go to the hospital, I didn’t listen to a word she said. I found myself watching her, wondering how this woman from England who was smart, pretty, funny and successful dropped everything she had to move to a country where she didn’t speak the language, to take care of one sick elephant. To this day I’m still impressed by her.
The thing that I think I learnt the most from my experience is that, while people blame the travel companies, the mahouts and the camp owners it’s us the tourists that are the reason this practise exists, as without the demand there is no business. There is no point in trying to get these businesses to change their ways, yes one or two may stop but others will continue, what needs to happen is that there needs to be a stigma attached to elephant riding in the same way there is poaching.
If you are thinking of visiting Thailand or any of the countries that do this in future, the sanctuaries need all the help they can get out there and I think it’s down to people like us to visit them, help them out and finally, for once and for all, end this horrific practice.
Check out Joe Keogh’s documentary, An Elephant Never Forgets