Elephants: What You Don’t Know, Can Hurt Them


(The first photo is an elephant family in the wild. The second: a parade of working riding elephants. The third is Kabu, my favorite girl at Elephant Nature Park Rescue. Note her front left leg: injured as a baby, born into a lifetime of work in the logging industry.)

I love elephants. Beautiful examples of living in the moment, elephants are utterly at ease in their own skin. The longer you watch them, the more aware you are that beauty and gracefulness have nothing to do with size. (Made me feel so silly for being self-conscious about the 15 pounds I keep wanting to lose.) Perfectly content with who they are, they don’t let anything interfere with that sense of peace. They amble around with that slow, casual walk of theirs, completely unhurried, knowing that life is about each moment of the journey…not the destination.

Everyone knows that elephants are also capable of colossal strength, but few people notice that they almost never use that strength to harm others. That alone is a simple, almost perfect life-lesson in coexistence and compassion. Every one of us could use a little more of that.

A year ago when my husband and I moved to India, I couldn’t wait to see these glorious creatures up close. To get to know these Gentle Giants who are so much a part of Asian Culture. They completely fascinated & inspired me. Turns out I’m not alone.  In fact, millions of people around the world admire and adore these animals and will pay just to be near them. As a result, elephant attractions are big business here in Asia, and just like any business, they are driven by profit. As a result, no one seems to care what happens to elephants once they are forced into the trade. When it comes to business…Money drives the day.

These animals deserve to have someone speak for them and they deserve to have people listen. What I’ve learned about the life of a “working elephant” isn’t pretty–in fact, it will break your heart, but I wouldn’t ask you to read this if there weren’t something you could actually do to make things better…and there is. Just give me the next 5 minutes of your time and then decide for yourself. We might not be able to change the world, but we can certainly make a difference to them…and a big difference at that.

I beg you to read this article even if you are as tender-hearted as I am. I will soft-pedal the violence so that it isn’t too graphic. I will attempt to give you the most objective, clear-headed version of the situation possible. PLEASE have the strength to read it. Only by knowing what is happening and by spreading the word can anything begin to change for these wise, loving creatures. Terrible things can happen in the shadows. The only way to fight the darkness is in the sunlight.

First, Some Context…
An elephant’s life span is about 80-90 years of age, and since the herds are matriarchal, a female elephant’s life will revolve around her family until the day she dies. A typical elephant family usually consists of a mother, her sisters, daughters and their babies (calves). Much like human matriarchs, the females of the family will protect the young, nurse the injured, and grieve over the deathbeds of those they love and lose along the way.

In an elephant herd, each mother has a nanny (also sometimes called a midwife) who is usually a sister or the best friend of the mother’s. The bond between a mother and her nanny is lifelong. It is a very intimate and deep connection. They choose each other months before the baby is born, and the nanny is the one who makes all the preparations for the birth: gathering bedding, clearing an area for delivery and in general, loving and caring for the mother during labor. She is there at the moment of birth, pulling the baby underneath her own legs as soon as he drops, so that the mother doesn’t accidentally harm him in the throes of labor. She is also the one who gently nudges and pushes the baby onto his feet as soon as possible so that his lungs will inflate fully, he will recover quickly and he will be less vulnerable to predators.

From the moment of the baby’s birth, the nanny and mother raise him as a team. Whenever they walk, they keep the baby in between them, protecting him from unseen predators. They almost never let the calf out of their sight…not for years. If a baby trumpets or shows any alarm, they run to his rescue immediately. When there is danger, they always protect the baby — even at the risk of their own lives. Their devotion never wavers; it’s what every little kid would wish for.

For protection and comfort, the calf spends the first few months of his life constantly walking beneath the bodies of the mother and nanny as they wander along…back and forth, back and forth. As a result, all of his baby hair (the cute, wiry hair on his head and back) rubs off, leaving him looking almost polished and new. It’s adorable. (I’ve seen beggars in Asian markets asking people if they want to buy a bag of food for their “pet” baby elephant. These baby elephants usually have hair, which means that the baby was stolen from his family when he was only weeks or months old…before his baby hair had a chance to rub off from contact with his mother.)

If left in the herd, each calf is protected, nurtured and socialized as a part of the family for years. They will play, test their boundaries and learn how to interact with others. Whether boy or girl, each of them grows and develops under the watchful supervision of mother and nanny. There is only one major difference between the boys and the girls. During puberty, at around 12-15 years of age, the males (bulls) will become more aggressive to the other members of the herd. When they start pushing, bullying and becoming a threat, these young males will be pushed out of the herd by their own nanny in order to keep everyone safe. At this point, the bulls, now considered young adults, will leave, either finding a group of other bulls and living a more nomadic life with them or choosing a more solitary life on their own.

The females remain behind, their lives continuing to revolve around family. They are the caregivers, the nurturers. They will devote their lives to the herd until the day they die…bonded together over their commitment to the family and each other. But their most powerful connection is always to the babies.

Back To Business…
As I said earlier, elephants are big business. They are used for industries like logging, tourist attractions, elephant rides, even circuses. Female elephants are preferred by the trainers because they can be force-bred over and over again for decades while continuing to work non-stop (thus supplying even more elephants to the trainers over time). Since the elephants die as a result of the stress, loneliness and backbreaking work they are forced to do, these industries need a constant supply of new elephants in order to stay in business — for that they turn to the hunters and trainers.

How Do You Choose?
Which elephants are the smallest, the most naive and the easiest to manipulate and therefore “train?”  The babies, of course. But, how do you “catch” a baby elephant when his mother and nanny are so protective of him?  Sadly, it’s usually by killing his family.

