“Why would I spend money on animal suffering just to entertain ourselves?”
Last week at the AWE Asia 2013, I had the pleasure to meet Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert – Lek for short – who spoke to us about elephant conservation in Asia. Her story is a powerful one, so I wanted to devote a full post on her cause.
Lek’s life is about saving Asia’s elephants, having seen first hand how these gentle giants are treated at logging camps and tourism industries. Today, she runs the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand where she cares for rescued elephants from all over Asia. Her work has been recognised around the world and in a region where elephant tourism brings in a lot of money, her story is an extraordinary one.
It started at the age of 16 when she visited a logging camp and saw first hand how elephants were treated by humans. They were beaten, cut and tied up just to be tamed and often carry scars, both physically and mentally through their lives if they did not die young from the abuse. She decided then that she would devote her life to these gentle giants, because in her words, “humans can fight back about human rights, but animals do not have a voice, it is up to me to speak on behalf of them”.
She saved her first elephant in 1992, and have since rescued many from logging camps, circuses and abusive tourism operators. In a region where tourism is dependent largely on animal interaction, it is not an easy job for Lek, whose mission crossed into politics and industry agendas. She is constantly being questioned over the funds she receive from international donors, and are often ‘arrested’ under suspicion of drug trafficking (the only justification the government will accept for the money coming to her).
She showed us a documentary of how elephants are trained for work, which included heavy stabs on the head, knife cuts through the ears and legs and being restrained for hours long for ‘taming’. The images were disturbing, and the message was clear and she told us the unfortunately truth: “All elephants working in the Thai tourism industry are trained through cruel and abusive methods.”
Watch these videos. Be warned, the message will be hard to take.
Lek asks us to ask ourselves: “Why would I spend money on animal suffering just to entertain ourselves?”
Lek’s talk was a wake up call. We do so much to harm to animals just for our own entertainment and benefit, just so we can ‘tick off a list’ and to be able to boast about it. Be it elephants, lions, tigers, dogs and cats. It does not make sense.
I have previously travelled with companies that claim to only use ‘ethical’ animal operators and have in fact, ridden elephants twice, once ironically at an elephant conservation camp in Bali, Lek’s talk got me thinking. If what Lek said was true, that all elephants working for the tourism industry were beaten to submission, then how is ‘ethical operation’ even possible?
So I asked Lek: “When companies advertise ethical travel, when they say they only use operators that treat animals in a humane way, how much should we really trust them?”
Lek’s reply was: “You can’t”.
The unfortunate truth in tourism is, that while an operator may be told such and such policy exist, an elephant’s journey to working in the tourism industry started a long way before any conversation would take place. When baby elephants are in demand for example, female elephants are tied up in a position where they could be easily forced into mating with a bull, and are often injured in the process with broken legs and twisted spinal cords. Baby elephants born in this condition are separated from their mothers to be tamed and trained, and many die from the abuse before they could reach an age where they can be used in the tourism industry.
While Lek said she doesn’t completely disagree with elephant riding, as much as she doesn’t like it, the reality is, if these elephants are not being employed by the tourism industry, they’ll be pushed back to logging and have an even harder chance at life. So it is entirely possible that a ‘conservation camp’ could offer rides to raise funds.
However, she urges all of us to have some common sense. If an elephant looks sick, if an elephant is pregnant, if there are sign of abuse to the elephants at the riding camp (such as scars, signs of bleeding, or, if they are rocking back and forth for no reason, showings signs of stress when the mahouts are near) then don’t ride. Make a point that you will not cause further suffering to the elephants just for entertainment.
Lek is off again tomorrow to campaign on behalf of her herd of elephants. I managed to get a few minutes of her time and promised that I would visit.
Elephants never forget. They carry their painful memory of abuse with them even after they have been rescued for a while. Let’s not have the elephant’s eternal memories of humans be a sad one.