'Phaajaan', Elephant Training, and Tourism

Around a a hundred years ago there were roughly 100,000 elephants in the wild, or used as animals of burden, in Thailand. Loss of habitat has been the principal cause of that number shrinking to something around 5,000 today, approximately half of which are in captivity of one form or another.

(Above): At an elephant camp near Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. (Click on any of the photos in the blog to open full-size images),

(Video clip): At the Elephant Conservation Center near Lampang. This camp includes the only elephant hospital in Thailand

The shows are invariably impressive, with the elephants performing an extensive range of tricks and tasks, including those that played a major part in the building of the Thai nation - with the elephant as beast of burden in the teak logging trade, for example. Their dexterity is amazing, the above video clip showing a mahout manoeuvring his elephant along a log, before turning 180° to return to its starting place without so much as a wobble.

Seeing such clearly intelligent animals performing circus tricks can give rise to a certain uneasiness. However the hordes of tourists invariably seem completely enraptured, the kids loving very minute.

The docility of these wild animals is not a little surprising. At another camp north of Chiang Mai, elephants play football, produce some astonishing art, dance, curtsy, juggle hula hoops, play musical instruments, give you rides ...

Click on the image below, and you'll get a better view of these young elephants and their mahout trainers. Note the implement, known as the 'hook' or 'goad' (it resembles a claw hammer) casually held by the man to the left ...

In return for bamboo shoots and bunches of bananas on sale to the tourists for a few baht, the elephants will eagerly perform for you.

Clearly the kids all adore them. In their innocence ...

Riding elephant-back down the Kok river near Chiang Dao in Chiang Rai Province. An unforgettable experience. But ....... please now take a look at
this YouTube clip - slightly different version here.

You are watching the Phaajaan, or 'crushing' ritual. It literally means to "break the love between two" (mother and baby).

The domestication of such giant wild animals is not something that can be achieved in a manner remotely similar, say, to training a puppy. It is allegedly impossible to carry out, according to those who would justify the practices shown in the video clip, without inflicting pain and fear.

In the 'training crush', a small wooden cage, the young elephant separated from its mother is tied up and immobilised.

Over a period of up to a week, the terrified youngster is beaten, its ears and feet stabbed with nails, and it is deprived of food, water and sleep. All with the goal of completely breaking the animal's spirit ...

After eventually being released from the 'crush', they are soon tied up again, and the brutal training resumes. The process lasts for weeks. Those involved say that with such large creatures, there is no other way to ensure the safety of the mahout who work with them.

Tricks, such as the lifting of feet on command, are learned through a process of negative reinforcement. A nail-studded stick is used.

On a ride through the jungle I witnessed the 'hook' being used on one recalcitrant elephant, on several occasions. The sound of the whack I'll never forget. The mahout seemed to using all the force he could muster, as he brought this 'training tool' down on the elephant's skull. On return to the camp, it was clear that the elephants were all chained when not working, rather than being kept in paddocks that would be expensive to construct.

There are approaching 50 elephant camps dotted around Thailand. They prosper under the guise of ecotourism in support of an endangered species. Impoverished villagers are no longer training these animals for a vital work role, but to be sold to the camps. A tamed baby elephant fetches several thousand dollars, a fortune to the locals.

Inevitably there are two sides to every story, and the Thai authorities vigorously deny that this practice is as widespread as some would claim. Technically the use of young elephants (domesticated in this manner) for begging in tourist areas is illegal too, but they can nonetheless be seen regularly on the streets of most major towns. The debate between those campaigning against the practice and the Thai authorities is highly polarised, and it's difficult to ascertain just how extensive it is today. However it is a fact that elephants are regarded as domestic animals in Thailand, and if legally owned, there is little in the way of legislation to help enforce better animal welfare measures.

Tempted by a trip to the camps on your next visit to Thailand? The question is to what extent the tourist trade is responsible for encouraging this practice in order to ensure a reliable supply of safe and tame young elephants to the camps.

Food for thought ...


Anonymous said...

This is probably a really old blog post but I thought I would mention that elephants can be training using positive reinforcement methods (like training a puppy). Elephant Nature Park is one of the places training the elephants and the Thai communities how to do this and it works :) Seen it with my own eyes.

Camille said...

An older post indeed but an excellent article and well worth brining the 'phaajaan' activity in the daylight!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for helping to spread the word on this horrible cruelty. I also visited Thailand and learned about the cruel phaajaan at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.
If anyone is going to Thailand and loves elephants, please, please don't go to the elephant 'camps' or on treks, the elephants there have all endured the phaajaan torture.
For a truly wonderful, cruelty-free close-up encounter with elephants, visit (or better yet, volunteer) at Lek Chaillert's Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary that gives elephants only love and care, not tasks to perform for tourists. (website: http://www.thaifocus.com/elephant/) I guarantee you'll love it and come home feeling that you actually helped the magnificent animals instead of contributing to their exploitation. Thanks!

Jody said...

"Video clip): At the Elephant Conservation Center near Lampang. This camp includes the only elephant hospital in Thailand"

Not True! FAE/Friends of the Asian Elephant is the world's first elephant hospital and has nothing to do with The Elephant Conservation Center!!

Friends of the Asian Elephant/Updates

The FrogBlogger said...

Point taken Jody. However I don't know if the website you linked to is yours, but there are problems with it. It has pop-up ads, for a start, which are annoying. But the main thing is that there is a huge amount of content all on one page - it needs dividing up. A blog (such as blogspot, the free software I use) would be ideal for this, as there seems to be regular updates.

Bangkok Hotels, Thailand said...

I like thai elephants because they are look clever,lovely and friendly. Unfortunately , Thai people are never realize to them.

Mardona said...

people of Thailand are like elephant very much and they give very respect to Thailand and they train elephant for different tricks here you can see this thing

Mardona said...

after trying not human beings but also animals like elephant lion and even aunt will also make a good player