Activists Denounce Thailand's Elephant "Crushing" Ritual

By Jennifer Hile
for National Geographic Today
October 16, 2002
It's a sound not easily forgotten. Just before dawn in the remote
highlands of northern Thailand, west of the village Mae Jaem, a
four-year-old elephant bellows as seven village men stab nails into her
ears and feet. She is tied up and immobilized in a small, wooden cage.
Her cries are the only sounds to interrupt the otherwise quiet

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.

Most domestic elephants now work in tourism. Worldwide fascination with these giants fuels a thriving industry. Travelers from around the world pay top dollar to take elephant rides in the forest, or watch them perform in shows. But the process of domesticating these animals is something few outsiders see.

Brutal Training, Black Magic

For example, elephants in the crush are taught to raise their feet on command so owners can easily move them. Men give orders enforced by stabbing at the animals' legs with sticks that have nails on the end. Mistakes are punished with beatings.

Elephants are typically covered in bloody wounds and rope burns when released from the crush after three to six days. They are quickly tied up again; the training continues for weeks.

"They say they have to let the elephant taste pain, then the elephant will understand how to listen," said Chailert. But brutality can produce the opposite effect, she argued.

Traditionalists defend the crush. Saehai, a 91-year-old shaman from Chiang Dao who goes by only one name, has been a spiritual leader of breaking ceremonies in northern Thailand for half a century. "Only one way to do this, not any other," he explains firmly. "If elephant doesn't go though this, elephant can't be tamed."

Villagers believe the shaman uses black magic to help tame the elephant and sever ties to the mother. Saehai feels pride in his work because domestic elephants generate much-needed income in undeveloped areas. He is an honored guest at every village he visits.

Like many rural villagers, Saehai argues that to control animals that can eventually weigh as much as 10,000 pounds, it's essential they fear their keepers. He believes it's the only way to safeguard against the animal kicking, goring, or otherwise injuring people with whom they work.

Chailert believes it's time for Thai people to rethink the centuries-old tradition. "I think it should be stopped. We have many different ways to train elephants; we don't have to be so cruel." She argues that positive reinforcement is a more effective and humane strategy for training these animals.

Are there alternatives?

Rethinking Tradition

Elephant management techniques in the United States used corporal punishment and negative reinforcement to train elephants until about 30 years ago, when a new method began to emerge.

"We started changing our training methods [over the last few decades] because we had the technology and the know-how," said Carol Buckley, co-founder and executive director of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. "The new technique is called 'protected contact,' and it's used in more than half of accredited American zoos."

The new training depends on rewards, not punishment.

"In a nutshell, when the behavior of the animal approximates the target of behavior, you reward them," said Jeff Andrews, Animal Care Manager at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. He is in charge of training the African and Asian elephants at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

Chailert hopes to change how the next generation of domestic elephants is trained. With a tradition so deeply engrained, it won't be easy.

The crush thrives in isolated villages where narrow dirt roads are the only connection to the outside world. Few outsiders venture into these remote areas. Isolation is what allowed the crush to continue unchanged for hundreds of years, and protects it still. Chailert is one of the only people calling for change.

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