The Thai Royal family gifted three Elephants, including Sak Surin, to Sri Lanka, in 2001, in order for the Elephants to be trained and perform Buddhist religious rituals. Sak Surin was then renamed and is known in Sri Lanka as Muthu Raja
The members of PREN applaud the difficult decision taken by the Government of Thailand to lead the repatriation of Sak Surin from the Kande Viharaya Buddhist Temple in the Kalutara District of Sri Lanka, following concerns relating to his mistreatment. Thai authorities had to embark on a logistically, financially and politically challenging project to safely return the Elephant to Thailand.
The four-tonne male Elephant’s rehabilitation will include the treatment of his extensive injuries including abscesses, wounds and scars, which are an indication of prolonged abuse and neglect.
Elephants are large-brained mammals who display complex cognitive capabilities, and sentience, and demonstrate social needs1, empathy2, and determination3.
The Asian Elephant is able to use tools4 and, together with only a few other non-human species, such as some great apes, dolphins, rays and the Eurasian magpie, passed the mirror test, proving self-recognition abilities and a sense of self-awareness.
When males come into their annual musth cycle, their testosterone levels rise steeply making them more aggressive; all attempts to manage captive males during this process through isolation, separation and confinement, impact their welfare.
All Elephants require access to expansive, diverse habitats and move across long distances.5 They also need to be provided with opportunities for individual autonomy and socialization. These essential needs typically cannot be met in captive environments, leading to health deterioration and stereotypic behaviours reflecting the welfare-compromised environment. Stereotypic behaviour, the invariant restrictive and purposeless repetition of motor patterns6, remains the most widely used welfare indicator7 for captive Elephants in poor welfare conditions exposed to psychological stress and has direct physiological consequences on the body’s ability to function.8 This includes neural dysfunctions, brain damage and compromised survivorship.9
Extensive research highlights how Elephants can suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and refers to how humans and elephants share the parts of the brain that are susceptible to trauma and the connections between the right prefrontal cortex and the limbic system and how this influences and can compromise individual’s ability to regulate stress and emotions. Research also refers to“hyperarousal” or the inability to respond adequately, which could manifest as depression and severe agoraphobia, or on the other hand, “hyperarousal”, which is hyper-vigilance, such as, for example, in
Elephants, when they charge with no provocation, or, in captivity, when they react aggressively even if there is no actual danger.
The extraordinary efforts to repatriate Sak Surin are highly commended by all the members of PREN, as well as the decision by the Thai authorities to stop sending Elephants abroad.
Reports by Elephant experts, including members of PREN, illustrate that the population of captive Elephants in Thailand in the tourism industry has increased steeply since the use of Elephants in the logging industry was banned. Microchipping and a better-maintained Elephant database are important tools to prevent the laundering of wild Elephants into captivity; nevertheless, the illegal capture and movement of live Elephants across the Myanmar-Thai border for use in tourism continue to be an issue, and the captive breeding of Elephants continues to lead to an increase in the captive Elephant population used for commercial purposes.
The negative effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the global tourism industry presented huge challenges for Thailand and clearly demonstrated that this new industry is unsustainable in times of crisis and a liability to the well-being of Elephants relying on profits from tourism. Some camps struggled to feed and care for the Elephants, leaving many isolated and starving.
Also, a growing number of global travel companies are changing their excursion offers to exclude facilities that offer Elephant riding and Elephant shows, and are instead prioritising wildlife-watching experiences or observation-only experiences of captive Elephants. Thailand’s captive population of Elephants needs to be carefully managed as increasing numbers of captive Elephants compete for scarce resources, such as limited food for the Elephants, fragmented land use and reduced availability of skilled labour in mahouts; in addition, an increased dependency on income from tourists has led to a lower quality of care.
The global trend away from the utilisation of Elephants in tourism will negatively affect the mahouts. An unpublished study by Chiang Mai University has shown that over one-third of the mahouts have no life savings and depend on a minimum wage job while bearing significant risks of serious and sometimes fatal injuries. Efforts need to be focussed on providing alternative livelihood opportunities for people who currently rely on the exploitation of captive Elephants.
Sak Surin, one of the three Elephants donated, grew to become a large tusker. Most male Asian Elephants have tusks, Sak Surin developed extremely large tusks which reach the ground when the Elephant walks. Such tuskers are prized for their ivory. The members of PREN recommend that the authorities take all precautions to make sure that Sak Surin/ Muthu Raja is not exploited for his exceptional features.
Please find a copy of the correspondence between the undersigned Members of the Pro Elephant Network and the Honourable Minister Varawut Silpa-archa, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Thailand:
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