Monday, 16 December 2013

Why I will Never Ride an Elephant Again: The Phajaan

I spent December 9th to 15th volunteering with the Elephant Nature Park ( "Journey To Freedom" volunteer program.  I learned some things that are important enough to warrant their own blog post to raise awareness.  I will write another post about my experiences volunteering later.

Firstly, if you are thinking about doing an elephant trecking/riding trip in Thailand or anywhere else, or if you are thinking about going to see elephants who dance, play harmonicas, kick soccer balls, paint, or do other tricks, please think about this; How exactly is an elephant, a wild animal, domesticated? What on earth could make these pachyderms subservient to humans? The answer is the Phajaan.  Please watch this video before you go watch or ride a trained elephant and decide if you still want to support this industry: 
* WARNING: this is very upsetting footage and it will likely make you feel sick and disgusted with humans.
The Phajaan.  Hard to look at...makes me embarrassed to say I've ridden an Elephant.  Six years ago, when I rode an elephant I had no idea this went on.  I'm sure a LOT of tourists are the same.  Please spread the word, I wish someone had told me before I went to Thailand.

The Phajaan process originated in hill tribe communities in India and South East Asia, located in areas where elephants naturally occur. The ‘ceremony’ of Phajaan is said to have originated from the belief that the tribe’s shaman can separate the spirit of an elephant from it’s body, in effect driving the willful and wild spirit out of an elephant and leaving it under the control of it’s handlers, or mahouts.
In reality, however, the Phajaan has nothing to do with the seperation of spirit, and everything to do with torturing an elephant until it is so fearful of it’s human captors that it will do anything to avoid being hurt again. Before an elephant can be trained – which in itself is a questionable activity, indeed, why should elephants be trained to serve and perform for humans? – it must be abused to the point that it will listen to it’s new handler and be willing to learn his commands, acting out his requests without protest.
All domesticated elephants, whether in elephant camps carrying tourists on their backs, or performing in circuses, have gone through a version of the Phajaan – elephants are not naturally subservient to humans and would not voluntarily allow themselves to be treated in such a manner.
The Phajaan process starts with the separation of a nursing baby elephant from it’s mother, a highly traumatic experience which straight away instills fear in to the baby. The baby is then locked into a crush pen where there are unable to move, sit or lay down, and it’s here that the true torture begins…
Chained and hobbled, over the next 3-7 days the elephant is deprived of it’s basic needs of food, water and sleep. Mahouts and groups of villagers take it in turns to systematically beat the elephant, often using primitive instruments such as bamboo sticks with metal nails embedded in the ends. Knives, hot irons and bull hooks – wooden sticks with curved, sharp metal blades – are used to slice, burn and stab the baby elephant, ripping at it’s ears, face and torso until it is a bloodied mess and in a state of constant pain and terror. The most sensitive parts of the body are targeting with the intended result to be the creation of as much pain as possible. The Phajaan process only ends once the shaman considers the elephant’s spirit to be successfully banished.
Many baby elephants die during this process. Perhaps they are the lucky ones in that they will not have to suffer a lifetime of servitude to their handlers. After the initial Phajaan process, elephants can then begin their ‘training’, being taught tricks to perform through intimidation and reinforcement through abuse. The carrying of bull hooks by mahouts is solely to remind these highly intelligent creatures that pain is just a short step away should they misbehave.
Some say an elephant never forgets…whilst that might not be true in all circumstances, the horror inflicted upon elephants in order for them to become ‘domesticated’ certainly stays with them forever, thanks to the barbaric nature of the Phajaan process.
Here are a few other links I found if you want to do more research:
Trailer for a new movie exposing the Phajaan:
Blog with more links to info and petitions you can sign:
The organization I volunteered through:

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