Peter Matthiessen once said that elephants ‘command the silence ordinarily reserved for mountains, peaks, great fires, and the sea’, however when I gazed into the soulful eyes of these archaic creatures, mountains and oceans almost paled in comparison to the sublime feeling of implicit communication with another species. When those thick lashes close over the eyes you feel tangible sorrow as the quivering boundary between two distinct species is established once again. Anyone that has ever gazed into the ochre eye of the elephant will be able to understand that human intelligence, rather than being the pinnacle of evolution, is just another branch of the diverse tree of life.
For the past few weeks I have been travelling around Thailand to document the plight of the Asian elephant and expose the horrific industry that normalises a practice called ‘Phajaan’, which means ‘to break the spirit of an elephant’. The camps may have appeared bucolic and blissful to anyone unaware of what goes on behind the scenes. The lumbering giants and the gently rolling green hills all contribute to the concealment of the horrific reality. However, it does not take an expert to see that the swinging heads, pawing feet and wild eyes eyes all hint at something more sinister. While the elephant’s leathery skin and almost transcendent presence seems to suggest that they are resistant to any man-inflicted torture, this is completely untrue. Whilst investigating the camps (and filming an exposé), I saw crippled creatures with sores and slashes etched into their bodies. Most of them displayed severe stereotypic behaviour, which is evidence of psychological problems such as anxiety, depression or stress. One of the most distressing scenes came in the form of a six month old called Sheshan. This baby was imprisoned in a meagre concrete pen with his distressed mother, who was on a metre-long chain. He stumbled around her legs, tripping over her chains and flipping his thin trunk around in juvenile incompetence. The bond between a mother and baby elephant is one of the strongest in the animal kingdom. This is taken to such an extent that wild mothers will leave the herd (which is almost always a precursor to death) in order to stay with their sick babies. They will also mourn them if they die, and their grief is so intense that not only will they bury their babies, but they will return for many years after to visit the bones of their loved ones.
So as you can imagine, enforced separation is incredibly distressing. However, this happens to thousands of elephants across Asia all for the amusement of tourists.
Once the babies are taken from their mothers, they are put through a training process which includes starvation, isolation, repeated beating with a bull-hook and confinement. The length of the process varies depending on how easy it is to ‘break the spirit’ of the elephant. Essentially, Phajaan is completed whenever the elephant has been abused to such an extent that he believes he is subservient to humans. The product of the training is usually a very fearful creature who will stumble for miles under the torrid sun with a heavy chair and several tourists on his back. However, with the increase in tourism, the camps have found novel ways to entertain the rapacious appetite of humans for continual amusement. These variations may include the elephants painting, playing football, dancing, bowing or praying. Whilst I stood in the camps filming these horrors, I couldn’t help but feel disgusted as I saw the intelligent eyes of such beautiful creatures watching as throngs of tourists poke and prod them, baying for a selfie. What makes this cruelty even worse is the fact that elephants have existed for 55 million years, which makes our measly 200,000 years on this planet pale in comparison. The layers and folds of their thick skin, the colour of sun-baked earth, seem to replicate the fissures and curves of the landscape. Their ears command the air around them, swishing like corduroy. Their deep rumbles undulate and pulse through your body, necessitating an awe that is usually reserved for mountains and the ocean. They are, to put it simply, sublime. Yet their magnificence doesn’t stand alone, they have a purpose too (which does not involve serving humans). They are the Gardeners Of The Forest.
Gardeners of the forest
All three species of elephant are essential for the dispersal of seeds. They defecate over long distances, which ensures far-reaching dispersal, but they also fertilise them by leaving the seeds in viable conditions (nutrient-rich and protective dung). A scientific paper published on Science Direct states that, ‘Large numbers of forest elephants ranging over large areas may be essential for ecosystem function. The loss of elephants will have important negative consequences for the ecological trajectories of some plant species and whole ecological communities.’
When elephants are taken from their lush, ecologically-rich homes and imbedded in the human community, we will at some stage cause catastrophic ecological consequences which would also affect us greatly. When our actions are not only harming other species, the environment and consequently ourselves, wouldn’t it be more beneficial if we skip those half hour elephant rides and find something less detrimental to add to our bucket lists ?