Dark Tourism And Breaking The Elephant Spirit.
Ethical Travel And Animal Cruelty Stories.
He is three metres tall, six metres long and weighs more than four tons.
Khan Kluey is a male Asian elephant and an impulsive, formidable beast. He gets whatever he wants as soon as he wants it. He is an alpha male in a beta kingdom, no-one can come close to challenging him. Strength alone defines his status as the boss, but his majesty of movement and trumpet of his trunk commit him to responsibility of the jungle.
Only under the most brutal and committed circumstances could Khan Kluey ever submit to the will of a human.
It would take a psychological wound so deep and unquestionable to stifle his instinctual protective mechanisms. Khan Kluey would need to be wholly submissive to the smallest touch of his master. The thinking horror of the elephant needs to be such that despite his overwhelmingly physical superiority, he feels helplessly weak and inept to retort to his mahout’s orders.
“Imagine being wholly submissive to a cat as he places his paw on your foot”
The mahout – Khan Kluey’s ‘caretaker’ is the man responsible for his elephant’s psychological intimidation. To ensure true obedience, the mahout needs to be the oppressor of Khan Kluey’s torment from day one.
Eerily named – ‘breaking the elephant spirit’ – which I am about to outline is the unfortunate history of every one of the thousands of defenceless South East Asian elephants that have ever bent their will to humans.
If you have ever ridden an elephant, posed for a photo with an elephant, seen a circus elephant, or experienced an orderly obedience from an uncaged elephant, then you were witness to a victim of horrific torture and lifelong abuse.
Having Your Spirit Broken
To ensure unencumbered obedience, the breaking of the spirit must begin when the elephant is a baby, the process is called the phajaan.
The baby elephant is placed in a claustrophobic wooden enclosure, too low to stand up, and barely narrow enough to lie down. This cell is called the ‘crush‘ since it’s purpose is to crush the spirit.
The elephant’s feet are tightly bound stunting development and causing terrible suffering. With the Elephant confined to ropes and a box, she is then mercilessly whipped and struck by her mahout. Then, as the elephant weakens, and the soundtrack of her hollow whaling marks the scenery, she is starved by both hunger and thirst and then committed to another level of deprivation. She is slashed, burnt, prodded and cut in her most sensitive areas with knives, rods and the bullhook (a wooden pole with a rounded spike – the signature device of the mahout). This cycle continues with repetition for an… ‘extended period of time‘.
This process ‘breaks’ the beast’s independent spirit, condemning them to an unnatural servitude too, and fear from, humans.
This fear and anxiety is intended and designed to stay with the elephants for a lifetime and is wholly manifested in the presence of his or her mahout.
It is at the conclusion of this horrific process an elephant is tamed – but importantly – not domesticated. They are prisoners of their owners but do not breed this servitude. To break the strong willed and kin loving spirit of an elephant requires psychological torture, which primarily means the separation of families at birth and the heart wrenching longing of a baby for her mother and a mother for her missing baby.
It is my hypothesis that physical torture alone would not be sufficient to grant full obedience from an elephant, given their immense physical superiority. Rather it is the isolated deprivation and lonely existence that truly breaks the will of these magnificent creatures and hollows out their core, ridding them of any hope and leaving behind an absence of character and merely a saggy shell of elephant skin.
Elephants are an unusually empathetic member of animal kingdom, they feel and they express emotions. Life spans in captivity are at best half of a life span in the wild. They are anxious animals, and can exhibit stress so significant it is seen to have detrimental physiological effects.
If you ever experience these animals up close, then you are experiencing the victim of phajaan (breaking the spirit). It is totally unnatural for a human to get within feet of an elephant – to do so in the wild would spell reliable danger.
Therefore, if you have ridden an elephant, taken photos with an elephant or even cared for an elephant in a sanctuary – then you have interacted with what is left after torture, of these amazing beasts.
My Experience With Elephants
I briefly volounteered at the Wildlife Friends Foundation in Thailand back in 2015. There I cared for and learnt about the elephants, previously unaware to the nature of the abuse.
On this site were 10 or 11 female, ‘retired’ elephants. Retired, because that is their official status at the centre having served their whole lives previously in local tourism. There was also one male – Khan Kluey. He would ‘dance’ for his food. Which meant that he would stand firmly to the ground and sway his hips from side to side whenever he saw humans.
Quite cute at first, after all this was an impressively large animal ten times my size and fifty times my mass giving us a little performance but the entertaining effect quickly wore off. This ‘dance’ is often performed for seagull like tourists who just bark for more ‘tricks’. It is a state of pure anxiety for the elephant. There is nothing rhythmically trained about this performance, it is the physical manifestation of a mental breakdown – it is pure agony. After I realised this, it quite affected my mood whenever I saw him.
To my stubborn disgust, these retired elephants still had to endure their mahouts – even once ‘freed’ and in the sanctuary. It was supposedly for ‘safety reasons’, since transport of the elephants in their day to day still needed submissive guidance from their torturer. The only retirement the elephant got was freedom from an oppressive owner to captivity from a less oppressive owner.
However, with that being said, the elephants are treated to a five star diet and never need to serve humans ever again.
Something for you to take away – whenever you see a photo of an elephant ‘working’ – probably with an overfed family on its back – notice the mahout walking calmly beside one of her ears, with his hand raised just behind the flaps of the elephant’s face. Hidden from view is the bull hook gently pressing into the most sensitive flesh on her body. This guides the journey and serves as a reminder to the elephant that she is the submissive, and fear must be her constant state, for he has a knife pressing against her skin, and should she step one foot out of line – she will bleed.
The Only Way To Experience These Animals Is Through A Sanctuary.
Despite my disagreements with the presence of mahouts and general skepticism towards the motivations of the sanctuary it was an incredible experience to be close with these animals.
They are to be respected and admired.
The economy of South East Asia is dependent on tourism, and so with it, the inhabitants are relying the mysticism of the local wildlife. When you are towing with the ability to meet your base needs you are willing to expend your moral adjuncts. The locals do have an inherent respect and love for their wildlife, but for so many, they are not educated in other forms of work and so default to exploitation.
Whilst I was at the centre, I heard rumours that the mahouts would cut the eyelashes of the elephants routinely. A fine strand of hair, worth good money in jewellery. The eyelashes of an elephant have nerve endings, it’s like pulling your fingernails every couple of months. Rumours also concerning the elephant tails, skin and anything else exposed to exploit.
This is not even to mention the treatment of different species of monkeys, bears and tigers – read my post on the Thai Tiger Temples.
Ultimately – this post is intended to educate anyone who can read it on the true nature of elephant tourism, and hopefully will make you think twice before liking a photo that is not taken from a sanctuary, or even worse, taking a tour.