It stands to reason. If the mother and nanny will fight to the death to protect the baby, cut to the chase and eliminate the fight altogether. There are several ways the hunters can kill the baby’s mother and nanny. They can shoot them outright. They can even dig a huge hole and then drive the elephants toward it until they fall in, then pull the baby out, leaving his guardians to die of starvation in the pit. Sometimes, however, with this method the baby will become fatally injured in the fall, so quite often they do something even more horrible. They create an enormous mud pit — with mud so thick it’s like slow-drying concrete. Then they can drive the elephants into it, and pull the baby out afterwards, leaving the mother and nanny entombed in mud to die of thirst days later — the entire time, screaming for their baby.

This is every bit as hard on the babies as you can imagine. Elephants do indeed have long memories and a deep capacity for love. They develop strong, intimate bonds, often creating lifelong friendships based on deep emotional connection. They love…deeply. As a result, the grief of being ripped away from their mothers under such terrifying circumstances is unimaginable. That trauma will haunt an elephant until the day he dies.

The Crush…
What happens to the babies next? The hunters need to break them in order to make them “trainable.” Please note, this is NOT like breaking a horse. Every “trick” they want the elephants to perform is against their nature, so they must completely destroy the babies’ will to live in order to get them to submit. They do this through a technique they call “the Crush.”

Virtually every elephant being used for logging, elephant rides, circuses, temple ceremonies and tourist attractions has gone through this process, which is all the more heartbreaking when you remember that most of the elephants put through this are babies that have just lost their mothers, their families and everyone they’ve ever loved. They are terrified and confused, feeling utterly alone — literally for the first time in their lives.

During the Crush, these young elephants are chained — tied down from 12-15 different directions in such a way that they can’t move more than an inch or two. For the next three to seven days, they will not sit; they will not lie down. They will even be unable to take one small step from side to side. They are quite literally “trapped” for the duration of this process. Other techniques used during the Crush are starvation, thirst and sleep deprivation, so the calf will not be allowed one bite of food, one sip of water or any sleep at all for days…not until the Crush is over.

What happens to the elephant during the Crush? The men will torture these babies non-stop in order to crush their spirit. (No doubt, that is where they get the name for this process.) You see, once the elephants have lost their will to live, they will accept anything that happens to them later. Since the hunters and trainers prefer female elephants to males, I’ll use a female as my example here.

So it begins…
For the next three to seven days, these men will systematically torture the terrified baby relentlessly. They will beat her, hack at her with machetes and throw rocks at her. They will burn her and gouge holes into the soft skin under her neck and behind her ears. They will yell…and hit…and punish, day and night, for the next three to seven days. They will bang pots behind her head to keep her awake and heighten the stress. Remember, for the duration of this process she is tied down so tightly that she is completely unable to move. She will not be allowed to lie down, to sit or even to sway back and forth to dissipate the stress. The chains tied around her ankles will rip the flesh off of her legs…all the way down to the muscle. There will not be one moment that this poor animal won’t be tortured and terrified until this process is completed.

The torture itself is the goal, you see. Once they kill the baby’s will to live, they can make her accept anything the trainer will do to her later. (It’s important to note that some babies don’t survive this process.)

Elephant Suicide…
Many elephants will actually commit suicide during the Crush — if given the chance. I had no idea that could even happen with an animal, but it’s absolutely true. You see, elephants have big brains. They’re smart so they have the ability to comprehend the hopelessness of their situation even at a young age. As a result, they can’t be left alone for even a moment and their trunks must be tied away from their bodies — or they will escape the only way left to them: either by stepping on their own trunks until they suffocate or biting through their trunks until they bleed to death. These babies will actually see suicide as their only way out…and they will take it.

If denied that escape, they will simply give up the will to live and then be ready for the next stage of training. You’ve heard that old adage, “An elephant never forgets.” Well…that’s actually true. Elephants have incredibly long memories. So, they will remember this torture for the rest of their lives and it will haunt them — forever.

The worst part of this whole thing is that the Crush is only the beginning of their new normal. Next comes the “training” and the back-breaking abuse. This abuse will continue for the rest of their lives.  If they’re lucky, they’ll die soon. If not, the abuse and the loneliness could go on for another 80-90 years.

If Only…
If people stopped paying money to go to carnivals or circuses to see elephants dance on their hind legs, twirl hula hoops, or spin around on one foot…If people stopped paying money for elephant rides or elephant paintings when they come to Asia…If people contributed their time or their money to a real elephant rescue like the one where I just volunteered…If people stopped for just a moment to think about our responsibility to the world we live in…If any or all of these things happened, elephants might just stand a chance. They might remember how to be elephants again. They might look on human beings with love and gratitude, instead of abject fear. Because in addition to all their other qualities, elephants are incredibly forgiving…Their compassion runs as deep as their memory.

What You Can Do…
None of that can happen without your help, and you can help — with very little effort actually. Just share this article everywhere you can. Tell your friends not to spend money for elephant rides when they vacation in Asia. (Suggest that they take a day to volunteer at a legitimate elephant rescue instead — that’s so much more fun anyway.)  Since money is what their abusers care about, that is where the battle is won. Sign a petition…Donate money to legitimate elephant rescues…Volunteer. There are so many ways we can make a difference.

And remember…Sometimes the stories we want to hear the least, are the ones we need to hear the most.  Let’s make people listen.

In my next article I’m going to introduce you to a brave woman in Thailand who has spent her life rescuing and defending Asian elephants. We’ll go inside the sanctuary she’s created. In the meantime, you can learn more about her work and consider a donation through their home page:  https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

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