We spent the summer on the road and fundraising with our friends at Thailand Elephants and we learnt a lot about the most majestic of creatures, the Asian Elephant, along the way!
Coming back from Wildlife SOS in India, we had a new-found respect for Elephant rescue. That sounds a strange thing to say, but really Elephants weren’t high on our agenda until we saw them up close and extremely personal – the scars, the still open wounds, the clear emotional distress that plagued their retirement from slavery.
Our eyes were opened; that these giants could be so abused when their size, intelligence and sentience made them such capable natural leaders and held to such esteem in their natural environment, was an example of how humanity could be so unintendedly cruel. Sure, some people inflict harm because they mean to be harmful, but could the people who travelled 1000s of miles with their families to experience the joy of being close to these mystical animals, who were told by ‘experts’ that the only way to travel across parts of Asia was by Elephant and who just wanted a photo to remember a magical moment by, really mean to be cruel?
Today responsible tourism is being talked about more than ever, not a day goes by without several articles in the news or on Social Media explaining why animals shouldn’t be enjoyed whilst in captivity and detailing the torture they go through to make them tame enough to interact with us. It seems crazy to think we ever thought otherwise.
So, our adventures led us back from India and looking for ways to continue helping back home. That’s when Hannah met Gemma.
Driven by a new passion to do more for Asian Elephant welfare, Hannah began to seek out UK based charities who needed volunteers for anything; fundraising, admin, whatever was needed to support the efforts to stop the abuse by tourism. She came across Thailand Elephants on Twitter and was immediately taken by the founder’s attitude. Gemma, who founded Thailand Elephants in 2016 with her friend, Jade, had worked in Thailand for a couple of years reintroducing elephants back to the wild and knew first hand what working elephant life and sanctuary elephant life was like. As she got more involved, we decided Rescuemania could help with some Summer fund/awareness raising and so a date was set for us to meet Gemma and discuss how we could do some stalls around the country and accurately share her charity’s message.
I will never forget our first chat with this immediately warm and friendly girl, her enthusiasm and knowledge for the topic was astounding and her experience, achievements and vision for the future is something that educated me more than any other interaction I had previously had.
Whenever possible Gemma visits schools, companies, organisations – anyone who wants to have a talk can book one and she delivers a well written and thought provoking presentation on the realities of Thailand Elephants and Tourism. After an hour long chat, she shared the presentation and we parted ways, then Hannah, Rob and I planned two awareness raising stalls at Vegan festivals happening up and down the country, one in Liverpool (at my beloved Anfield Football Club!) and one in Stoke.
Both offered the chance for us to have a stall and also give a 45 minute talk on our subject, so I studied Gemma’s presentation with the hope I could deliver something suitable on her behalf.
The first event day came and it was a 6am start for the team! Upon arrival, Rob graciously dressed as an elephant without hesitation while Hannah and I laid out the beautiful homemade bags and cushions made especially by supporters of Thailand Elephants as well as some tombola items collected throughout the previous week. All funds raised would go to support the sanctuary they work with in Chiang Mai, Thailand called Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary. Gemma and Jade are still in regular touch with the founder and help this sanctuary by giving funds, raising awareness of their work and sharing the volunteer opportunities at the sanctuary for travelling tourists.
My first instinct was to be nervous to give a talk on something I had only really learn about a week or so before, but after reading her presentation and speaking to Gemma herself, I also felt inspired by the education I had received. Prior to being involved in the charity, my understanding had been limited to ‘chains and bullhooks are bad, free ranging is good.’ As someone who involves themselves in learning about rescue initiatives every day, I see people commenting on social media all the time, jumping to harsh conclusions about a charity or sanctuary’s ‘cruel’ practices without ever once having travelled to that country or educated themselves on what it is like to manage in such conditions themselves.
To be clear, I believe that no wild animal should be captured, taken from its natural environment and it’s family members used as entertainment for humans. And yes, it is true that in order to tame ANY wild animal to perform on command, or even to sit for a photo with you, they will have been either abused physically and mentally or at the very least kept in tiny, crude and unhealthy habitats and made to form unnatural patterns of behaviour our convenience.
This includes dolphins in contained bay areas by the way. Sorry, but as interested in us as they are, they don’t want to spend their days swimming with you hanging from their fins. They just really, really don’t.
Anyway, back to Elephants. It was an absolute honour to do the presentation because a) Gemma’s experiences were so inspirational and b) because I learnt things I have never seen in any other research.
While we know riding is bad, do you know all of the reasons why?
Of course, it is widely documented now that the process which baby elephants go through to tame them so that they don’t feel able to rebel against captivity when they are bigger and stronger is appalling, but did you also know that despite being strong enough to carry around 25% of their own weight, their back skeletal structure (where the wooden saddles are put) aren’t actually as sturdy as they look?
Many wealthy sanctuaries which call themselves ‘ethical’ don’t remove the saddles between rides or allow any rest, so even if they say they don’t endorse tricks and only allow riding for scheduled times, they are still be damaging the elephants both emotionally and physically. And what about bathing? Many sanctuaries advertise ‘no rides, no bull hooks’ but still allow bathing. Sadly, this can be worse than riding!
Elephants chained in a stable and only brought out 5 times a day to be ‘bathed’ by up to 15 tourists, mindlessly splashing them whilst they stand entirely still is not ethical. Elephants in the wild splash each other and play, romping together and bonding as a family unit – to stand so still, alone and entirely for our benefit means they will have been controlled in some painful, demeaning way and are performing for our pleasure. Distressingly, the working mahouts often carry concealed spikes, so the unsuspecting tourist won’t think anything untoward is happening.
Mahoutship has changed over the years and a once honourable and valued tradition shared down the generations is sadly not what it was.
One of the more important parts of the talk for me was looking at how we can make ethical choices when travelling rather than just reiterating the bad stuff, so that people can help these amazing animals rather than unintendedly cause or even turn a blind eye to the harm. Sometimes when things are too horrible, we turn away to preserve our sanity and that’s incredibly natural, but often if we can overcome the imagery and peak through our fingers at the awfulness, we can find a way to do something good with the information.
What is the magic formula and how can Elephants be saved and rehabilitated from these conditions? Well, Elephants being rescued from captivity need to live somewhere and this is not straightforward. Due to deforestation, forest land is in shorter supply and Elephants in the wild can make their way to villages leading to increased human-elephant conflict, cause harm to the elephants by the ingestion of pesticides from farmland and of course the obvious panic to both humans and elephants which can lead to the death of both.
Kindred Spirit are working on a fabulous ‘Bees for Eles’ program which I encourage you to read about on the Thailand Elephant website and get involved with, which will work with farmers to place beehives around the perimeter of their land. Elephants are scared (well, maybe sensibly cautious is a better word!) of bees and will back away from fences where they have hives. This stops the elephants getting in harm’s way and as a byproduct, increases the opportunities for the farmers to make an additional income from honey. For people in these communities, this is such peaceful progression for the relationship between man and elephant.
We met some wonderful people at the stalls, we raised some money for the sanctuary and hopefully we helped educate some people who like me, hadn’t been exposed to the finer details of elephant rehabilitation before. I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in elephants and specifically an interest in Asian Elephants take a look at the Thailand Elephant website – it is full of information on the realities of both the good and bad of sanctuary life, and I promise you will learn something you didn’t know before!
Gemma has committed her life to understanding and supporting the process of elephant rehabilitation and her passion is addictive. She has a fantastic, equally passionate team working to keep the website current and she always welcomes feedback from active travelers. Community is key to keeping the progress going so if you are planning on visiting Thailand please do visit the website and let the team know your experiences.