In a moment seen and heard around the world, a 73 years old elephant named Sook Jai had tears streaming down her eyes after the Elephant Nature Park, a rescue center connected to the Save Elephant Foundation in Thailand rescued her.
Thailand has an iconic relationship with elephants dating back to its ancient history. In its ancient culture, these majestic animals were revered for their strength and intelligence.
As time wore on, the Thai elephants became more of manual laborers and tourist attractions.
With over 3700 of them living in captivity today, these elephants are now mainly tourist attractions, as many people visiting Thailand want to take selfies with them. It is this phenomenon that has seen the number of elephants captured and domesticated for entertainment purposes rise by nearly a third in the last few years.
Sook Jay’s previous owners used her for street begging and trekking. When her health deteriorated as she got older with hearing loss and blindness, she was probably abused since she could not follow their orders clearly or fast enough.
After many years of service, she could not keep up anymore, and she was lucky that she was found by a member of the Elephant Nature Park who rescued her along with a sponsor Joan Baez, which would allow her to live free from cruelty for the rest of her life.
The 20-hour journey to the sanctuary was perilous at best. Firstly she was not in good health when they found her after years of abuse, secondly she would not eat and was also malnourished and exhausted, which made the journey even more formidable.
At one point during the journey, the elephant began to cry actual tears with cameras rolling.
Elephants are known for their intelligence, so this act of crying was interpreted by many as a sign that this elephant understood the kindness and change in behavior that was being bestowed upon it.
Half of these Thai elephants are now in captivity, and because of a lack of enough habitats, their owners have no choice but to use them in the ever-popular tourist trade; otherwise, they would have no way to care for them.
However, according to the NGO World Animal Protection (WAP), only a fraction of these domesticated Thai elephants are treated with dignity.
These elephants are captured in the wild and forced into captivity, and then they are trained using harsh methods to get them docile enough to carry a human on their backs. What seems to be especially concerning is how he baby elephants are separated from their mothers at age two, and from then on, they are starved and jabbed with metal hooks and prods as part of their “training.”
The elephant happens to be the official national animal of Thailand and has been on its endangered list since 1986. However, the only protection agency that the government owns is the National Elephant Institute.
NGOs like the Elephant Nature Park do the rest of the conservation. With over 30 million tourists in 2016 and with about 40% of those tourists stating that they planned to ride an elephant that comes out to about 13 million people riding an elephant annually.
Sook Jai may not be the only elephant in Thailand in need of rescuing.