By: Olivia Harlow
Produced & Edited By: Zainab Kandeh
Asian elephants – revered for symbolizing steadfastness, prosperity and strength – are regularly exploited and abused across Southeast Asia. This mistreatment hypocritically contradicts the acclaimed religious status dubbed to these gentle giants.
Where hundreds of thousands of elephants once roamed freely, now only 25,000 to 32,000 remain. According to international Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), populations have dropped approximately 50% over the past sixty to seventy years. Not only are populations quickly diminishing; they are extremely difficult to track.
|Photo © Asian Elephant Specialist Group
Habitat Loss a Contributing Issue
According to EleAid, population surveys in Cambodia were first attempted in 2001 and highlighted difficulties of scientifically obtaining data in lower density, forest-dwelling populations.
Patricia Sims, filmmaker and founder of World Elephant Day,predicts there are only about 200 elephants left in Cambodia.
“Can we recover the populations? Probably not,” says Sims. “It’s more of a habitat loss issue and a human-elephant conflict issue, and the fact that the elephants really have nowhere else to go.” She points out that 95% of elephant habitats have been wiped out, making it undoubtedly difficult to revive the species.
Cambodia provides rich habitats in which Asian elephants could thrive. However, in order to accomplish revival, Cambodia would need rigorous government enforcement and an environmental policy, both requiring heavy international financing.
Tools of the Trade Lead to Cruel Labor Practices
Many elephants in Cambodia are rescued from the now illegal logging industry.
Within this industry, elephants are heavily abused. The animals are captured and given amphetamines to reduce their appetite and increase their work productivity. Once detained, they’re tied to poles and forced to stand, with little to no room for movement. Loggers then beat the elephants and poke them with sharp instruments until they submit to labor.
One tool regularly utilized to inflict harm is the bullhook.
According to Sims, mahout tradition is almost completely lost, and today’s “mahouts” who work in tourism camps rely on the bullhook as a disciplinary item.
“The bullhook when used properly isn’t abusive,” says Sims. “A really well-trained mahout who understands the art of being a mahout and has a good relationship with the elephant often won’t use it at all.”
Erik Dettle, filmmaker of Mahout: Changing Reigns comments on vanishing mahout tradition. “I don’t enjoy seeing thousands of years of culture being reduced to a side show attraction.”
Diana Edelman worked for Save Elephant Foundation and conducts a travel blog. “I have seen elephants beaten, stressed, touted on the street, and exploited for monetary gain and human enjoyment,” she says.
Walking the Fine Line between Profits and Ethics
Trekking, begging, and performing are ways elephants are used in Asian tourism. Exploitative risk is always present when animals and commercialization meet.
Elephant riding is extremely popular across Asia. It’s benefited Cambodia’s national economy, yet has stripped away quality of life for many elephants. Some companies claim their elephants are treated well, but others undoubtedly abuse and overwork the animals solely for economical gain.
“Tourists really love elephants and wanna be around elephants. It’s a big money maker,” says Sims.
With more awareness, there is a big shift, requiring elephants to be properly cared for. For this reason, Sims believes more ethical tourism industries have potential to help in the long run.
When it comes to trekking, riding behind the ears, without use of a Howdah saddle is considered moral.
A fully-grown elephant can carry approximately 350 pounds, but Howdah saddles alone can weigh up to 200 pounds. Regularly elephants are forced to carry more than one passenger in the saddle, resulting in a doubled capacity.
Elephants spend approximately eighteen hours a day feeding, requiring about 440 pounds of food. In addition to basic needs, elephants need stimulation and time to roam freely. Animals in tourism are generally stripped of these rights. Being overworked and deprived leads to exhaustion and aches, diminished mental and physical health, sometimes even death.
“Bad things can happen when man and nature are perceived as separate”
Poaching is illegal and highly regulated in Southeast Asia, but the problem does exist.
In contrast to African elephants, only the male Asian elephant possesses tusks. Therefore, poaching primarily targets males, leading to skewed sex ratios, inbreeding, and high juvenile mortality. It’s predicted that breeding will be increasingly unsuccessful.
Coexisting in Peace
Nowadays, Cambodian elephants are constantly on the move and live in fear of humans, making cohabitating challenging and increasing difficulty to accurately calculate populations.
Sims knows respectful coexistence is necessary. “To live in harmony would be something I want to work towards,” she says. “Now is the time to take a stand for them.”
With about 20% of the world’s human population living near or inside Asian elephant range, dangers arise for both elephants and humans. Competition for contiguous living space has resulted in a huge loss of forest coverage and serious reduction of elephant numbers.
Developmental projects, including construction of dams, roads, mines, and industrial complexes have also divided elephant habitats into smaller fragments.
“Elephants are caretakers to the forest ecosystem,” states Sims. Forests are regenerated with the presence of elephants, yet without elephants and without forests, there is a vicious cycle of losing more and more of both wildlife and animals.
“Bad things can happen when man and nature are perceived as separate,” states Dettle.
Thankfully, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has declared elephants “priority species,” meaning they are among the planet’s most environmentally, economically, and culturally valued animals.
Many national parks and sanctuaries strive to care for elephants, but it’s necessary for tourists to differentiate between organizations that truly care for the animals versus those who take advantage of them.
Implementation of Save Elephant Foundation began in Thailand and has opened various locations throughout Asia. One location is in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where Phichet Saengla now works.
|©World Wildlife Fund
Saengla—nicknamed “Mix”— moved to Cambodia in 2012. He recalls his past oblivion to unethical treatment of elephants, prior to working with them. “When I worked at a park, my mind changed everything. I saw all of the elephants very happy. They can walk wherever they want and they don’t get abuse anymore.”