It's called "phajaan."

Directly translated, the word means "crushing," as in crushing an elephant's spirit. More specifically - divorcing a baby elephant from its spirit.

The brutal practice occurs throughout Southeast Asia in order to make elephants submissive to humans, and suitable for a life spent entertaining and amusing tourists, whether through providing wildly popular elephant rides and treks, performing stunts in circuses or being paraded through the streets in tourist hotspots throughout the region.

Diane Edelman, a Nevada-based travel blogger and an elephant tourism expert, witnessed phajaan in action, and the images are not something she will ever be able to forget.

Deep in the jungle, at what's known as an elephant training village, she saw calves who had been forcibly separated from their mothers, standing with their front and back legs bound, trying to hop around. Imprisoned in tiny wooden enclosures, the elephants were tortured by mahouts who drove spikes into their heads and dug heated nails into the most sensitive parts of their bodies.

And still there's more.

Edelman, an animal rights activist who was visiting the camp surreptitiously, pulled her hat down and hid behind sunglasses, trying not to show emotion, for fear of revealing her true identity, as she watched the heartbreaking process continue.

"They're shackled and routinely bludgeoned," Edelman explains. "And food and drink are withheld until their spirits are broken. A lot of elephants don't survive the process because it's so horrific."

Nearly half of the elephants die before the crushing routine is over. Others go crazy and have to be destroyed. Many of those who do not succumb to the torture, later become aggressive, perhaps ultimately snapping and killing mahouts, those who tend to elephants. In March alone, four mahouts were killed by elephants in Thailand, according to news reports.

Image placeholder title

It's a story of animal torture that is unwittingly supported by the tourist industry and the tourists who seek out elephant rides, or who visit the variety of elephant shows offered in the region.

Recently. however, PETA announced a small step forward in the effort to raise awareness of this brutal practice.

More than 100 travel agencies-including global operators like The Travel Corporation, Intrepid Travel, and TUI-have pledged not to include elephant rides, or shows with elephants, in their itineraries.

In agreeing to stop offering such activities, the agencies are no longer implicitly promoting and sanctioning cruelty to elephants.

"Nearly every executive we are reaching out to is horrified by the elephant's treatment," says PETA representative Stephanie Shaw, a corporate liaison for the non-profit. "This is not a contentious issue...This is the way the industry is moving."

Many of the companies have also posted official statements and blogs on their own websites, detailing the cruelty of the crushing practice and the rationale for their decision to withdraw support from the industry.

Intrepid Travel was one of the first global tour operators to ban elephant rides.

"Having such an enormous wild animal restrained for many hours at a time and used for rides or to do human-like behaviors, such as kick a soccer ball or paint pictures with their trunks, has never felt right," the company states in its blog. "People often think that an elephant in captivity is domesticated, and so somehow it's O.K. to have them under human command. But the reality is that they never have been domesticated like dogs or horses. Even if born in captivity, they are still a wild animal, and need to be 'broken' to accept human control. There is much evidence that this process is exceptionally cruel."

As part of the company's soul searching on the topic, leading up to its decision, Intrepid lent support for extensive research of captive elephant venues, conducted by World Animal Protection.

The research revealed that an ever growing number of elephants are poached from the wild directly because of the increase in tourism demand for rides and entertainment.

Intrepid Co-founder Geoff Manchester, who leads the company's responsible tourism efforts, says the research showed that only about 3% of the elephant offerings in Southeast Asia were run by businesses that treated elephants humanely.

"As a result of reading that ourselves, we felt we had to give up elephant riding," Manchester explains during an interview.

For other tour operators that may be watching in the wings and perhaps considering taking a stand on the issue, the good news for Intrepid, which works with about 250,000 travelers from around the world each year, is that the decision did not impact its business.

Quite the opposite, says Manchester. Customers have been supportive of the company's move.

"Elephant riding is not one of the main two or three things that people consider, when deciding on which company they will travel with," Manchester continues. "We found [that banning elephant rides] didn't make any difference in our growth...It didn't have any impact on demand."

"What we found when we started talking to people about why we don't offer elephant rides, is that they became evangelists themselves," he adds.

In February, Explore!, another global travel company that offers 500 trips in more than 100 countries, also made the decision to cease including elephant rides on its itineraries. Previously, the company had offered the rides in India, Cambodia and Thailand.

Much like Intrepid, the decision made by Explore! came after conducting research and coming face to face with a reality that could not in good conscious be supported.

"I don't think there was a great awareness of what happened to get elephants to the point where they would be available for rides, and I don't think we fully understood what was involved to tame an elephant, or the living conditions," says Explore! North America President Trevor Saxty.

The subject of elephant riding was initially raised two years ago within Explore!'s responsible business forum, which reviews topics such as environmental issues, animal welfare, and community based concerns - anything pertaining to the operation of Explore's trips that may be cause for concern.

