It is illegal to have elephants walking the streets of Bangkok, and yet, there are currently more than 100 elephants in the Thai capital used for begging.
At least 15 per month are injured in traffic accidents, and more often than not, they are made to walk for hours despite their injuries. The majority of these elephants are babies that have been prematurely separated from their mothers, and thus, face a significantly lowered life expectancy.
The physical and psychological threats to the street elephant include:
- Poor Nutrition — Elephant calves typically suckle from their mothers for three years. Deprived of their natural sustenance, their growth becomes stunted from calcium deficiency. The “treats” purchased by tourists to feed the elephants do not even come close to satisfying their nutritional needs. Because they are suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, and starvation, many resort to eating whatever they can scrounge, from plastic bags to cigarette butts.
- Injured Feet — Many babies are so young when they begin working the streets that their feet are still soft and not fully developed. This is extremely painful and causes foot deformation that forces the calf to adopt strange postures and walking habits.
- Skin Damage — Elephant calves have delicate skin and would normally find protection from the sun by resting under their mother’s belly. Vegetation also provides shade, and ordinarily, elephants have access to mud — their natural suntan lotion. City elephants are made to walk and stand for hours in the blazing sun. Their skin burns and blisters and they can become seriously ill with sunstroke.
- Trunk and Lung Damage — Street elephants’ trunks are parallel with traffic exhaust pipes that dominate the streets of Thailand, exposing them to fumes and smoke for an average of 12 hours a day. With every inhalation, diesel fumes fill their lungs.
- Hearing Impairment — Elephants have acute hearing, and in recent years, it has been documented that they can hear by feeling vibrations through their feet. The omnipresent din of city racket contributes to great pain, endless confusion, and deafness.
- Depression — Isolation, fear, stress, and disorientation lead to mental disorders. While some elephants become lethargic and disassociated, others become enraged and unstable from perpetual cruelty and have been known to randomly attack their mahouts, as well as innocent bystanders. Maltreatment by mahouts is common and includes vicious beatings and drugging. Incidents have been reported in which elephants fled in a rampage in order to escape.
Due to the mahouts’ loss of livelihood and their inability to maintain their elephants, some wealthy businessmen have developed a lucrative, but exploitative new market: elephants are purchased and rented back to their mahouts for street begging, with the majority of earnings going to the businessmen. Mahouts have become reluctant to sell their only means of support to a sanctuary when they can earn greater amounts by using their elephants to beg.
It is vital that these highly intelligent and sensitive animals are rescued from a cycle of cruelty and misuse.