On August 12th 2019, we celebrated our 7th World Elephant Day here at BEES.  Recently, we have spent some time reflecting on the trials and tribulations of running a sanctuary and the complex issues surrounding captive ‘domestic’ elephants. We would not be where we are today without the help and support of many across the globe and locally. In May we celebrated 7 years of elephants at BEES and 7 years since Mae Kam’s retirement and the start of her rehabilitation. Today we are so pleased to be able to provide a safe and natural home to 3 elephants, Mae Kam, Mae Dok and Thong Dee, who by night live in spacious night enclosures and by day spend their days roaming the local forested area and in our grass fields, with the company of their wonderful caretakers (mahouts) who keep them safe and provide quality care. Over the years we have had the privilege of providing retirement to 3 other old elephants Boon Yuen, Mae Mor and Fluffy, who lived out their final days retired at BEES, before passing on. We have built memorial sites for each of the elephants that have passed, at their graves and remember them always, they will always be a part of our journey. It’s not been an easy journey, but it is certainly worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears to be able to retire and rehabilitate these incredible beings and watch them thrive in a more natural setting.

Right from the start we have always wanted to provide a model for a more sustainable and ethical alternative to mainstream elephant tourism. A model that also incorporated nature, education and the community.  In a constantly changing and evolving world, we feel it is our responsibility to lead by example and encourage the highest standards of welfare and safety possible with the resources in which we have. BEES has faced many challenges over the years trying to find our way in the elephant world. It’s a very complex situation, it’s not all black and white.

We do our best to keep calm, love elephants and carry on.

Captive 'Domestic' Elephants - Mae Kam walking to BEES

Mae Kam walking to BEES in May 2012

OUR HANDS OFF POLICY – Why did BEES go hands off?

In 2018, BEES adopted a Hands-off Policy for the welfare of the elephants and the safety of our Caretakers (mahouts) and the visitors. It was a big move, a move we had always wanted to make and it felt like a good time to make the commitment. It has been a bit of a struggle, we have lost a lot of bookings and a huge amount of support. As a Facility providing this kind of model, we feel for our own growth, going hands off is a positive step for us.

The elephants that retire to BEES are usually introduced to new mahouts in which we train and hire to take on the role as the elephant’s caretaker. This means that new relationships need to be formed and the elephants and their new caretakers need to gain each other’s trust and be given the time and space to build on their relationship. The welfare of our staff is equally as important as the welfare of our animals, these incredible people have a great undertaking caring for our very large 4 legged friend’s day in and day out.

Thong Dee and Boon Yuen wearing drag chains before their retirement to BEES
Thong Dee and Boon Yuen chained before their retirement to BEES

When working with such large animal’s, welfare and safety needs to be at the forefront for elephants, staff and visitors, wouldn’t you agree? BEES is one of many models working to provide high standards of welfare for the elephants in Thailand, we are one of many alternatives to the mainstream tourism working to provide high standards of welfare to the elephants and mahouts. We understand there are different situations for each facility and we hope that elephant tourism continues to move forward in a positive direction providing high welfare to elephants and the people who work with them.




A little bit of history of captive elephants in Thailand

Human – Elephant relationships have been present in Asian Civilizations throughout history for some 4,000 years. Revered in Thailand for many centuries and celebrated for their incredible strength, durability and longevity, elephants have been used in warfare, farming, transportation, logging and now most commonly in tourism for rides and entertainment.  Elephants are considered ‘Semi-Domesticated’, they have not been through ‘domestication’ like dogs, cats and horses etc. They are genetically wild as they have never been bred selectively. In recent decades Captive breeding has increased greatly, meaning that most babies and their parents that we see today are captive bred to meet the demands of tourism.

A Hundred years ago, Thailand’s vast forests where home to some 100,000 elephants.  Since then mass habitat destruction has occurred, in the early days it was a demand for teak furniture, most commonly now it is to make room for further urbanization and agricultural purposes. It is estimated that there are now between 3 to 5,000 Elephants left in the wilds of Thailand. There are around 4,000 registered Elephants in captivity in Thailand. Here the law pertaining to captive ‘semi-domestic’ elephants is the Beast of Burden Act 2482 B.E. (1939). This act classifies elephants as draught animals along with horses, donkeys, and oxen etc. The Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act, B.E. 2535 (1992) protects wild elephants, but excludes registered draught animals. This means registered elephants can be owned legally by private individuals and/or businesses using them in the earlier days for logging, transportation and farming, but most commonly today they are used for entertainment and as trekking/riding elephants.

