Sunday, February 14, 2016

Let’s Exploit People, Not Elephants!

Let’s Exploit People, Not Elephants!

The elephant is emblematic of Thailand and a major tourist attraction. A significant movement has started within the past couple of decades to prevent the exploitation of these massive pachyderms.

One camp believes that the elephant can be used as a beast of burden, an entertainer and a source of revenue for the owner. The opposition believes that the animal should not be used for forced labor, ridden for pleasure or made to perform circus type tricks to entertain tourists. Recently, logging operations became illegal, thus making a lot of elephant labour unnecessary and putting a lot of elephants and owners out of work. New profitable uses of these five ton beasts needed to be found and, of course, that is why we are where we are today. The good news is that animal rights activists have begun to make some inroads in improving the elephants’ lot.

During our elephant experience, we were involved in feeding and bathing the animals, but there was no riding and the animals were well treated. Personally, I have no issue with an elephant being ridden or trained to perform, but I do not condone abuse, neglect or any activity that could be injurious to these gentle animals. Since the government does little to govern the use or abuse of animals, it is probably a good thing that an outside group has taken up their cause.

At the same time as we are fighting against elephant exploitation, we seem to be ignoring comparable human exploitation. Many of the tours offered to foreign visitor are trips to visit “hill-tribes” in the vicinity of Chiang Mai. One that we visited, in conjunction with a wat tour, was a tribe that originated in China and was actively involved in the heroin trade decades ago. Their little mountain village was very remote, but a very large shopping market had been set up by some local entrepreneur to sell every conceivable object, little of it relevant to the local culture or tribe. A few locals contributed to the show by dressing up in ethnic costumes to add some authenticity to the performance. It seemed very staged and contrived.

Another “hill-tribe” that is overrun by tours and tourists is the tribe of long neck women who wrap metal rings around their necks in order to appear to stretch them to extraordinary lengths. In reality, the neck is not extended but rather the collar bone and rib cages are depressed. This old tribal custom, is now being exploited by tour companies with little regard for the health, dignity, or well being of those on display. It is comparable to the old circus practice of charging admission to view the bearded lady, the lobster man or a set of siamese twins. 

In Thailand, there do not appear to be any advocates fighting for the rights and dignity of marginalized humans that are similar to the animal rights activists who are seeking to prevent the exploitation of elephants. Is there something wrong with this picture?

The reason, of course, for both exploitations is the same. You can call it free enterprise, entrepreneurship, or simply taking advantage of a business opportunity. I just call it human greed! Our world is driven by the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar and no place is immune from it, not even the remote hillsides of Thailand!

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