Save The Asian Elephants: Tourists, temples and traditions

This month kicked off with World Wildlife Day, and for me, the weekend immediately following meant an opportunity to visit the Animal Welfare Bazaar in Ealing. It was my first opportunity to attend the event, which has been running for 39 years(!), and I must admit, it was a treat to see some of my favourite charities and causes coming together.

A particular highlight of these kinds of events is discovering charities I know little or nothing about. In this case, it was Save The Asian Elephants (STAE).

STAE team at Ealing Animal Bazaar

Now, the plight of elephants in Africa is widely recognised — I’ve written several blog posts on the ivory trade and the rate at which African elephants are poached — but far less is known, and spoken of, are the desperate threats facing Asian elephants.

Astonishingly, the surviving population of Asian elephants is barely 5% that of African elephants — with a huge decline from estimates of a million or more in the late 19th century to scarcely 40,000 today! Around 10,000 of these are captive.

Mali the elephant in the zoo

While the majority of Asian elephants are found in India and Sri Lanka, there are small populations in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and (among others) Thailand. I mention these countries specifically because they are all places where I have see photographs of elephant rides and ‘elephant painting’ for tourists.

I recently watched the incredible BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise, and learnt about some of the terrible ordeals these animals face when they are snatched from their forest homes to supply tourist attractions and festivals. Often the young elephants’ mothers and other adult herd members are slaughtered as they try to protect their young.

Elephant sanctuary BBC series Thailand: Earth's Tropical Paradise

Elephant sanctuary to rehabilitate captive Asian elephants featured in the BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise

The Asian elephant, which has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1986, faces a bigger threat from the tourist industry then it does the ivory trade, as a lifetime of tourist rides are more lucrative than the one-off sale of its ivory.

Unlike the African elephant, only male Asian elephants grow tusks — meaning the enslavement and exploitation of these creatures for tourist attractions brings in money where it otherwise wouldn’t be found. However, the Wildlife Protection Society of India still reported that over 121 elephants were lost to poaching between  2008-2011.

Asian elephants are smaller and less aggressive than their African counterparts making them ‘easier to tame’. Their gentle nature sees them stolen from the wild, forced into a pen and tied with ropes to prevent them moving. Deprived of water, food and sleep, they are brutally (sometimes fatally) beaten with bullhooks, rods, chains and other implements of torture.

The ‘breaking in’ process, known as “pajan” ends in the death of 50% of the elephants it intends to ‘domesticate’.

Captive Indian elephants + trainers

The life of pain, fear, dehydration and abuse that a captive elephant faces is something I have witnessed firsthand in Indonesiasomething I have written about in the past.

I have seen Sumatran elephants intimidated with wooden sticks into performing circus-style ‘tricks’; such as balancing (i.e. walking along a relatively thin bench), throwing a basketball into a hoop and using their trunks to paint using a paintbrush. It was awful. Sickening.

Most holidaymakers are unaware that many elephants have been captured from the wild, trained through fear and beaten into continuing their work: often carrying heavy loads of 2-4 tourists on metal seats on their backs. Their tusks are often blunted with chainsaws; the ends removed in a stressful and terrifying ordeal.

This cruel and harsh life — often spent with legs bound in short, tight chains — is not dissimilar to that experienced by ‘temple elephants’.

Chained to tradition by Emily Garthwaite

I remember seeing a photograph of a temple elephant at a previous year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. ‘Chained to tradition’ by photographer Emily Garthwaite shows a desperate, pained-looking elephant with bound legs, looking as though it’s literally crying out for help.

These captive elephants are used for religious ceremonies and rented out for festivals. Often their legs are chained to posts in such a way that they are prevented from even turning round, and throughout their lives they are subjected to the chaos and confusion of crowds and noise — even firecrackers during festival season (December to May).

Like captive elephants used for tourist attractions, temple elephants are forced to carry heavy loads; sometimes up to four men and given very little access to water and shelter.

Other threats to Asian elephants

It’s not just temples and the tourist industry that are having a detrimental impact on this beautiful but fragile species. Population numbers are being devastated by human-elephant conflict (up to 200 elephants are killed annually and around 60 people), and many elephants die from other means of forced contact with man, such as electrocution from power cables and collisions with trains.

Urban development, which results in human activity encroaching on the natural lives of these elephants, has also left migratory paths obstructed; meaning herds are more likely to come into contact with man — thus allowing for situations of human conflict that result in animals being shot or poisoned.

The disruption to migration also means a disruption to gene flow, as naturally Asian elephants migrate to find mates and this distribution of genes over large geographical distances improves genetic strength. When elephants can’t travel to breed, their offspring becomes less genetically diverse and therefore more vulnerable to diseases.

STAE Asian elephants

How does STAE help?

Save The Asian Elephants works to end the terrible cruelty and brutal conditions suffered by this wondrous and ancient species. With Asian elephants facing extinction in our lifetime and by our hands, STAE believes that Asian elephants don’t just “belong” to a country or region, but have an intrinsic right to exist in the wild.

By influencing governments, politicians and the tourist industry to adopt solutions (such as captive elephants being returned to the wild where they can play their natural role in forests, or in extreme cases — where wild release is not an option — being kept in genuine sanctuaries), they hope to see the psychological wellbeing of elephants improved and respect for these creatures realised, so that an increased understanding can be developed, leading to the better management of human-elephant conflict.

They believe that with a global imagination, global funding, and global planning, there can be a future where wild elephants and humans can co-exist peacefully, in a way that supports and respects local communities, as well as Asia’s rich ecosystems, and the world’s forests. They look to achieve this by informing public opinion on the truth behind this collision of commercialism and custom that Asian elephants currently find themselves in the middle of.

Find out more by visiting: stae.org

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