Well, like I said, it is a big problem. But I have seen elephants who genuinely seemed to treat a turn in the country like a little excursion, and there are others who don’t like it at all. If you’re forced to do it all day non-stop and starved to boot, then yeah, there’s going to be a problem.
The sanctuary Marley went to up North is good. Elephantstay in central Thailand’s Ayutthaya province has a pretty good reputation. I would be surprised to find out they were guilty of abuse. However, they offer mahout-training courses, and many of the elephants you see in films and TV here are theirs. Owned and operated by a couple of Aussie ladies, one of whom used to be a senior zookeeper in Melbourne. So there is some riding, there’s some film acting, but I’ve still heard much good about them. They have quite a successful breeding program too and a baby nursery. Their website says they’re up to 90+ elephants now and 57 successful births since 2000. So their elephants are trained, but not in an abusive manner.
A big part of the problem too is lack of government support. Particularly up North, elephants were used in logging. Then in the late 1980s I think it was, the government banned logging in Thailand due to problems with severe deforestation. Suddenly all these elephants were thrown out of work. It was hard work to begin with, but after that they had no way to make money. The government just ignored them, so the mahouts had to start bringing their elephants into the cities to beg and such. What do you do when you’re stuck with an elephant? I hate seeing them brought into a city like Bangkok, but I can understand what drives them in. Haven’t seen any here for quite a while though, so maybe the authorities have finally succeeded in keeping them out. But they still need something to do and someplace to go. It’s really a complicated problem.
And there are elephant hospitals now. The first one was in Lampang province in the North, connected with the Friends of the Asian Elephant organization, but since then a few others are dotted around the country. Those do good work too, but are dependent on donations. I doubt they get much if anything from the government.
The hospital in Lampang is the one that gave a prosthesis to Motala, an elephant who stepped on a land mine in Burma in 1999 and made the news worldwide. Her mahout had taken her into Burma for logging – after the Thai ban, many elephants ended up logging in neighboring countries. I think Motala still lives at the hospital. she’s mentioned in the link to there.