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Whilst For Tigers is a charity focusing on tiger welfare, our work often brings us into contact with animals of other species. During one trip to Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo, Thailand to do our annual inspection of tiger facilities, we decided to follow up on recent reports of a starving elephant made to perform in their elephant show.

Every year, millions of tourists visit Thailand, and usually a trip to see or ride an elephant comes high on the agenda. In recent years, a lot of information has been circulated regarding the issues surrounding captive elephants. Aversive training techniques have been documented, including Phajaan or “The Crush,” a violent method used to break the elephant. This has caused more people to realise the ethical and welfare issues with elephant riding. Some people have started advocating a hands-off approach for elephants, stressing no elephant riding and forbidding the use of a control instrument, known as a bullhook. A bullhook looks like an ice pick or hammer, and it is used by the mahout (the elephant’s handler) as a measure of control and for protection. This highly visible apparatus has been shunned by many tourists, who would prefer their encounter with elephants to be wholesome and natural and believe the elephants are performing or interacting with humans of their own free will. Consequently, a number of facilities have ceased using bullhooks, leading tourists to believe the elephants enjoy better welfare. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In some manner, a mahout must have a way to control its elephant and protect tourists interacting with the elephant. To fulfil the demand by tourists not to use bullhooks, mahouts at many facilities have begun hiding their weapons.

During our visit to Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo, we stopped to view the elephant show, where we were able to conclusively capture images of these weapons being used. As you can see in the accompanying pictures, mahouts are carrying sharp nails or hooks hidden in their hands, which can easily be missed by the unsuspecting tourist. These small weapons are used to stab the elephant in various sensitive parts of the body. During this particular show, they were clearly held in the hands whilst gripping tightly to the elephant’s ears.

Thus, there is a dangerous misconception that now exists with regards to the use of bullhooks during tourist interactions. The false belief that not using bullhooks equates to good treatment and welfare of captive elephants is a fallacy that urgently needs addressing. During any elephant encounter, there are safety and welfare challenges. At least with a bullhook, viewers can see when and how it is used.

As long as such encounters persist, some measure of control must be taken over the elephant. It is up to us as tourists and visitors to decide whether we value the elephant’s welfare above our own gratification.

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