The tale of Sudarat the Elephant made international headlines earlier this month when a global fundraising campaign managed to save the 45-year-old elephant from being forced back into the tourism industry by raising 47,000 USD to purchase her from her owner.
“Our hope to rescue Sudarat and have her stay at Samui Elephant Haven forever, with her family and friends is a reality!” the sanctuary posted on Facebook on Monday.
While netizens from all over the world celebrated the good news, the story of Sudarat’s rescue has raised questions about the state of animal welfare, in particular elephants, in Thailand and the intersections of culture, animal rights, and tourism.
The lady of the hour
Sudarat, like most tamed and commercialized working elephants in Thailand, has had a long and tragic life. She began life as a logging elephant based in the north of Thailand, where she was forced to sleep standing up. Later, she was sold to a family of mahouts in Pattaya, where she was used for the tourism industry, carrying tourists up to 60 times a day and walking on hot concrete for almost a decade, as a means for the family to generate income.
When Sudarat’s mahout got into a life-threatening accident, his family sent her to the sanctuary. But after three years of living freely as a retired elephant with her newfound family and herd of 4 elephants, the family want her back. “[The Mahout] has decided that now is the time to take her back and as he is her legal owner we, unfortunately, have no right to keep Sudarat,” the sanctuary announced on their Facebook page.
“Over the past few years, we have tried many times to negotiate with her owner in the hope of buying Sudarat to ensure that she could stay with us and her herd forever. However, he has no desire to sell Sudarat to us but we thank everyone for their kind offer of raising funds and helping in any way they could.”
Sudarat’s fate to retire at the sanctuary, just a week ago, seemed far-fetched. The owner demanded $47,000 dollars for her outright purchase – not a small sum in a country decimated economically by the pandemic.
“We only have until the end of the month to raise the funds since he has already organized the truck and team to collect her,” said the sanctuary.
What happened next has gone viral. Through the kindness of internet strangers, a global fundraising campaign managed to get enough money to buy Sudarat her freedom.
The Price of Freedom
Yet despite the feel-good story that has captured the attention and adoration of social media, many experts have voiced their concern with the amount of money being paid to buy Sudarat from her owner.
“An elephant is usually worth a third of the price,” said Edwin Wiek, the head of the Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand.
Wiek told Thai Enquirer that with the money being paid for Sudarat, the owner of the elephant could easily buy more animals for that sum.
“The owner should not be rewarded,” Wiek argues. “Sometimes you have to play hardball, the owner will likely accept the money for a lot less, as elephants in Thailand, who are used mostly for the tourism industry, will be useless for the next year to come [because of the pandemic].”
Not clear cut
Other online commentators have noted the cruelty involved in the domestication process of elephants. Mahouts are known to beat and torture the great animals in a bid to make them tame or obey commands.
But Thais and the other peoples of South East Asia have had a long and celebrated history with Elephants for close to millennia. While the domestication process may seem cruel to outsiders, mahouts defend the process as part of Thai tradition and culture. Many develop intimate bonds with the animals they train.
According to Suriya “Maew” Salangam, owner of Samui Elephant Haven, the mahout’s family didn’t even want the money being paid for the elephant at first but wanted a member of their family back.
Suriya said that to portray this as a black or white issue is wrong and that the mahout was not some evil man hell-bent on pushing Sudarat back into servitude. Rather he wanted a return of a member of his family to help the family business.
“The family’s main source of income was through the elephant,” he said.
Suriya added that it was not his place to judge what was right or wrong but did acknowledge that the sum being paid to the mahout had raise concerns.
People from the outside looking in may not understand the process and efforts it took, internally, to make this become a reality Suriya said.
“We negotiated for three years, we tried to talk, we tried to bargain, but if this is what it takes, we will take it.”
“I do not think that life can be measured by currency. You may think 1.5 million baht is too much, but for [the sanctuary], it was worth it,” he said. “[My focus] is on the elephants that are currently in my care at the sanctuary.”
By the numbers
Official statistics say that there are some 3,783 elephants in Thailand in captivity. The number is a far cry from the early-1900s there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated elephants in the country. There are estimated to be only 1,000 elephants left in the wild in Thailand.