for National Geographic Today
The cage is called a "training crush." It's the centerpiece of a centuries-old ritual in northern Thailand designed to domesticate young elephants. In addition to beatings, handlers use sleep-deprivation, hunger, and thirst to "break" the elephants' spirit and make them submissive to their owners.
"It's a ritual that exists, in varying forms and degrees of cruelty, in virtually every country in Asia that has domesticated elephants," explained Richard Lair, an American expatriate and international relations officer for Thailand's Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang. Lair has studied domesticated elephants for more than 20 years and is author of the UN report Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity.
"The people believe that to control the animal they have to do something to make the elephant feel fear and pain," said Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, a well-known Chiang-Mai-based activist who runs Jumbo Express, a program bringing free veterinary care to these animals. She's an outspoken critic of the crush.
Born in the small mountain village of Baan Lao, in Northern Thailand, Chailert's devotion to elephants began at an early age. She is the granddaughter of a shaman, a traditional healer, who received an elephant named Golden One as payment for saving a man's life. From the time Chailert was five years old, "Goldy" was considered a part of the family. Elephants have been a core part of her life since.
Chailert runs a sanctuary called Elephant Heaven for abused elephants and constantly campaigns on their behalf. Her exposure of the brutal crush and her conservation campaign has raised international awareness and also provoked local resistance.
Beasts of Burden, Cultural Icons
Thais often say elephants helped build their nation. For centuries they were Thailand's tanks, taxis, and bulldozers. As such, a contradiction developed: These beasts of burden became cultural icons. They are symbols of the king's divine right to rule, of good luck, even religious icons.
But the elephants' status as cultural icons hasn't stopped a slide to near-extinction in Thailand. The World Conservation Union, based in Gland, Switzerland, lists the Asian elephant as endangered.
A century ago, there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand. That number has fallen 95 percent, primarily due to loss of habitat. Of the 5,000 elephants left, about half are domestic, according to Lair. Little is done to protect them, although they remain an important part of the Thai economy.
Thai law is ambivalent. "Domestic elephants are considered livestock," said Lair. "Under Thai law, they're no different from buffalo or cattle." Small fines, rarely enforced, are the only penalties for abusing livestock.
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