That initial discussion began a process of investigation that concluded with the agency's decision in February.
"We started digging into what is really going, and that's when we grew more concerned in terms of the process being used to train an elephant and the conditions under which they are living," continues Saxty. "Our initial thought was to just screen the companies - but then after more research, it looked like this is probably not a good thing to do under any circumstances."

Still, the reality is that the bans among worldwide tour operators are just one small step forward.

On the ground, throughout Southeast Asia, the ancient ritual of crushing elephants continues unabated, as it has for hundreds of years.  

And tourists from around the world still ride elephants, clambering onto their backs, two or three people at a time.

In April, an elephant known as Sambo suffered a heart attack and died after enduring excessively high temperatures and heat exhaustion while ferrying passengers to and from a temple in Cambodia.

According to some news reports, the incident sparked an investigation and inspired a petition designed to end elephant riding.

"There's a lot of work being done in English speaking countries, but there is still huge demand coming from Asian countries," says Intrepid's Manchester, of the ongoing rides.

And still the issue is far more complex then mere tourist demand.

There are the communities and individuals throughout Southeast Asia whose livelihood currently depends on the elephant tourism industry. The mahouts who handle elephants for instance, will need to earn a living somehow.

What's more, should the commerce associated with elephant entertainment cease overnight, the elephants themselves would be destitute.

All of which makes the possibility of truly eliminating the problem seem impossibly challenging.

"The elephants and elephant owners, they need to continue to have an income, so it's not something we'd like to see dropped by all companies immediately," says Manchester. "All of these elephants won't just be sent back into wild. Having an alternative income source through tourism is important."

What exactly those alternatives will be is still something that is evolving.

Image placeholder title

Intrepid has begun including responsible wildlife tourism experiences on its itineraries - such as visiting Thailand's Elephant Nature Park, one of three venues, (out of more than 100), that World Animal Protection's research found prioritized the welfare of elephants.

For its part, Explore! has begun offering an elephant walking program in Cambodia. The experience involves visiting The Elephant Valley Project, a place that's home to several herds of retired, former working elephants who are being rehabilitated. The opportunity includes walking with the elephants as they roam free in their natural habitat. Participants are able to accompany the elephants for up to five or six hours, walking across open grassland and through forests.

"We feel like it is a particularly nice alternative," says Saxty. "Travelers still have the ability to appreciate the beauty of elephants and interact, but in a way I hope doesn't have any negative impact."

Many experts say that the bottom line to keep in mind when visiting the region and making decisions about activities - no elephant you will find in Southeast Asia was peacefully brought into a life of servitude. Elephants do not naturally chose such an existence.

So what can you do?

PETA recommends travelers interested in seeing elephants go on a wildlife safari instead, observing animals in their natural habit.

As for Edelman, the blogger and elephant tourism expert, she spent a few years working with Save Elephant Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to turning the tide by providing care and assistance to Thailand's captive elephant population through local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations.

Edelman worked directly under the leadership of the organization's founder Sangduen "Lek" Chailert, educating tourists and operators about why rides need to be stopped.

Chaiert, who was born in Thailand and has spent much of her life advocating for the rights and welfare of Asian elephants, has become an internationally recognized voice on this issue, including being included in documentaries produced by National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet and the BBC.

In 2010 she was even invited to Washington D.C. by then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and honored as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation.

Save Elephant Foundation advocates sustainable alternatives for local villages, including replacing elephant rides with walking programs like those now being offered by Explore! and others.

"Lek is offering an alternative, it's a walking program," says Edelman.  "It's not perfect, but in a perfect world people would not be engaging with elephants at all."

Now, back home in Nevada, Edelman regularly speaks around the country on the topic of elephant rides and the torture associated with crushing. She realizes that to truly stop the torture, much must happen.

People do not like being told their choices are wrong, she says. And in some cases, even after travelers are educated, they look the other way. But she believes continuing to spread the word about the torture is the best approach.

Image placeholder title

"Every single elephant you see at any of those camps has been broken, that is only way that they become submissive," she says. "When people stop going to circuses and when people stop going to watch elephants to play polo...then maybe this will stop. It's not going to stop until the demand for any sort of captive elephant interaction is gone. Until people say 'I'm not going, I'm not supporting those places,' it will continue. And sadly, far too many people don't care."

The following travel and tour agencies are among those who have pledged to stop offering itineraries that include elephant rides or entertainment:
Ama Waterways
Butterfield & Robinson
Collette Travel Services
Costco Travel
First Festival Travel
For Family Reisen
Friendly Planet Travel
The Isram world Portfolio of brands
Mayflower Tours
Solos Holidays
STA Travel
Thomas Cook
Travel PR