Uniform of Chains

25 February 2016

Imagine a place that is so green you can barely look at it.

Imagine that this place has a sky so enormous and full of incandescent constellations you have never seen before.

Imagine that beneath that sky lives an elephant named Kamlin. She has been alive for 89 years, and has only experienced the respect and reverence her magnificence demands for the past three, due to the horrors inflicted by ignorant Western tourists.

I met her two hours North of Siem Reap, where the Save Elephant Foundation maintains their 25,000­acre Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary consists of a sweltering stretch of tropical forest, which needs to be patrolled by the military in case illegal loggers decide they would like a piece of its pristine beauty.

Volunteers with dirt under their fingernails and hair crusted in sweat swing in hammocks between jobs. The labour is strenuous but the peace is immense. When night­time casts itself over the sanctuary, you cannot help but feel the gentle presence of the wild animals that sleep in the forests close by, free of the captivity and exploitation they were once harnessed by.

Kamlin likes to eat pumpkin and papaya. She despises baths. She is completely blind due to old age but she is well aware when you stand next to her with some delectable food in your hand.

Naturally, she is enormous. Yet as she grinds her sugar cane and tastes the air with her trunk, sitting quietly beneath her feels entirely safe. It is so hard to believe that anyone ever wanted to make this gentle, ancient creature bleed.

The fact is that Kamlin, alongside many other elephants that were rescued from the Asian tourism industry, has a painfully dark past.

Although most would be opposed to elephants being injured and treated as mere tools in the ruthless logging industry, it often comes as a surprise to people when they discover the elephant they rode on their Thailand holiday at fourteen suffered the same maltreatment.

There is no authenticity in riding an elephant, only naivety. In order for an elephant to become submissive, it must be separated from its mothers and withstand torturous ordeals at the hands of humans, so that it may learn the concept of control. Clubs and bull­hooks are used throughout the process until the fear of being stabbed motivates them to carry sweaty, camera­bearing humans on their backs, who later go home to post their photographs on social media as a means of sharing their ‘spiritual experience’.

And the scary thing is, we all know that it isn’t natural for an elephant to willingly cart a human through the jungle it should be wandering freely in. The problem is that we just see what we want to see through our rose­coloured, knock-­off Ray­Bans.

Approximately 30 per cent of the entire Asian elephant population are currently living out their days as puppets of human entertainment. They are often kept in solitude, deprived of the warmth of large family units that wild elephants tend to stay within.

Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary is a rarity within a culture so violently fuelled by ignorant tourism. There are no crowds, no chains and no stage shows, only elephants being elephants.

Although it was life­changing to spend time with Kamlin, it’s truly heartbreaking to know how many are left shackled, destined to play their part in the unnatural circus constructed by humans.

The only acceptable way to interact with elephants is from a respectable distance chosen by the elephant itself. Reducing them to the point at which they become a spectacle, useful only for human novelty, is equally as immoral as poaching them for the opulent ivory of their tusks.

If I could go back to the day I sat perched upon a nameless elephant feeling cultured and magnificent, I would.

But I would tell myself to look more closely at the way the mahout presses his bull hook firmly against the creature’s ancient skin. I would tell myself to stop ignoring the uniform of chains that cry out in metallic shrieks of injustice with each movement the elephant makes.

I would weave my fingers through the dirty forest of hair on the creature’s heavy head and I would apologise, over and over again.

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