AWE’s Private Islands promoting abusive animal parks

AWE’s Private Islands promoting abusive animal parks

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Original Publication Date: 7 September 2015

Originally aired in 2014, Channel AWE recently featured an episode of the Christina Cindrich travel series Private Islands, under the title “Thailand: A Feast for the Senses.” In the show, host, writer and producer, Christina Cindrich, travels throughout the Asian country of Thailand, exploring its most awe-inspiring tourist destinations, from metropolitan to natural.

The episode was altogether enjoyable to watch – until Christina visited Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai.

Christina Cindrich embracing an Asian elephant while the mahout stabs it in the ear using a bull hook.

The Guise of a Loving Sanctuary

Cindrich praises the camp, as she speaks about its life of 30 years thus far, and how it has become home to 78 elephants – “the largest assembly of elephants in the North of Thailand.

As she introduces the camp, a clip of her kissing an elephant calf is shown. The scene transitions in just enough time that the viewer either doesn’t notice, or pays no mind to, the heavy chain hanging from the calf’s neck… or the multiple preceding shots of mahouts (elephant trainers) with bull hooks at the ready in their belt loops.

Another clip is shown of Cindrich interacting with the “inquisitive creatures,” as she called them. With an elephant on either side of her, she is wrapped in their trunks, one trying, along with a hand from the mahout, to place a hat atop her head.

Cindrich then goes into a seemingly forced – or, at the very least, especially emphasized – sentiment, noting that the elephants are “obviously treated very well here, under the caring hands of their professional mahouts.”

Christina Cindrich climbing atop an Asian elephant while the mahout brandishes a bull hook.

Incomplete Training

The camp staff then led Cindrich into what is called the “Mahout Training Course,” an experience that would provide selected visitors the knowledge of “what it takes to be an elephant trainer.” She shows off her mahout uniform with a giddy twirl before the show cuts to her struggling to mount an elephant.

Without a wandering eye, watching her trying to climb on top of an Asian elephant is a funny bit – yet, a simple shift of the gaze reveals a bull hook in one of the mahout’s hands. The sharp hook gleams in the sunlight as she blissfully boards the helpless animal.

After the ride is over, Cindrich is shown in an affectionate embrace with the elephant, completely encircled in its trunk. The mahout stands in the background of the shot, and can be seen holding a bull hook up against the elephant’s ear.

This is an all-too-common method of elephant training used by circuses and interactive zoo attractions: The bull hook is stabbed into the elephant’s ear in order to utilize pain to keep the elephant submissive and obedient. This helps the mahout to maintain dominance, and a (superficially) controlled environment in which guests can be guaranteed a good time due to the elephant’s unwillingness to fight back against its abuser.

​The show proceeds to feature the elephants painting, and ultimately, the finished pieces, Cindrich says are sold for the generation of “much-needed funds for the continued rescue, care and upkeep of the endangered species.” 

So they say.

For the sake of saving face, this is the farthest they go in showcasing the “training.” In reality, a full “training” of an elephant requires not a giggly, minutes-long ride, but blood, sweat and tears… and it doesn’t come from the mahouts.

Breaking the Elephant Down

The heartbreaking documentary, An Elephant Never Forgets, delves into the dark truths of what it takes to train elephants to give tourists unforgettable rides through the wilderness and paint adorable pictures.

For starters, calves are violently stolen from their mothers in the wild, and forced into extremely small cages. The process that ensues is called the “pajaan,” which is the separation of the spirit from the body.

This entails severe beating and prodding, relentlessly carried out until the elephant “loses the will to live.” The broken animal no longer has the strength to resist the abusers, and so becomes controllable. The elephant calf is then immediately transitioned into verbal training and bottle-fed by its mahout.

Elephants in these types of captive situations often experience severely reduced life expectancies, and display signs of extreme stress, as they have a plethora of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. Physical injury is also a prominent concern, as the saddles in which tourists ride can weigh up to 200 lbs – adding the weight of multiple people can create a serious possibility of injury for the elephant.

Cindrich concludes her visit to the camp with more false reassurance to viewers that the elephants could not possibly be treated so horrifically: “One thing I can always be assured of is that the elephants at this camp are, and always will be, mentally and physically healthy and happy.”

​To top it all off, Cindrich visits Phuket Zoo, where they offer guests photo opportunities with young tigers, a practice which is well-known to be abusive to the tigers, and directly tied to the illegal wildlife trade.

The Private Islands series would do well to do more in-depth research for the next wildlife encounters they intend to promote on their show. Given that Thailand welcomes tens of millions of tourists each year, popular shows such as this could use their platform to drive tourists away from such terrible attractions and so protect these animals.

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