Ekasit, a male Asian elephant that has appeared in the film Ong Bak and numerous others, crushed his owner to death in Chiang Mai.
A still of Ekasit in the Thai film Ong Bak [Photo by Baa-ram-ewe/Sahamongkol Film International]
The day that Somsak Riengngen, Ekasit’s owner, died probably started like any other. It was the morning of the 27th of November, and Somsak had just unchained Ekasit when the 32-year-old bull suddenly turned back. Reports say that Ekasit grabbed his owner with his trunk, then trampled the man and gored him .
While tragic, incidents like this aren’t rare in Thailand, a country notorious for its growing yet controversial elephant tourism industry. There, elephants are hired to perform in films and commercials (like Ekasit), give rides through the jungles, perform in circuses, and even paint pictures that will be later sold in auction. This industry, while booming, has certainly seen its share of violence between elephants and their human trainers. Somsak’s death has set off another round of debates regarding the treatment of captive elephants made to perform for the entertainment of humans.
Ekasit giving rides at the Chiang Mai Zoo [Photo via Khaosod English]
Thailand currently has 3,000 to 4,000 elephants living in captivity. The captive elephants in the rest of Asia combined amount to only half of that. While some are likely to be well cared for, many are kept in cruel conditions. However, tourism in Thailand has doubled, from 15.9 million visitors in 2010 to 32.6 million in 2016. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of captive elephants has also increased by 30%, largely to meet the growing demands of the tourism industry.
Tourists may support the elephant tourism industry out of love for or curiosity about the animals, but they may also be unaware of the horrors that many of these elephants face. The elephants also aren’t the only victims of ill treatment; mahouts, or elephant trainers, are often overworked and paid way less than the amount they should receive for putting themselves in dangerous situations with the elephants.
It’s difficult to figure out how many elephant tourism-related deaths occur each year, since many go unreported. Somsak’s death, however, is a case of an elephant undergoing a state called musth, which is something that elephant bulls periodically undergo. During musth, a bull’s testosterone can rise up to 60 times the normal amount, and this is accompanied by highly aggressive behavior. This period can last for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the individual.
What's in store for Ekasit and other captive elephants? [Photo by Handout/AFP/Getty Images]
Elephants are intelligent, social, and empathic, and they have an image of being huge but gentle beasts. However, it’s important to remember that they’re wild animals, and even those in captivity are not domesticated pets. Bulls in particular can be unpredictable, especially during musth.
“All elephants should be wild; none should be in captivity,” says Joshua Plotnik, an animal behavior and conservation professor. “But that’s idealistic, and unfortunately not possible given the lack of available wild lands for elephants, the large number of elephants still living in captivity, and their importance to the economy, cultures, and traditions of Thailand.”
Plotnik thinks that collaborative efforts across different countries and culture may be able to improve the conditions of the elephants and the mahouts. He also says that efforts from the government as well as non-profits will be instrumental in avoiding more of these violent incidents in the future.
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