Behind Thailand’s lucrative animal tourism is a picture of cruelty, torture
THE six-day “phajaan” ritual is the first thing an elephant in captivity endures. It has its calves tied together and is forced to walk on a narrow wooden plank for hours on end. Then later, it is put in a cage, barely large enough to fit it and stabbed with spikes or nails – tortured solely to break its spirit.
“The end goal is to break the animal’s spirit to such a point it loses the will to live – it is only then an elephant becomes completely controllable by their human trainers,” a January report in online travel magazine Culture Trip said.
According to NGO Thailand Elephant, the “phajaan” ritual, or the Crush – which it defines as “to divorce the baby elephant from its spirit” – kills between four and five elephants at once as the family of young elephants are killed in the process, often in front of the young mammal which is the start of mental and physical tortures ahead of it.
“The phajaan may last from several days to weeks. Most elephants go through it when they are three to six years (old), but they can be younger depending on the age at which they were taken from their mothers.
“They have no rest from physical torture and mental domination. Gradually, their spirits are broken, as their handlers achieve control,” the NGO states on its website.
In fact, the “breaking” of these animals, as well as other animals exploited in Thailand’s tourism trade including tigers and orangutans, is so excruciating and damaging these animals can sometimes snap. Their being forced to perform unnatural and grueling tasks have resulted in their killing the people around them, including their trainers and the very tourists funding this exploitative trade.
According to Culture Trip, an elephant trampled a British man to death on the vacation island of Koh Samui. The victim and his daughter had been riding on the animal’s back and were thrown off just before the incident.
Prior to that in August, an elephant handler was killed while three Chinese tourists were still riding on the animal’s back.
The deadly industry has since attracted grave criticism from around the world, prompting authorities last year to crackdown on the infamous Tiger Temple.
The “part monastery, part petting zoo” facility in Thailand, made headlines after 40 tiger cubs were found frozen along with pelts and other wildlife products.
It remains unclear why the tiger carcasses were being kept frozen, but authorities claim they were likely being used for Chinese traditional medicine, a 2016 Reuters report said.
As many as 137 tigers were rescued from the facility and 22 people, including six monks, had complaints filed against them and will be investigated for illegal possession of wildlife and wildlife trafficking.
Its website states the facility is “under construction” and will reopen soon. Below the announcement, it promotes similar tours.
According to National Geographic, all 22 have also been tied to the illegal possession of Asian black bears, hornbills and other endangered species.
The February report explained the case against those nabbed from the Tiger Temple raid is still ongoing – although the temple’s founder and leader has yet to be formally charged or even questioned. Referencing pro-bono Tiger Temple lawyer-turned-whistleblower Soochaphong Boonsreom, the report said criminal prosecution in Thailand “takes time.”
“Filing a complaint or being charged by police doesn’t always mean that a suspect will be tried,” the report said, adding evidence is presented to the local prosecutor who then decides if the case will go to trial.
“Exactly where the seven open cases stand is impossible to ascertain. With open investigations, some details must be withheld until they’re presented before a judge,” the report said.
The raid, and subsequently rescue, of the Tiger Temple has borne positive results as wildlife experts have said the Thai government is now working to strengthen and improve the country’s protocols. Its wildlife department, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Fund and the Global Environment Fund, is creating a DNA database for all 2,500 captive tigers in Thailand.
However, the progress seems to be offset by the construction of a new zoo just outside the Tiger Temple compound. National Geographic notes while the Tiger Temple is not directly affiliated to the “New Home for Tigers Project,” but monks from the Tiger Temple have been actively promoting the 10-acre zoo complex, estimated to cost US$3.4 million.
A high-volume Thai travel company is also seen promoting a “breakfast with monks and tigers” tour package worth US$300.
Riding elephants, swimming with dolphins, posing with tigers, watching a snake charmer…is not tourism, it is animal cruelty. #nowyouknow
— J. BISBAL (@jbisbaltw) July 19, 2016
Describing it as “golden trade,” the National Geographic report quotes the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes as saying the industry for tiger bones, skin and teeth is valued at US$19 billion annually.
And while tigers are protected under Thai law, there are over 30 legal breeding facilities there, including the Sriracha Tiger Zoo and the Tiger Kingdom, “which has been described as the McDonalds of tiger tourism.”
While there are instances of positive animal tourism in Thailand – one example being the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand which acts as an elephant sanctuary – the country’s tourism industry has not escaped unscathed.
TripAdvisor in October announced it will no longer be selling tickets for attractions where tourists come in direct contact with wild or endangered animals kept in captivity.
“The attractions include elephant rides, swimming-with-dolphin experiences and the petting of endangered species like tigers,” the New York Times report read.
While not limited to operators in Thailand, the initiative by one of the world’s largest travel site did not go unnoticed. Animal welfare groups around the world have expressed hope the initiative will have a ripple effect for other animal tourism sites and travel companies.
“TripAdvisor’s competitors and others within the travel industry will take note of this, and we hope and expect many other companies will follow,” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) corporate liaison Stephanie Shaw said.