Thailand, November 2013, and the town of Surin held it's annual elephant round up. I had read about the elephant show and heard about the cruelty that others had seen, but I didn't know quite what to expect.
The Surin Round Up has taken place since the 1960s, and consists of hundreds of elephants brought together by their owners for a long weekend. The elephants are primarily there to perform a show for two days, including playing football and performing tricks, and they fill the surrounding streets and markets, giving rides and selling bags of sugar cane.
This brief event is the main tourist draw for the town each year. Within hours of the last of the four performances, the streets were empty and the tourists had moved on to their next destination.
As you can see it was quite a spectacle to have so many elephants in one place, but 'impressive' is not the same as 'enjoyable'. Many tourists did marvel at the elephant performances but at some point in our lives we have all been guilty of not considering the cruelty that goes on behind the scenes. As a spectator watching from the stands, it was hard to see the cruelty that was happening.
What you see here is a perfect example of that cruelty. At the beginning of the show, a mahout collects his award for producing a baby elephant this year. He celebrates by holding his prize money over his elephant's head, while behind the board he is pressing a 5-inch nail into the elephants skin, while the crowds cheer, unknowingly.
A proud and flashy exterior hiding an unsettling amount of cruelty. There is no better metaphor for the Surin Round Up as a whole.
That instance was not the exception throughout the weekend, but the norm. Any time the elephants did not move in the desired direction or failed to perform a trick, they received the nail, although most mahouts preferred to hit or scratch the elephants with the metal hooks they carry at all times.
As the young elephant seen here was quite energetic, he had the nail scraped down the front of his head and pushed into his head and cheeks through almost the entire opening ceremony. Occasionally the mahout would pull the elephant's ear in the opposite direction in order to push the nail harder into his cheek.
The elephant seen here is one of a pair of twins, a very rare occurrence which was celebrated by international media in 2010 as a point of pride for Thailand and a tourist draw for Surin. A few short years later he is being exploited and abused for those tourists, no longer something that Thailand can be proud of.
If you find it difficult to see the nails in those photos, it is for good reason. This stabbing with nails is done surreptitiously, hidden from spectators, and is imperceptible from the audience stands unless you are specifically looking for it and have a zoom lens or binoculars. This stabbing with nails has been reported in many places around the world, and was happening throughout the show.
Outside, in the market, the cruelty is toned down.These mahouts didn't carry their nails when using the elephants for begging outside, in close proximity to tourists. Unlike the photos I have seen from previous years, the mahouts were less open about using their hooks or nails when tourists were around, and wounds were splashed with water to disguise the blood. Even so, among the old scars, fresh blood was still visible on many elephants.
While any obvious harm is kept hidden outside of the show's arena, the atmosphere is unpleasant even for the happiest tourists. People are approached by aggressive mahouts who pressure them into paying for photos or to feed the elephants with treats. Tourists are shouted at or hustled away if they try to touch or take photos with the elephants without paying.
Rides on adults, as well as small, young elephants, are offered to entire families at the same time, using typically heavy metal frames. As usual, all these activities are facilitated by the judicious use of the bullhook.
The number of baby elephants in this market was startling when you first enter, but the reasons are obvious: the babies are the real draw for tourists and that's where the money is made.
Many of the baby elephants are trained to tug at people's clothes, hold their hands or other similar behaviour to trick tourists into parting with their cash. Some visitors, did believe the elephant was pleading with them to stay, but in reality this behaviour was achieved the same way as the rest: physical punishment.
Other tourists weren't fooled by this fake behavior, but the same frame of mind that causes well-meaning people to buy pet shop animals to 'rescue' them from the store, meant that even these people continued to give money to 'help' the young elephant.
Meanwhile, in a bizarre juxtaposition, these babies are surrounded by stalls selling their ivory, bones, skin and teeth, as well as jewellery made from their tail hair. How someone could buy parts of the same animal they were just petting is hard to understand. Luckily, the backlash against ivory has gained momentum in the mainstream media worldwide, and will continue to do so.
Every animal I saw had injuries of some kind, usually cuts or small stab wounds from the nails, as well as countless old scars, but I can only speculate on what you can see here. What it looks like to me is an attempt to carve a heart shape into the skin of the elephant (the purple colour is antiseptic liquid used for open wounds).
Elephant scar tissue is pink in colour, and perhaps a pink heart 'tattoo' would draw more people to feed and ride on this elephant, just as the babies are taught 'cute' behaviour to attract tourist dollars.
Again, I stress that I do not know the facts behind this wound or the history of this elephant beyond what you see in this image, but in the context of the unrelenting cruelty I witnessed all weekend, it is hard not to assume the worst.
So is it all hopeless? At every turn there were babies chained so they cannot walk, elephants being physically harmed and constantly exploited. What can we do to change this?
We have all been guilty of exploiting animals at one point or another, perhaps being taken to the circus as a child or watching a film with animal performances in it. The audience at Surin were from all around the globe, and they weren't terrible or evil people to be admonished.
The smallest amount of awareness and education about the facts can make us change our attitudes. As long as people are still unaware of the truth behind these shows, the shows will continue. The same goes for dolphin shows, circuses and the like.
Don't reward cruelty if ever you see or even suspect it. Remember that plausible sounding reasons will be given to tourists mindful enough to ask questions, like why this baby elephant outside the Surin arena was chained so tightly it could barely walk.
Pay for positive experiences with animals wherever you can, to help change the attitudes of those who keep these animals. Once the message is clear that the better the conditions are, the more money they will get, this positive change will happen on its own.
There are a multitude of ethical and positive animal organisations in Asia and Thailand itself. In fact, mere minutes down the road from this event is exactly the type of positive experience that will help make this change. The Surin Project is an amazing venture providing care for local elephants and their mahouts, helping them to create a sustainable income that includes the best care possible for their elephants.
Time is also on our side. It's hard enough to change our entrenched beliefs or age-old traditions that culminate in things like bile farming or ivory poaching. The Surin Round Up is a mere 50 years old. It's a modern event held for modern reasons, and will be able to adapt more easily to modern thinking, once the impetus is there.
If we take a little time to research the animal activities we partake in, and vote with our wallets by not supporting animal shows, things will change. Don't support animal shows or questionable tourist traps or activities. Instead, support sanctuaries and places that have a good reputation or endorsements from other animal welfare organisations.
The Surin Round Up in its current form is no longer sustainable; as the world outside of Surin grows ever more aware of animal cruelty, so Surin will have to change too.
I don't expect the Surin Round Up will go away any time soon, but I hope in years to come I will be able to visit again and see mahouts getting even better income from tourists paying to see elephants just being elephants.
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