Let me start by telling you what spurred me to write this post. I have been living in Thailand for 12 years, and yes I have been elephant trekking, it was on my Thailand bucket list, can’t say that I enjoyed the trekking at all, it’s highly over rated. More importantly though I actually thought to myself, (and I’m sure I’m not alone here), isn’t it amazing how they get the elephants so well trained, not only do they train them to carry people but they train them to do handstands, to paint, to play football and basketball, they even walk them around the streets and let the tourists feed them.
How do they train Elephants ?.
The traditional method used for training elephants in Thailand is called “Pajaan”, it is a barbaric ritual used to to break the elephants spirit. Baby elephants are removed from their mother and placed in a holding pen to restrict movement, then over a period of a week or more they are deprived of food and sleep, periodically beaten with sticks and have bull hooks driven in to their head. The outcome of the Pajaan is an elephant which is broken and accepts man as it’s master. With the threats of more pain if they do not obey commands the elephant is trained to carry tourists or play football and stand on it’s head.
Look with a critical eye.
I first learned of this ritual when I read “Why Elephant Riding Should Be Removed From Your Bucket List” by Diana Edelman. I decided to go and observe the elephants at my nearest trekking camp, not with the eye of a fascinated tourist, but with a critical eye looking for telltale signs of the barbaric Pajaan ritual. The Pajaan is usually performed in remote villages so I wasn’t expecting to see it, what I was looking for was signs that it had been performed a long time ago in the elephants past.
Obvious signs of Pajaan.
First obvious sign is the Mahout (elephant handlers) using a bull hook (that’s the wooden stick with a metal spike on the end) to enforce his voice commands. A little tap on the head or scratch behind the ear is enough to remind the elephant of the painful ordeal which awaits it if it does not obey.
Look closely and you may see small puncture wounds on the elephants head, telltale signs of a forceful reminder.
Take a look in to the elephants eye, the broken spirit prevents you from seeing the soul.
Do Elephants really cry ?.
It may be the bright sunlight reflecting off the white gravel surface, it may be the dust off the gravel, it may be traffic fumes and dust from the busy highway just a few meters away, could be the sharp gravel hurting it’s feet. You can see the tear running down the elephants cheek in the picture (above) and I think it is a tear of sorrow borne by a yearning to be free from the threats of pain, free from the drudgery of a lifestyle which is so unnatural for an elephant.
Trekking, that’s what elephants do, right ?.
Sorry to have to tell you but it’s just not natural, elephants are intelligent, emotional and social creatures, now I want to introduce you to a few facts, I want you to read “Why Elephant Riding Should Be Removed From Your Bucket List“. After reading it you might want to scrub elephant trekking off you itinerary and replace it with a stay at the “Elephant Nature Park”.
Symbolic and real.
For the elephant, the bull hook (see picture above) is a symbolic reminder of the pain which was once inflicted by it’s masters.
Alternatives to elephant trekking.
Unfortunately the alternatives to elephant trekking and elephant shows are limited, and as long as people go trekking and watching the shows they always will be limited.
The only positive thing to come from trekking is the birth of elephant sanctuaries, positive in the sense that the sanctuaries were formed to take in and care for elephants which have been abused, neglected or discarded by trekking establishments.
Recommended Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand.
A good example of the work and one especially touching story of what happens at the Elephant Nature Park is Heartbreak at Elephant Nature Park.