RIDING an elephant during your Asian holiday might seem like fun, but at what cost?
Warrnambool’s Ashlee O’Keefe has returned from working with rescued elephants in Huay Pakoot, Thailand, and is trying to increase awareness about the alarming truths behind elephant tourist camps.
The 21-year-old volunteered her time to an elephant conservation project for a month through Global Vision International.
Miss O’Keefe said inhumane treatment of elephants includes forcing them to perform painting demonstrations and give rides for entertainment, but the real cruetly starts much earlier.
“The industry is unregulated and it is not uncommon for elephants to be mistreated,” she said.
“Usually when babies are first born they are taken from their mothers straight away.
“They are tied up and put into these small cages. It’s called breaking the elephant’s spirit — also known as phajaan.
“Tourists are uneducated in how the elephants are trained and both the mental and physical harm they experience.
“Elephants are often beaten in horrific ways to make them submissive to humans for the rest of their lives.”
“Anything just to reinforce that humans have power over the elephant — and they never forget.”
Miss O’Keefe said the elephants weren’t free to roam or express natural behaviours.
The elephant conservation project Miss O’Keefe worked on has been established with local Thai community members and mahouts (elephant keepers).
“We try to teach them (the villagers) alternative and humane ways to make money from the elephants,” she said.
“My aim is to educate people who are going to travel to those areas so they can make better decisions.”
Every person who chose not to support the industry was contributing to giving the elephants a happier and healthier future, Miss O’Keefe said.
She said elephant keepers in tourist camps didn’t always understand their training methods were cruel.
“Traditions are passed down from their grandfather’s fathers and they just don’t know any better.”
Miss O’Keefe’s passion for elephants stems from years of research.
She stayed with a host family and also taught English at the local school.