Yesterday morning, when I turned on my computer after a night of restlessness, my heart sank.
There, on the screen, were two Facebook status updates. One from the Elephant Nature Park & Foundation page stating Mae Sai Roong, an elephant our volunteer group had taken care of when she fell ill on Sept. 10, had taken a turn for the worst. Then, an update time stamped about five hours later from one of the staff with the words that made my cry aloud — “Dear Sai Roong, RIP.”
Mae Sai Roong had only been at the park for a little more than four months. An older girl, she spent her life in the logging and trekking industries, for the most part at elephant camps treating passengers to tick marks on their bucket lists by taking them for treks on her back. She was sold to people in Chiang Mai who had her go to a big elephant camp, and, a little while later, was transferred to smaller elephant camp near the park. Her owner was not happy with the way she was treated at the park, and decided to transfer her — yet again — to another park. However, her feet barely wanted to move after a live of giving rides, so the decision was made. It was time for Mae Sai Roong to retire. The owner, along with members of Elephant Nature Park,walked her the short distance from her current camp to her new home, the park. The walk took her three hours because, after years of trekking for tourists, her movements were so labored.
I had wanted to wait to talk about Sai Roong and Elephant Nature Park. And, I still plan to fill readers in on my time volunteering at the park in the coming weeks.
But, for now, to honor her life, I wanted to post a few photos of her. And, talk candidly with my readers.
These photos were taken the day she was so ill, she had no strength to do anything but lay down, and the following day, when she stood up. The day she laid down was one of the saddest of my life as I, along with all of the other volunteers, some of the staff and the vets, rushed to fill sand bags and shovel dirt to create a bed for her. We watched as a harness wrapped around her saggy belly was hooked to a crane that tried, in vain, to get her to stand. We watched as she would get tiny bursts of life, sit up, look around at everyone, and then give up and allow herself to simply lay, nearly lifeless on the mound we had quickly created on the hot and humid September afternoon in the jungle.
Two volunteers sit with Mae Sai Roong the day she lays down, Sept. 10, 2011. Photo: Julie-Ann O’Neill
We didn’t think she would last the night. She did. The next morning, when a few girls went to see her, we didn’t think she’d last past breakfast. She did. A couple of hours after their early morning vist, we were informed that, somehow, Sai Roong, had found the strength and the will to live. After laying down for more than an entire day, the elephant had stood up.
Overjoyed, we walked down to where she was being treated a few times on our last day. We spent time feeding her, talking to her, giving her the love that she had been so deprived of in her trekking days.
Surprising everyone, Mae Sai Roong stood up less than 24 hours after her bleak prognosis. Photo: Julie-Ann O’Neill
On September 27, 2011, Mae Sai Roong, “Rainbow,” was finally able to rest, free after nearly a lifetime of suffering due to people supporting the abusive practices of the elephant tourism industry.
She had no elephant friends, but I am sure she was surrounded by a group of volunteers like the ones I spent my time with. Hopefully they were rubbing dirt on her, scratching her back and singing lullabies softly to her.
I had wanted to wait to start talking about this … to first share my stories of the elephants and the park, which was one of the most fulfilling and heart-warming experiences of my life.
But, then Sai Roong passed away. And her death shouldn’t go unnoticed. Instead of just posting that I am sad about her death, I am going to explain to you why, ultimately, she died.
Sai Roong, like most elephants that “work” in Thailand have to go through the a ritual called phajaan, or “crush.” It begins with the baby elephants (usually three to four years old) being taken from their mothers and placed in a small, wooden pen. To get them securely in the pen, these babies are beaten with bamboo, sticks with nails attached to the tip and bull hooks. Once in place, the crush lasts for roughly a week. During this time, they are beaten, bludgeoned, have hooks attached to their sensitive ears, and are deprived of food and water, all in the name of breaking ties with their mothers and becoming domesticated. While in the crush, through the infliction of pain, they learn how to accept riders, do circus tricks and paint. The end result –to crush the elephant’s spirit and deem them domesticated.
And, once they have their souls stomped out, they are simply vessels entertaining people. They are chained. They don’t eat enough. Like humans, elephants have the capability to form relationships and have emotions. But, not the elephants working for the tourists.
People who visit Thailand — and other countries with elephant tourism — don’t realize the damage they cause these elephants when they support trekking camps, go to circuses or buy the paintings done by these creatures. Without knowing, they send a clear message to the elephant tourism industry that shows they support the torture these animals go through early in their life, as well as the horrific conditions they live in as cogs in the tourism wheel.
It’s not my goal to upset readers. What I want, on the day after World Tourism Day, is for readers to KNOW what goes on behind-the-scenes.
Lek Chailert and the Elephant Nature Foundation, work tirelessly to show elephant owners there are other options to training elephants that doesn’t involve abuse. And, they have programs, like the Surin Project, that works with mahouts (ele owners) who had used their animals for street begging and circuses, and shows them there are alternatives for these elephants. The foundation also operates the Jumbo Express, which provides medicinal care and educational assistance for people and elephants in tribes. There’s even more, and a visit to the Web site can fill you in on all the good they do.
She, and the foundation are trying to make an impact on the elephant tourism industry.
You can make an impact, too.
For those who have ridden on elephants, I don’t judge you. I bet you didn’t know what the elephants are subjected to. Now, you do. So go … tell someone else who is going to Thailand (or any other country where eles are part of tourism, because there are far more places that abuse these animals in the name of a dollar than don’t) what I’ve just told you. Then, maybe they will tell someone else. Who will tell someone else.
One day, the message will be loud and clear to the elephant tourism industry: There are ways to train elephants without torture. And ways to make money from elephants without subjecting them to cruel living conditions. Change. Your. Practices. And we, as tourists, will support you.
If you really want to see for yourself the crush, here is a video you can watch. I warn you — it is disturbing and contains VERY graphic images of elephant abuse. But, sometimes people need to see it to believe it.