For most of us in the Western world, the first time we would’ve seen an elephant was likely in a circus or a zoo. As children we would have been mesmerized by their huge, grey form as they lumbered into our view, awestruck by their impressive antics, watching spellbound as their handlers commanded them to perform feats that seemed impossible for an animal of such size. Some of us may have day-dreamed what it might be like to ride an elephant, or to have an elephant as a pet, or even to talk to an elephant. From Dumbo, to Barbar, to Horton Hears a Who, our childhood has been enchanted by the charismatic elephant. Perhaps there is no other animal that captures a child’s imagination and heart quite like an elephant does.
But what we were never told as children is how the elephant, a wild animal that roams the jungles and savannah of lands far away, got to be in the zoo or the circus in the first place. We were never told about their real lives in the wild, and that throughout the ages they have been taken from their natural habitat and trained to work for us, originally for warfare, logging, and for our entertainment. Although we may still marvel at all the amazing things a captive elephant can do, how is it that such a large, intelligent creature obeys the commands of a human when it could, if it wanted to, crush that human in a second?
The training techniques of elephants vary depending on culture and purpose. But regardless of these traditions, in recent years it has become known from the reports of both scientists and animal rights activists that elephants endure a tremendous amount of abuse, trauma and heartbreak during their training period. It happens when captive elephants are as young as three years old, weaned at an age when in the wild they would still be sticking very close to mom and the herd. The training technique can be brutal and fundamentally teaches the elephant to fear humans. The tragic reality is that pretty much every captive elephant any of us have ever seen has gone through this training process. After training, the elephant is usually sold and put to work. In time, their fear becomes tolerance. Eventually, if the elephant is fortunate enough to live with the same mahout or keeper for many years, the bond that forms between the two may be best understood as a kind of symbiotic love-hate relationship, perhaps not unlike a challenging marriage.
For the past four years that I have been researching and filming Asian elephants in Thailand I have seen various types of human-elephant relationships. Although I can’t speak for the elephants, I can say that in most cases I have seen the love-side of this relationship, at least from the human’s perspective. Many mahouts whose lives we have documented do painstakingly care for their elephants, and for better or for worse, are dedicated to their elephants not only because their livelihoods depend on them, but because they love them.
But despite this love, the captive life is not the natural life of the Asian elephant. Even though they have been used in captivity for many generations, unlike dogs, cattle or horses, elephants have never been selectively bred and domesticated. All elephants are still wild animals, in body, mind, and in heart. This became very clear to me when we began to work with the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation to film the “Return to the Forest” documentary.
The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation is like no other Asian elephant conservation organization in the world. Founded in 2002 as a Royal initiative of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand, it’s mission is to reintroduce captive elephants back to the wild in three vast protected forest habitats within Thailand where there is no tourism. Asian elephants are an endangered animal and their wild populations are rapidly decreasing due to habitat loss and poaching. Just in the last fifty years, the Asian elephant’s geographic range has shrunk by over seventy per cent. In Thailand specifically, numbers have dwindled down to under 1,200 wild elephants and approximately 2,800 captive elephants. Most of the Asian elephants left in the world are captive animals. Increasingly captive elephant issues and how they are managed and cared for are becoming more important for the longevity of the species. Returning elephants to the forest is one way of ensuring their survival in Thailand.
In some cases the Foundation raises funds to purchase certain elephants whose owners can no longer afford to look after them. Such was the case with a young elephant named Nong-Mai, whose life as a street-begging elephant in Bangkok we had been filming for over a year. The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation purchased Nong-Mai to return her to a life in the forest. Since that time we have followed her progress, watching how she has become a wild elephant again.
In other cases, organizations or individuals donate elephants to the Foundation. Sometimes these are mature tourist or logging elephants who are no longer used for work. In other cases elephants are donated by owners who for various reasons wish for them to have a better life. The recent donation to the Foundation of a young bull named Tawan is one such elephant and his release to the forest has also proven to be a success.
Nong-Mai, Tawan, and a few other elephants with different stories are the stars of our 30-minute documentary called “Return to the Forest”. The film focuses on the work of the Elephant Reintroduction Foundation, and not only outlines the lives of these elephants but shows how readily they adapt back back to their role in the forest ecosystem. It hadn’t occurred to me until I began filming these elephants roaming free through the forests just how perfectly at home they are in this habitat.
As a keystone species, elephants, both African and Asian, are vital for the health of the environment. In their respective habitats they are responsible for maintaining the structure and diversity of the ecosystem, from finding water to dispersing the seeds of plants that are vital for the survival of other creatures. Without elephants in the forest, or on the savannah, these ecosystems would suffer from destabilization and loss of biodiversity.
But like the other large charismatic lifeforms in our world – the whales, the mountain gorillas, the sharks, the polar bears, the tigers, the giant redwoods – the future of the elephants is in peril. There is little forest left for them to roam freely. Humans and elephants are in competition for habitat and there are many more of us than there are of them. That combined with the relentless slaughter of elephants for their ivory and the proliferation of human-elephant conflict has put us at war with this great creature that we love.
Solving these problems is no easy feat. It requires public awareness to stop the consumer demand of ivory and other illegal wildlife products. It calls upon the cooperation of international government and enforcement agencies to stop the poaching, designate protected areas, protect and manage those protected areas, and develop smart strategies to mitigate the conflict between people, elephants and other wildlife so that all can live in peace.
To bring people together and create awareness around these complex issues we are launching the inaugural World Elephant Day on August 12, 2012. As part of this celebration, please join us on World Elephant Day to watch the world premiere of the film “Return to the Forest”, narrated by William Shatner.
Returning elephants to the forest in these protected regions shows us one positive example of what can be achieved when a comprehensive effort is made to protect elephants and give them a chance for survival in their natural role in the forest ecosystem. It offers a glimmer of hope that there may be a future for the endangered Asian elephants in Thailand.
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