Elephants in Thailand 'broken' for lucrative animal tourism
Separated from their mothers, jabbed with metal hooks and sometimes deprived of food, many Thai elephants are tamed by force before being sold to lucrative tourism sites increasingly advertised as 'sanctuaries' to cruelty-conscious travelers.
Balanced precariously on hind legs, two-year-old Ploy holds a ball in her trunk and flings it towards a hoop, one of many tricks she is learning in Ban Ta Klang, a traditional training village in the east.
Here young elephants are "broken" to interact with tens of millions of tourists who visit Thailand every year, many eager to capture social media-worthy encounters of the kingdom's national animal playing sports, dancing and even painting. Villagers in Ban Ta Klang who have been working with the large, gentle animals for generations say taming is necessary for safety reasons and that the force is not excessive.
"We do not raise them to hurt them... if they are not stubborn, we do nothing to them," said mahout Charin, as he stroked Ploy's head affectionately and spoke of her as part of his family.
Charin makes about $350 a month in a profession that was handed down from his father and grandfather.
"I have always lived with them," he added.
But animal welfare advocates argue the taming technique, where babies are removed from the care of fiercely devoted mothers at the age of two, is cruel and outdated.
It is also little-known, one of many murky aspects of an evolving elephant tourism trade often kept from view of tour operators and travelers.
Elephants were phased out of the logging industry about 30 years ago, leaving their mahouts unemployed.
So they turned to Thailand's flourishing tourism industry, a burgeoning sector of amusement parks offering...