Captive 'Domestic' Elephants - Street begging elephant in Chiang Mai
A young Street Begging Elephant walks along the main road in Chiang Mai. Photo Taken 2013

In 1989 Thailand’s Government made the decision to ban logging after excessive flooding precipitated by mass deforestation.  Practically overnight the ban put thousands of elephants and the people that worked with them in a predicament.

With logging Ban now in Place – Where would they go, how could they find a ways and means of providing for their families and their elephants?

In search of a much needed income, some turned to using elephants in farming or illegal logging, forcing elephants to work long hard hours, often at night, some elephants even received foods spiked with amphetamines to keep them awake and force them to work faster and harder hauling logs.

Elephant Registration Document
As of 2017, all elephant owners must be registered under the new DNA Registration System and receive a pink book

Others turned to Tourist Camps to give rides and entertain tourists or to Street begging, a dangerous activity where elephants and mahouts walk on busy roads asking tourists to pay to feed sweet treats to the elephants and take photos. At times, some elephants are also drugged whilst begging on the streets and can be involved in regular road accidents. Many Captive working elephants did not receive adequate nutrition during the work day, particularly those begging in the cities for tourists to feed them sweet treats and are often forced to scavenge for food under highway passes on discarded foods and plants that are contaminated by vehicle fumes, eventually leading to illness. A ban on street begging was placed a few years ago, although some mahouts still try to find ways around it and take to the streets as there are little alternatives and Camp life isn’t always desired.

If it weren’t for tourism what would happen to the thousands of elephants and the people that live and work with them? Tourism – At the time is was ‘The Savior for elephants’

Today, Captive Elephant living conditions are widely publicized, many articles speak of the inadequate conditions and suffering of elephants in captivity.  It is a very serious issue, many elephants do suffer greatly in Captivity, especially in South East Asia, where there are little to no provisions prohibiting cruelty, overwork or unsuitable work conditions. It’s an issue that does need to be addressed in a serious manner.

The Social Media world has a lot of propaganda, sensationalism and over exaggerated, poorly researched pieces, many of which have an ulterior motive and don’t care for fact checking. The fact is that the truth lies somewhere in between. Unfortunately there are many well-meaning animal lovers and activists out there that often go about sharing information that’s riddled with false statements and outdated/inaccurate/misleading information……Then we see the creation and sharing of poorly constructed petitions/campaigns calling for an immediate reform, asking governments to strictly apply laws to protect Captive Elephants and ban riding and entertainment, otherwise instructing tourists to boycott elephant activities or boycott countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka or India as a whole. Petitions/ Campaigns calling for action rarely reach the right authorities, they often lack in integrity and they do not provide any alternatives. Many people don’t understand that the implementation of such laws cannot be logically made to fit the realities of domesticated elephants at this point in time. There are not yet enough alternatives or funding in place to be able to provide for the ideals for elephants and those who work with them. While there is still a demand, the riding and entertainment will continue.

A realistic approach is needed in order to continue to make positive steps in the right direction, slowly but surely change is happening.

Captive 'Domestic' Elephants - South East Asia Elephants used as tourist attractions
Across South East Asia Elephants are commonly used today for rides at tourist attractions.

Why can’t we release the captive elephants back to the wild?

It’s believed that as late as the mid-19th Century that it was common for elephants to be released that became too old to work, invaluable or too difficult to manage. There was much more habitat for elephants then than there is now. Remember that logging ban? By the time the ban was put in place more than 70% of Elephant Natural Habitat had been affected. Captive elephants are accustomed to humans having been raised by man and fed crops cultivated man, such as banana trees, banana fruit, Tamarinds, Pineapples, Watermelon, Pumpkin, Corn etc so doing a mass release of elephants in this day and age is simply not possible due to lack of natural habitat and so many agricultural lands taking up what was once elephant habitat.

Transporting a mother and calf
A mother and her calf making their way to a transport truck to move to the next destination

Human – Elephant conflict is rife throughout Wild Elephant Areas in Thailand, steps are being taken to try to protect farmer’s livelihoods as well as keep the elephants safe in their dwindling natural habitat. It would be catastrophic to release thousands of Captive elephants in to the current situation. Providing natural corridors, preserving and protecting what’s available and hopefully reforesting large areas may make it possible in the future to once again release elephants back into their natural habitats.

What does this mean?…….. Well, Right now, the Captive Situation requires us to take care of these elephants the best we can with the resources we have.

Managing elephants in captivity? The roles of a Mahout and why they are needed:

Once seen as a highly honorable position in traditional Asian Societies, Mahoutship has changed drastically with modernization. Hundreds of years of Traditional training and keeping elephants, a highly complex, professional skill and a great deal of ritual, is being lost as the sons of highly skilled master mahouts have been moving away from the Tradition. This could be the very reason for why so many elephants suffer more so now than ever before.  Many of Today’s mahouts universally lack the massive knowledge and understanding of earlier mahout generations and are working in a low paying, highly dangerous, low status profession.

