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Here's Why You Should Never Ride an Elephant in Thailand

The death of a Scottish tourist trampled to death by an elephant in Thailand earlier this week has highlighted the systemic animal cruelty built into the country's tourism industry.
elephant thailande
Photo par Barbara Walton/EPA

It was reported as a tragic accident. A dream vacation turned into a horrific nightmare when Scottish tourist Gareth Crowe was gored and trampled to death by an elephant he was riding in Thailand on Monday.

Crowe, 36, was tossed from the back of the elephant alongside his 16-year-old stepdaughter Eilidh Hughes, after the animal reportedly became enraged when its handler stopped to take photos of the pair. The handler, known as a "mahout," survived being gored, while Hughes escaped serious injury.


But while Thai authorities have been quick to label it an unfortunate event, the incident has cast light on the systematic animal abuse built into Thailand's poorly regulated tourism industry.

Initial reports suggested the 13-year-old elephant had recently shown signs of the testosterone-fueled aggression associated with its mating cycle, known as "musth". However, that was denied by officials on the island of Koh Samui, where the incident occurred.

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"We suspect that the hot weather made the elephant angry and that he was not accustomed to his mahout," Paiboon Omark, Samui district chief, told Agence France-Presse.

But experts who work with elephants in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia cast doubt on the likelihood that musth — often marked by a distinctive secretion of temporin from the sides of the head as well as overtly aggressive behavior — would be mistakenly reported.

According to Edwin Wiek, founder of conservation NGO Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, which rescues abused elephants, such deadly incidents almost exclusively involve male elephants being forced to work when they are in no state to do so.

The often poorly trained handlers working with elephants rely on hooks, knives and nails to control the animals. Photo via Ears Asia 

"I hate to call it an 'accident', because this is not an accident, it's always a male elephant on heat. Once they are on heat they lose their temper," he told VICE News. "A male elephant on musth is like a human on methamphetamine, they are out of control."


Wiek says the unrelenting workload faced by the elephants and demands placed on handlers to work without rest days means male elephants are highly unsuited to the activity.

"Not working is not an option, even if the elephant is sick or the mahout is sick," said Wiek. "There's a lot of financial pressure on these people."

That pressure comes from the fact that elephants can cost as much as $50,000 and mahouts who own their own elephant often buy them on informally arranged credit, which Wiek says can carry astronomical interest rates.

Many other elephants are owned by wealthy families who have little contact with the animals themselves and are solely concerned with reaping as much profit as possible. Wiek estimates that as many as half of Thailand's 3,000 working elephants are owned by less than two dozen powerful families — a fact he agrees presents an obstacle to meaningful reform of the industry.

In both cases, the owner must pay a weekly or monthly fee to the elephant parks where the animals are operating, making it financially difficult for mahouts to take rest days.

"Mahouts work long hours without a day off. Many are forced to overwork their elephant to make enough money to feed their elephant and family," said Louise Rogerson, founder of Hong Kong-based elephant conservation NGO Ears Asia.

"The new generation of mahouts are teenage boys and young men who don't have the years of mahout training like previous generations," she told VICE News.


Rogerson says the financial pressures on mahouts also prompts them to dispense unthinkable suffering on elephants as young as six months old, in order to break their spirit and force their submission as quickly as possible. While the process carries the ceremonial name of "Phajaan," it amounts to little more than days or even weeks of repetitive torture involving hooks, knives and nails.

"The quicker the elephant can learn to paint, do a trick, ride a bike or play basketball for example, the quicker the mahouts have employment at a camp to earn money," she said.

From as young as 6 months old, elephants are subjected to extreme pain to force them into submission. Photo by Ears Asia

Financial pressures means that even elephants involved in deadly incidents are unlikely to be taken out of service, with Associated Press reporting that the elephant responsible for Crowe's death would be given 15 days of rest before being put back to work.

Wiek said this came as little surprise, with a performing elephant that killed British tourist Andrea Taylor in April 2000 known to still be working in the tourism industry today.

Meanwhile, Wiek says the fact the mahout involved in Monday's incident was reportedly an inexperienced Burmese migrant is symptomatic of an industry heavily reliant on an expendable migrant workforce.

"The life of a Burmese in Thailand is worth nothing, so if a Burmese gets killed it's not an issue. It's almost as if an animal got killed," said Wiek. "There are a lot of jobs that many Thais simply do not want to do anymore, but the Burmese will do anything to earn some money to send back to their families."


According to migrant workers' rights activist Andy Hall, who has worked in Thailand and Myanmar for more than a decade, Burmese migrants suffer widespread abuse and are often seriously injured by elephants.

"I saw many bodies [of Burmese migrants] mauled and mutilated by elephants," Hall told VICE News. "The first dead migrant I saw was in a mortuary in a hospital in Chiang Mai, appalling damages, pulled apart by an elephant."

Yet with tourism estimated to be worth more than 22 percent of Thailand's $390 billion economy, and elephant rides and shows still wildly popular among many of the almost 25 million tourists who visit each year, it appears unlikely anything will change soon.

Babies are separated from their mothers and put to work in stressful and busy environments as early as possible. Photo via Ears Asia

The power of tourist revenue in cases of animal abuse is evidenced by the continuing operation of Thailand's so-called Tiger Temple, where longstanding accusations of animal trafficking were highlighted in a report published last month by NGO Conservation & Environmental Education 4 Life (Cee4life).

Based on years of investigations, the report alleged that monks and volunteers — including many foreigners — had been complicit in accelerated breeding of the animals, with more than 100 cubs and tigers simply going missing during the decade it has been in operation.

According to Cee4life founder Sybelle Foxcroft, while evidence gathered and birth records suggest there should be at least 281 tigers at the temple, there were only actually 147 at the time the report was published. Many were found to have been trafficked to neighboring countries such as Laos.


Tigers were also found to be routinely drugged, with one used for photos with tourists testing positive for veterinary tranquilizer ketamine, while others had their food laced with hash oil.

In response to the report, authorities began seizing the tigers — but with the temple earning at least $3 million per year from tourists on top of massive unaccounted-for donations from well-connected sponsors, Foxcroft says it is unlikely to be shut down.

"They are already trying to cut a deal," she told VICE News. "This place has got tentacles that reach into very high places, all over the place."

Yet despite the probable role of wealthy stakeholders in perpetuating animal exploitation in the tourism industry, all of the activists who spoke to VICE News agreed that the blame for these activities ultimately rests with the tourists fueling it.

"Some of them just don't seem to think 'How does this mighty apex predator allow me to cuddle it?'" says Foxcroft. "It's just a lack of education and until people wake up to the cruelty they are supporting, it isn't going to stop."

Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn