(Reuters) — Unlie African elephants, wild Asian elephants have been hunted, captured, and trained for use in war, commerce and transport for around 4,000 years in countries such as Thailand.
Today about a thousand tamed Thai elephants work in the modern tourist trade, while three thousand endangered wild elephants remain in the country’s forests.
Here are some facts about how the animals are domesticated.
— Tamed elephants were used to lure and maneuver wild herds into funnel-shaped bamboo or teak stockades, known as kraals, during great elephant drives in Thailand’s northern provinces and southern seaboard from at least the seventeenth century onwards.
— Torches and flares were set off behind the animals, to usher them into the kraal, and a gatekeeper high above dropped a heavy gate to lock the herd inside.
— Tame elephants were also used to lure wild individuals away from their herds in the country’s northeast.
— Once trapped, the youngest, easiest to train, elephants, were lassoed and tied to stakes, and unsuitable animals freed.
— Pulled into tight, wooden “crush” enclosures, the elephants were tamed into obedience by a method called the “phaajaan”, or breaking of the spirit, which is still used today.
— Trapped barely able to move for days or even weeks in the crush cage and deprived of sleep, they are alternately starved or fed, until they accept chains or harnesses without a struggle and respond to rewards.
— Subdued elephants were then sold at market or entered into government service, depending on their abilities. Traditionally handsome tuskers were reserved for war training, and strong, steady elephants were trained as baggage and transport animals.
— Methodical, repetitive training methods teach the animals to respond to simple commands over several years.
— Aged about six, they would graduate onto more complex tasks such as piling logs, dragging logs or pushing them up and down hills into streams using their trunks and tusks, before starting full-time work aged around 16-years old.
— As tamed elephants are predominantly captured wild animals with wild genes, experts are divided about whether to refer to them as “domesticated,” a term which usually means an animal has been selectively bred. Some prefer the term “captive” or “domestic” elephants instead.
— In 2002, animal welfare group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), protested against the use of the phaajaan in Thailand.
— The group called for a boycott of the Thai tourism industry, which now employs the majority of trained elephants, because of the cruelty of this traditional method of elephant training. The government denies allegations of cruelty.
Sources: Reuters, Elephants of Thailand in Myth, Art and Reality by Rita Ringis, Oxford University Press, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (www.helpthaielephants.com)
Writing by Gill Murdoch, Singapore Editorial Reference Unit