Rich business men, know they can get away with cutting corners by hiring refugees or inexperienced men to care for their elephants, they can pay them much less, treat them unfairly and nobody will bat an eyelid. Many mahouts receive little to no training, they often have no other options for work, so they stay working to making a living in a very dangerous job. How can we expect a man to take good care of the elephant he is required to manage if he, himself is being treated so unfairly? All of this can influence how one views the elephant he is required to take care of, and at times can lead to mahout’s deaths because an employer has forced them into such dangerous situations as many mahouts will do what they can to appease their boss.

Captive 'Domestic' Elephants - Human Elephant Relationships
Human-Elephant Relationships have been present throughout Asian Civilizations for some 4,000 years. Strong bonds can be built on respect and trust

It seems we have an industry that does not recognize that conserving and nurturing its mahouts is equally as important as conserving and protecting the elephants. An ever growing shortage of traditional mahouts, masters of essential skills in elephant management, is posing problems for quite a large population of Captive elephants, particularly elephants considered ‘problem elephants’ or ‘dangerous elephants’.

Any fit young man with basic skills can look after a docile female elephant, but it takes a seriously skilled master mahout to take on the roles of caring for an elephant with a difficult temperament or an elephant that’s killed their mahout in the past. Bulls are on average more difficult to handle than females, they are more difficult to manage and good experienced mahouts cannot be easily found.

Without decent mahouts, elephant welfare is greatly diminished. Mahout’s play a very important role ensuring Captive Elephants needs are met, but we also must make sure we provide mahouts with high quality care and appropriate training.

Training and Conditioning:

Welfare and training techniques vary from place to place and modernized techniques are being implemented. From a young age elephants need to learn early on, what’s okay and what’s not okay, similar to our human children accept we need to keep in mind that a cute floppy trunked, flappy eared 80kg infant elephant soon turns into a massive 3 tonne animal. The best mahouts will establish a relationship of love and trust, having the elephant respect him as much as he respects his elephant, but this does take time.

For thousands of years Mahouts have worked in free contact with these animals, if elephants don’t receive training they become too dangerous to work with and then they are forced to live out there days chained up or in small enclosures confined to the same area, this greatly affects their psychological well-being. Bull Elephants can be even more difficult to manage than females, it depends on each individual animal’s temperament. With proper training a mahout can provide quality care for the elephant, allow time for them to forage and socialize and ensure a higher level of welfare and safety for tourists whether they are riding, walking, bathing or simply viewing the elephants.

Captive 'Domestic' Elephants - A bull elephant has a rest
A Captive Bull Elephant and his mahout having a rest, before the bull moves to another foraging site

Elephant Welfare:

In many Captive elephant facilities the wellbeing of elephants is often not the top priority. From elephant riding, to elephant performances, to mud bathing elephants in tourist attractions just outside the main cities in Thailand. A large population of Captive Elephants live in inadequate conditions and at times are forced to work in highly stressful, unnatural situations, where there is often forced breeding and premature weaning, all of which have negative effects on their physical and psychological wellbeing.

It has become a Topic of an intense debate in recent years of what is considered to be appropriate standards of welfare for Captive “Domestic” Elephants across Thailand and South East Asia.  It is great to see more people becoming aware of the Captive Elephant situation but it is also a big concern that Social Media outlets are constantly spreading misinformation and advocating for things that the current Captive situation cannot realistically provide at this time. E.g. Boycotting elephant activities, calling for Elephants to be released back to the wild, calling for bans on chains and bull hooks etc.

Sometimes we must accept the limitations of what can be realistically achieved at present.

This means that we may have to come to a compromise in order to make progress, in the hopes that one day we can get to a point that elephant friendly tourism is and will be, the future.

For now, Keep Calm, Love Elephants and Carry on.

Captive 'Domestic' Elephants - A Majestic Beauty Enjoying Her Retirement
A Majestic Beauty Enjoying Her Retirement at BEES




2 thoughts on “Captive ‘Domestic’ Elephants

  1. Thank you Emily for such a well written, thorough piece. I hope to one day visit BEES sanctuary and will never stop advocating for elephants to be free and wild with those currently captive, to be retired to a sanctuary like yours. Stay strong.

  2. I greatly appreciate your thoughtful blog. The captive-held elephant is a delicate subject with many facets to consider.
    Thank you for educating the public and especially the Thailand visiting tourists.

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