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Think before you ride that elephant: What you need to know about the notorious Phajaan ceremony

The tourism industry has long used the visual trope of riding an elephant to be the ultimate vacation signature. But the trend may be slowly seeing its way out, as campaigners condemn holiday adverts featuring elephant rides and shows, with calls for a ban gaining momentum across the world.

Southeast Asia is a major tourist hub, and every year a good number of people travel to countries like India, Thailand, Cambodia, and others to explore what makes these places exotic. So elephants, by default, feature high on their “bucket list”, and travelers are obsessed with selfies and up-close and personal encounters with the rapidly declining endangered Asian elephants. Ironically, when they post their selfies on the social media, there’s a growing number of activists and organizations that are quick to condemn such actions.

It’s not uncommon to pay to ride or hike with elephants, feed and wash them, or even watch the adorable giants paint flowers and faces on canvas, or prod them with bullhooks to perform little tricks to amuse people. In Thailand, getting a massage from elephants is a fad. The elephant parades at Kerala’s cultural festivals are also a scene of entertainment where they are forced to execute religious rituals, so the devotees can be entertained.

For the bemused spectator, the takeaway should be one of guilty indulgence, which unfortunately they don’t realize. These activities may appear benign at first, however, a deeper scrutiny would reveal the dangerous dynamics of human-elephant relations. If only the rationale behind how elephants work with humans demonstrating playful and obliging characteristics become common knowledge, there could be a genuine effort to eradicate elephant slavery and abuse from all cultures concerned.

Belt used to capture elephants

What is Phajaan? Heartbreaking Truth of Elephants in Captivity

To enter into an employment contract with humans, elephants have to go through a violent Asian practice called phajaan --- a notorious process that breaks the spirit of the defenseless animal. This happens through a well-designed method. They abduct baby elephants from the wild by using firecrackers and scare tactics to confuse and scatter the herd. And using some of the most brutal methods and corporal punishment they capture and train them for tasks, ranging from giving rides to performing tricks to entertaining crowds at festivals and temples.

The abducted baby elephant that is ripped apart from its family is subjected to unimaginable and emotional distress, and most often becomes psychotic. Just like humans, babies share deep bond with their mother and aunts and nannies in the herd. There have been instances where the calf has witnessed the killing of the entire herd when the mother came to rescue her baby. So you can only imagine what a fatal blow this would be to their fledgling bodies and mind, as elephants are fiercely attached to their herd.  

Once separated from their families, they are caged in small wooden boxes and subjected to relentless torture. They are denied food, water, sleep; beaten with iron bars, sticks, chains, and bullhooks with remorseless abandon. Many of the calves succumb to the injuries. Those who survive often have shredded or torn ears from their tissue being ripped off and pulled away in the training process. They also carry scars on their foreheads from deep lacerations caused by the beatings. But most of all the psychological scars they suffer are just beyond anyone’s comprehension.

This is considered a training period so they will obey every single command of the handler, using tools such as the bullhook and long poles designed to instill terror. The Phajaan may last for weeks until their spirits are broken and the hapless elephants ultimately surrender to the handlers, who then gains power and control and exploits them for profit.

Bullhook used in the handling and training of elephants

VFAES is actively working toward enlightening people by educating about the plight of captive and wild Asian elephants. Approximately 16,000 elephants in Asia are living in captivity today, many used for elephant trekking, at least 3,500 to 4,000 in India. According to the World Wildlife Fund, fewer than 35,000 Asian Elephants exist today, making them an endangered species. While African elephants are commonly slaughtered for their tusks that are sold in China, where at least 70% of the illicit ivory trade continues unabated. In other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, elephants are captured and exploited in the tourism industry. In India, although capturing elephants has officially ceased as of 1983, many of them are still captured illegally and transported from the northern states to Kerala where they are exploited behind the veil of culture.

VFAES founder and wildlife journalist Sangita Iyer’s multiple award-winning epic documentary Gods In Shackles exposes the alarming brutality around India’s heritage animal. It is pitched as an educative tool to generate awareness, bring about mind shifts and policy changes. If you are an elephant lover and want to join the movement, reserve your spot for the Vancouver, WA benefit screening event of the film on November 11, 2018. You will have an opportunity to interact with Sangita and ask as many questions too.

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