Who would have believed that dropping elephant acts would spell the end of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years as “The Greatest Show on Earth”? When the announcement was made this week it momentarily rivaled political ravings on the Internet.
RBB&B claimed the circus could cease operation in May as attendance and revenue plummeted following their removal of elephants from performances. The circus without elephants couldn’t keep going. But what about elephants without circuses (and zoos), can they survive?
Elephants are big here in Thailand (I do not apologize for puns).
First, a few historical notes:
· Elephants are probably Thailand’s national animal. A white
elephant on a red background was the flag of Siam for centuries.
· National worth and prestige was measured by the size of the
herds of elephants royalty collected. An elephant round-up (i.e.
hunt) was a major cultural event in Ayutthaya from the 13th to 18th
· Chang-phuyak (commonly translated “white elephants”) were
auspicious demi-gods equivalent to royalty in status.
· Elephants were essential to the deforestation of
teak-covered mountains which was a major source of revenue for the
modernization of Thailand from approximately 1850-1950.
· Elephant attractions were prominent in the development of
Thailand as a world tourist destination from 1975-2005. Visits to
elephant parks are still essential parts of most tourism packages.
With that sketch as background, now consider elephant treatment as an animal concern in the world. When human arrogance about our place in nature began to melt in the 20th century, people started to recognize that animal feelings are authentic and legitimate. Elephants, for example, love their young, mourn their dead, resent mistreatment, and have distinct individual personalities. People living in close proximity to elephants know this. But it has taken a while to expand that line of thought to include the idea that elephants, and by extension all animals, have or ought to have rights. It may be a part of the major paradigm shift of the current era to make the adjustment away from exploitation of animals to co-existence. The movement has barely begun, but in the case of elephants there has been progress. In fact, the progress has come so late that it may be doubtful, as with pandas, that natural co-existence is any longer viable.
Two campaigns have been undertaken. The first is to end ivory trading which involves killing elephants for their tusks, which are turned into luxury items for which there is no real need and no excuse except the profit to be made from the marketing of the items. The second campaign is to naturalize captive elephants. Elephants do not actually thrive in captivity, and even domesticated elephants with comparatively large ranges have been brutalized in the process of being domesticated. Domestic elephants are coerced into doing what their human masters want them to do. In the logging industry that included pulling and rolling logs. In circuses it meant being paraded
and forced to move on command.
The problem with “naturalizing” elephants in Thailand is that most of their natural habitat is gone and free-roaming elephants invade human developments, including especially orchards, hillside plantations, and even lowland fields. There are too many elephants for free range and too little natural barriers to keep the elephants safely segregated from humans. Despite their exalted place in Thai cultural lore, the days of elephants in Thailand are numbered.
Meanwhile, elephants linger in limbo (I do not apologize for alliteration, either).
It is believed that there are perhaps 2000 wild elephants in Thailand, in national forests along the Burma border. The number is an estimate. It is comparable to the number of domesticated elephants, 95% of which are owned privately.
Most domestic elephants are in parks where they are chained or occasionally have limited space to move around under control. They are kept for shows and stunts. A staple type of elephant show here in Chiang Mai has them getting a bath and then moving logs around as they used to do, and for which they need less re-training. This ostensibly shows tourists how elephants were used in the recent past. Then the elephants give tourists a lumbering lap around the campsite or a longer lap through the woods before lunch.
Conservation parks are a newer development in which elephants are rescued. They are brought to the Elephant Conservation Center, a government project under royal patronage, in Lampang Province to receive veterinary care to recover from injuries or disease. The newer Elephant Nature Park is billed as a place where elephants are conserved naturally and where tourists interact with them responsibly. Tourists pay a hefty fee to be educated and allowed to become acquainted with elephants and pretend they are helping take care of them. Elephants in these types of parks are expected to do what comes naturally, and that does not include giving people rides, playing football, dancing, standing on their heads or painting pictures.
A significant number of elephants, usually adolescents or young adults, are privately owned outside of parks and some are constantly on the move begging for tips and treats sold by their handlers to
sympathetic folks (as was the case with the elephant who was brought to our house in the picture above). They are moved where crowds gather, in hot cities, for example. Their life expectancy is
relatively short, whereas most elephants would live to the age of 80 or 90, as would healthy human beings.
It looks like American bison and maybe timber wolves are making a come-back from near extinction. Elephants are not as endangered as Siberian tigers, but Asian elephants cannot survive if they have to coexist with humans. They cannot compete for overlapping habitat with humans. Perhaps nothing can, except maybe termites and cockroaches. Reducing the degree of enslavement elephants have endured is, in the big picture, a largely futile gesture, although it probably means a lot to the ones released from cages.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.