America / Travel

The Last Elephants In Thailand

When was the last time you watched a documentary? Unfortunately, if you’re like me, they probably aren’t something you watch unless you’re forced to. I’m so happy I signed up for my university’s World Documentary journalism class, because if I hadn’t, I never would’ve stumbled upon The Last Elephants In Thailand, a 2009 documentary produced by HAE and directed by Michelle Mizner and Don Tayloe.

It’s a 40 minute film about the abuse elephants go through in order to perform at circuses or provide for tourism businesses in Thailand, and the elephant rescues and hospitals that are putting up a fight with their own governments to stop the trading of elephants to other countries.

Mahouts (Photo credit:

Once you watch this film, you will have a completely different view of China and the mahouts, the men who ride the elephants and who most often use a sharp stabbing tool, called a thotti, to “train” the elephants. Apparently riding elephants is a family business, as most mahouts are trained as young men by their fathers. Why anyone would want to be a part of this disgusting and despicable act is beyond me. Especially since the country’s freedom was won, literally, on elephants.

I honestly don’t even know where to start. The question Mizner and Tayloe seek to answer is: “Why, in a Buddhist country, where elephants are a national symbol, is the population declining so rapidly?” Pretty damn good question. At the time this documentary was made, there were less than 5,000 wild elephants left in Thailand, and there is certainly less now. The first place Mizner and Tayloe travel to is a Thai elephant hospital, the world’s first ever, called Friends of the Asian Elephant, located in  Lampang, and started by Soraida Salwala in 1993. Soraida and her staff treat elephants that have been abused, overworked, and neglected. She says that the Disney movie Dumbo had a part in her starting the hospital. “They are souls, they are flesh, they have to live,” she says.

Soraida Salwala with baby elephant Mosha (Photo credit:

One elephant had come to FAE because one of its back legs had been hit by some kind of bomb during illegal logging. The hospital set a record for the longest time spent in surgery when they decided it had to be amputated if they were going to save the elephant. It was hoped that after the wound had healed, they could give it a prosthetic leg, but the wound never healed enough.

I understand that these families have to make money some way, but why does it have to involve abuse? If you need something for your job, like, say your car, you don’t treat it like crap – you generally keep it in good condition to make it last longer. Well, that’s not the case for some elephants who are brought to the city by mahouts who just basically beg for money from passersby. This is considered abuse because it wrecks the pads on their feet; it is physically and mentally detrimental. After one elephant was hit and killed by a truck, Soraida pressed local officials to make it illegal to bring elephants into the city, but they didn’t listen. Still, she has made almost her whole life a mission to keep all elephants from leaving Thailand to be transported to China’s circuses.

It just shocks me that a government whose country was built on peace could allow this to happen to an animal considered sacred. But it amazes me even more that this woman, Soraida, is so dedicated that she has risked her life saving the elephants. She doesn’t know who set it up, but gunmen have tried to kill her, parts of her truck have blown up, and a King cobra was released on the hospital grounds. Yes, the cobra incident could happen naturally, but Soraida is convinced someone set it loose there on purpose; it’s intent: to kill an elephant. It’s all about money. The government wants money and they’ll do whatever they have to to get it, even if it means betraying the wishes of its own people.

One part that really pissed me off is this guy, Richard Lair, co-founder of government owned and operated Thai Elephant Conservation Center, commented that there are people who believe that the only work for elephants nowadays is tourism and they therefore think, “why should people keep elephants if they can’t make a living from them?” I’m not completely familiar with what ECC does, but from what reading I have done about it, it’s not clear what their mission is. It says they train mahouts, but isn’t that a contradiction if they’re a “conservation” center? They also claim to be “the first place in Thailand where elephants learned painting.” Hmm… I hope the NYT wouldn’t advocate this place if their mahouts used abusive training methods.

Lek Chailert runs the Elephant Nature Park, another place elephants who are abused, overworked and sick are taken. Lek says when elephants arrive, their “eyes are empty,” and some can’t bear to be touched due to the severe scars on their bodies. The great thing about ENP is that tourists pay to stay and volunteer. Imagine that, people who are paying to volunteer.

Photo credit:

I’m so happy this documentary touched on elephant painting. I’m sure you’ve seen it – elephants are given a paintbrush to paint this “amazing” picture that later goes up for sale for about 500 Baht (15 USD). The funny thing is, if you buy one of these paintings, you’re not actually buying a painting by an elephant. Few people pick up on it, but there’s usually a trainer standing next to the elephant, handing it paintbrushes, etc. That trainer uses some kind of hook to poke a corner of the mouth or ear, or subtly “steers” the tusks to control movements. So not only are they mistreating elephants, but they’re also tricking people out of their money. What a great reputation for a Buddhist country.

Last but not least, I have to mention “the crush,” the pen elephants are held in, where the “spirit and will to fight back is broken.” This part of the documentary is particularly graphic and I’d be surprised if you didn’t cry. I’d like to put the mahouts in there and beat the crap out of them – see how well they obey afterward. The documentary closes with Pat Derby, owner and founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a “sanctuary to abused, abandoned and retired captive wildlife.” Of elephant artists, Pat says, “By the time they’re painting, you don’t have an elephant, you have a robot.” I love this woman.

The “crushing” ritual

I sincerely hope someone will pass around this information. Call this a rant, call it a plea, whatever you consider it, pass it on.

“The problems are caused by people taking advantage of [the elephants] to reap benefit, without thinking about ethics” – Dr. Preecha Phuangkam


2 thoughts on “The Last Elephants In Thailand

  1. No those poor elephants! Maybe those people would like to be in the crush pen! Grr. I love elephants! This just pisses me off people do this to animals!

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