When an elephant is beaten, abused, and spends its days chained to a tree stump in a distant village – but nobody in Bangkok sees it – does it really happen?

This weekend, during the annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo at the Anantara Riverside Resort, Bangkok saw the reality of Thailand’s elephant culture. Elephants are no longer allowed to roam within the city, so perhaps their plight had slipped our minds – but social media refocused attention with a video of some of the polo elephants enduring some horrible mistreatment at the hands of their mahouts.

To add a little context, all the elephants involved in the event are “unemployed” domesticated elephants, born in captivity, and arguably the traditional product of an era when logging provided work. They are invited to participate, and receive veterinary care, food, rest, and financial support for their mahout and family. The mahouts are given training in the appropriate methods of handling elephants and a strict code of conduct which must be followed. When the elephants are guests of Anantara they are given the best possible conditions for a few short days, but to paraphrase a common saying, you can take the elephant and its mahout out of the village, but old habits die hard.  

The video footage will trigger a strong emotional response in anyone who had to witness the abuse. Anantara’s Director of Elephants, John Roberts, immediately dismissed the mahouts involved from the event, and placed the remaining elephants under additional surveillance for their own safety. Now Bangkok has seen first-hand the problems elephants face in Thailand. The reactions have extended from disgust solely at the actions of the mahouts, to disgust at the very idea of elephant polo. Hotelintel.co talked to John Roberts during the event to address these issues.

Very few hotels have a Director of Elephants, but Anantara is an exception – John is responsible for a number of projects which help elephants all over Thailand, and also oversees the elephant camp at the Anantara Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai.

Why elephant polo?

The whole idea of this event is to raise as much money as we can to look after elephants away from here. We found that elephant polo and seeing elephants inspires people to learn more and donate to the cause. It’s been a formula that works, introducing people to elephants with the sporting element of the polo – and sponsors seem to like that idea. We find some elephants who are not in a good situation, and ensure that we could improve their situation by bringing them to the polo and letting people know about the problems elephants face.

What kind of projects are you involved in?

We work in these mahouts’ home villages to try to teach them to look after their elephants better, through education or giving them the facilities to do so. Now we are working with the Zoological Parks Organization to get more closely involved in the villages to introduce new techniques for elephants that don’t rely on punishment. But there needs to be a generational change and a culture change – do they need elephants at all? There are too many elephants in captivity and when they are unemployed they are usually on a short chain doing nothing all day.

To make a real difference we need to be working in the schools, working with the next generation to have them thinking about the elephants’ needs more than the current mahouts do, so we take kids out on conservation education camps, and our vet teams run animal husbandry classes.

Is it possible to control an elephant without punishment?

Absolutely – it’s a bond-based thing where the elephant and mahout work as a team where the elephant trusts the person, the person trusts the elephant and there’s no need for physical coercion. You can train elephants through positive reinforcement – we’ve been doing it through a technique called target training for five years now. The problem comes when the mahout isn’t spending enough time with his elephant, and the bond breaks down.* The elephant doesn’t trust the mahout and the mahout responds with force, and it becomes a vicious circle. It is avoidable.*

Do the elephants enjoy polo?

Hopefully we manage to select the ones that do. Out of 25 who came this year only one had to retire because she wasn’t enjoying it. At best they really do enjoy it and they get enthusiastic about the game and get involved; the ones who are a little bit older and a bit more staid tend to hang around at the back with friends and eat grass. We make sure they have plenty of other bonuses for being here such as vet care and food they wouldn’t get at home.

Chris Stafford, an experienced polo player with both elephants and horses also kindly agreed to offer some insights.

Do the elephants know what they’re doing when they play polo?

They definitely know – for example when you try to strike the ball and you miss, the elephant will often move the ball for you with its trunk. But they’re herd animals, they enjoy being together – they like to play together so some will follow the game and some of the younger ones will follow mum. The younger ones tend to be more playful so the youngest we play are 14.

How do they compare to horses?

Much brighter. Horses are trained at speed, and with only one rider it’s easier to control a horse, but elephants have an uncanny instinct about where to put themselves.

It can be argued that in an ideal world, there would be no elephants in captivity. In fact, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation financed by Anantara states this quite clearly, but until then, the harsh realities for elephants in Thailand must be addressed step-by-step through the various projects which aim to improve their condition by changing Thailand’s elephant culture for the better.

*Approximately, Thailand has 1000 wild elephants and 3-4000 elephants in captivity.