The lesser-known plight of endangered Asian elephants
Unless you live under a rock you’ll know about the plight of African elephants, which are falling victim to the ivory trade at an alarming rate. An elephant roaming free on the African savannah suffers the moment a poacher shoots and needlessly slaughters the animal for its ivory. But it’s rarely ivory poachers who threaten its cousin the Asian elephant; it’s holidaymakers.
Wildlife tourism across South East Asia is a money-spinning industry worth millions of US dollars a year. It plays a huge role in desecrating the highly endangered Asian elephant. Elephants giving trekking rides heavily laden with passengers, or shows with elephants performing degrading circus tricks, or paraded in costume through street festivals in extreme heat, through the din of firecrackers, drums and jostling crowds – all these attractions have the same purpose; to entice money from tourists. Unwittingly, holidaymakers are using their wallets to fuel exploitation and brutality to the Asian elephant for ‘entertainment’.
Poaching baby elephants from the wild for ‘training’
Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) raises awareness of the ruthless practice called ‘pajan’ or ‘breaking of the spirit’, which is used to make the elephant terrified and submissive for use in tourist entertainments. Baby elephants, which sell for as much as $125,000, are snatched from the wild and taken for brutal pajan ‘training’ at forest camps that supply elephants to nationwide facilities.
A newly captured elephant will be beaten with iron rods, wooden planks and metal spikes, for an hour every day for months. In-between beatings the elephant handler (mahout) locks the elephant in a cramped isolation box traditionally called a kraal or ‘crushing cage’ where it is left dehydrated and starved for months. During pajan elephants suffer post traumatic stress and horrific, sometimes fatal injuries. It is estimated more than 50% of elephants die during or after this ‘domestication’ practice. There is no tamed elephant without pajan.If you can pet it, ride it or watch it perform tricks, it has been subjected to pajan.
If the elephant survives, it can expect a long life of anguish and torment. Tragically captive elephants often die long before their natural life span of 70 years – from exhaustion, sickness or even from a particularly brutal ‘correction’ beating for misbehavior or disobedience.
Eyewitness account of captive elephants in India
I’ll never forget the sight of the pitiful elephants in shackles at a temple in Kerala, India and at an elephant ‘training’ camp in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. I saw elephants rocking in psychological distress, destined to be chained to concrete blocks in the burning sun every day for years, even decades. Several were malnourished, some were blind, many had open sores and bleeding wounds. During the time I visited the camps two elephants died. There are various abominable secretive elephant ‘training’ camps in India.
Witnessing the appalling condition of Asian elephants upset me so much I founded the charity Save The Asian Elephants (STAE). Leading conservationists, field experts, lawyers and campaigners from the UK and Asia sit on its board.
A species brought to the brink of extinction
Less than 20,000 wild elephants are left in India. The Asian elephant has been on the official IUCN endangered species list since 1986. Its world population has declined to just 40,000 today, down from more than a million at the beginning of the 20th century. Its numbers have decreased by 50% in the last 60 years alone. Asian elephant numbers are now just 5% of the number of African elephants.
Today there are some 10,000 elephants captive across SE Asia and most are living in isolating and appalling conditions. This ancient, highly intelligent, family orientated, emotional and sensitive species deserves so much better.
STAE’s core objective is to raise public awareness so as to influence politicians and change commercial practices. Western tour companies are often instrumental in driving the demand for unethical elephant holidays. We engage the range states at government and diplomatic levels resolutely, but respectful of the problems they face. STAE’s website provides information on thoughtful and responsible policies for change. We inform the general public on how to recognise unethical elephant facilities and how to enjoy viewing elephants in their natural habitat instead.
A global tourism industry fueling the demise of elephants
Consumer power is key to persuading travel companies that unethical elephant tourist attractions are unacceptable. Boycott all forms of elephant entertainment and spread the truth about the ‘behind the scenes’ cruelty endured by elephants for ‘entertainment’. All countries, especially those with the highest number of tourists to SE Asia, such as the UK and USA, should ban tour companies and other commercial interests from promoting unethical elephant attractions online or by any means.
Save The Asian Elephants proposals
STAE respectfully calls on India and the other SE Asian states to end elephant attractions, to implement their existing laws to ensure the proper treatment and care of elephants already in captivity and to move them to designated sanctuaries or the vast reserved forests.Do sign STAE’s Change.org petition demanding the Indian government put an immediate end to the poaching of elephants from the wild for pajan ‘training’ and a life of unremitting abuse.
The abuse of Asian elephants, as exemplified by the practice of Pajan, is as indefensible as it is barbaric. Beating and torturing elephants snatched from the wild for tourist entertainment is a tragic stain on the standing and reputation of the region in the eyes of the world; and it is no way to treat a magnificent species at the brink of extinction. Without a seismic shift in public awareness, plus immediate serious commercial and political engagement in the Western world, India and its neighbouring states, the Asian elephant is doomed, in our lifetime and by our hands.
Duncan McNair is a practising lawyer, and founder and CEO of
Save The Asian Elephants