Asia,  Thailand

Letter to an Elephant

Dear Elephant,

After our last encounter, contradicting emotions have grown inside my heart. I was overwhelmed with your story and left you when I still had so much to say.

Ever since I booked my trip to Thailand, I had really been looking forward to meeting you. That morning we left Chiang Mai in early hours and drove for over an hour until we arrived at the Care Centre in the mountains; where you now live. After a brief introduction about your life style, we learnt about what you like to eat and we prepared a mash of food to give you.

When I first walked towards you, you pricked your ears and eagerly explored my basket with your trunk. Impatiently you ate all the food I prepared for you and when it was finished you kept reaching your trunk to smell my hands looking for more.

You made me feel tiny and fragile next to your wild and robust body! Your skin is covered in grey rugs; your trunk has pink dots, like aging freckles and you have more hairs than I first thought. You are so beautiful!

After lunch we walked beside you through the forest to this small waterfall. We had so much fun throwing water at each other! You love getting in the water, don’t you? It helps you to cool down in hot days.

Touch is very important to you and so was your family. It broke my heart to hear how you were captured from the wild; trapped in a man-made hole when you were only a year old. Your family couldn’t protect you, leaving you to be taken away from them and sold to the tourism industry. I am so sorry about this! You must miss them very much.

I know if you could, you would have broken free and gone back to the wild long ago. After all, you are physically strong enough to do it, but sadly you don’t believe in yourself anymore. All because of the way they treated you after your capture… they had to “train you”!

They called it Phajaan in Thailand, the “breaking of the will”. A brutal training process that forces baby elephants into submission and obedience, just like a slave.

You still remember, don’t you? All the fear, the pain… when they locked you in a cage too small for your body and denied you food, water and sleep, for an entire week? Everyday they poked and beat you with sharp bullhocks until you lost the will to live. Then, they started feeding you and teaching you tricks and commands in exchange for food. You had no choice but to respect these people for the sake of fear. I heard some of your friends didn’t survive this training and others ended up crippled with broken legs and deep scars.

So you lost your will, your soul is broken, your strength is forgotten. But your suffering didn’t end up there…

While you were still young and “cute”, they “used” you for begging in the city. You were really scared of all the noises and the city lights, so they had to drug you to force you to work. Most baby elephants don’t survive more than 3 years in this life style. As well as the drugs they are given, there also isn’t enough food supplies in the city to properly fed an elephant. But then your keeper sold you to a temple in India.

In the temple you were chained all day in a confined place. Thousands of people came to see you believing that the touch of your trunk would be a blessing. People failed to see how this was actually hurting you. The lack of movement and the hard concrete floor caused abscesses and cracks to form on your feet, leaving you in severe pain. For ceremonies they would paint on your skin. As an elephant you do have a very sensitive skin and I imagine this was very distressing for you!

Few years passed and you were traded to a tourist camp back in Thailand. Under the threat of a bullhook behind your ear you started performing. You used you trunk to paint on canvas or stood on two legs; all the while tourists clapped their hands astonished to your “amazing talents”. Their claps meant nothing to you. I don’t blame you! They failed to see that you weren’t performing because you wanted to, but because you were forced to do it.

Looking at you, I could see the bones on you back appeared fragile, which seemed odd on your huge body. Your mahout told me that you have been suffering from chronic back pain, the middle of your spine is not strong enough. I was sad to hear that at the tourist camp, most days you were taken on treks, carrying a heavy chair with two or more tourists on top of your back for over 10hours a day.

You are probably flapping your ears while reading this. I know, I know, I’m sorry! You don’t need me to remind you of all this. You will never forget the traumas you lived but I do hope you find peace in your life.

I am so happy you were rescued and taken to this Care Center. It is not ideal, but it is a much safer environment; where they look after you, feed you and walk with you in the forest. I saw you playing with the other 3 elephants! You made new friends, whom you now call your family. Just like you, they had a difficult upbringing and you can support each other.

The truth is we need you, but not for the reason most people are using you now. Not for tourism, not in the temples, not for work, not as a pet, not in the cities. We need you for your uniqueness, wilderness and purity. We need to respect you and your essence, destroying you is just one step away from destroying our own nature. I cannot imagine living in a world without elephants; without you.

You are incredibly strong and ancient but you are not indestructible.

You are endangered species, but the problem goes beyond this. Well documented studies explore your emotional depth, cooperative nature, family bonds, memory and intelligence, but why do tourists still travel to ride on you?! It is a massive individual suffering all caused by the need to entertain humans.

It is easy to point a blaming finger at the people who captured and mistreated you directly. But the truth is, if there were no tourists feeding these businesses, there would be no profits and eventually the practice of Phajaan would disappear.

I would like to shout out to the world, to all humans and ask them to stop!

Stop and think before engaging in activities with elephants. Before they buy ivory, before they say “I want to ride an elephant” or before they pay for a circus ticket. Stop and think if it is ethical?! Your friends and family are being kidnapped and made into slaves. I feel very ashamed of my own kind and I want to apologize to you.

My dear friend, I am deeply sorry.

I hope better days come your way. Soon I hope poaching and trading elephants will be completely vanished and punished as a serious crime as it is. You deserve to be respected. You, my friend, are sacred.

Anyway, how is the weather now? Rainy season is approaching quickly! Oh but you love the rain don’t you?

I shall improve my Thai for next time I visit you.

Till we meet again!

With love,

In an ideal world, rescued elephants would be sent back to the wild, but deforestation has decreased massively the habitat where wild elephants live. Nowadays, it seems that the solution lies on education: education for tourists and mahouts (elephant keepers). Several Elephant Sanctuaries across Thailand are using Positive Reinforcement training, by using a routine of verbal commands, rewards and other elephant-friendly-techniques to control the elephant. It aims to create a healthy bond between the elephant and the mahout without the use of violence, by creating a balanced life in semi-wild conditions where elephants can roam freely and receive the visit of tourists.

Blue Daily Care Elephant Center is a new project that currently has 4 rescued elephants. They do not offer elephant ridding and that was one of the reasons why I chose this Center. Their goal is to find a balance between elephants and the people living in the mountains of Chiang Mai, supporting their land farming.

During my visit, I did not see any of the mahouts (elephant keepers) holding any bullhooks. The elephants were guided through verbal instructions and I never heard a mahout shouting or being unfriendly towards the elephants.

Big positive changes come from small gestures. So whenever you plan to visit elephants in Asia, look for Sanctuaries that respect the essence of the elephants. If you happen to see something you don’t think it is right, give them a bad review online! Everyone can be an Elephant Hero.

Opinions are of my own.


    • Andreia Leite

      Ahh Jacinta thank you so much for your kind words. I’m really pleased that this letter touched you. Thank you! xx

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