In Karen hill-tribes, people have worked alongside elephants for thousands of years. Young male ‘mahouts’ (elephant keepers) will be partnered with an elephant and a bond will be created, limiting the dependence on tools for control. Over several years, a long-term relationship and mutual respect is established, where commands become the main form of control and interaction. In most cases a bullhook will still be carried for safety purposes, for both elephant and man.
There has been a lot of media attention on the use of bullhooks in circuses and zoos across the world. The abuse that sometimes comes with this tool is not limited to Asia: the media attention has led to the banning of the bullhook in several States throughout the USA.
Most captive elephants in Thailand and South East Asia will be put through the ‘Phajaan’ which is a traditional training method used to break the spirit of an elephant, similar to that of a horse. The training can be brutal and often fatal, especially to wild caught elephants where they are starved and beaten into submission - the bullhook is a vital component in this training. You can learn more about Phajaan by reading about The Ugly side to ele-tourism (page is currently under review & will be live again soon).
It is true that in many elephant venues across Thailand the bullhook is used to enforce pain and inflict fear to force elephants to perform tricks, give rides and entertain tourists. By maintaining a fear of the consequences, bullhooks ensure an elephant will engage in certain activities demanded by the trainer. This is especially so in venues where the mahout and elephant don’t have a strong bond, thus the use of physical control becomes necessary. It’s a common misconception that Asian elephants are domesticated - they are wild animals and many individuals have been taken from the wild as babies to be brought into the tourism and entertainment industry.
Some camps will hire Burmese refugees as mahouts, even if they have no experience with elephants. This is because they can be paid a very low salary, and with no citizenship or registration in Thailand, they are disposable, which makes it easier to cover up any deaths incurred when working with an elephant. In camps where mahout turnover is high and there is a lack of respect, no bond and little to no experience, the mahout relies on a tool to protect themselves against the 4/5 tonne powerful wild animal. Mahout welfare is just as important as elephant welfare, if you don’t have a happy mahout you won’t have a happy elephant.
Yes, the bullhook is an ugly-looking tool that, if in the wrong or inexperienced hands, can be used in extremely abusive ways. But the reality is that it does have its place in the captive environment, specifically to ensure the safety of tourists, mahouts and elephants.
Please don’t assume that if an elephant venue is claiming to use ‘no chains and no hooks’ that this venue has an ethical approach; many venues who claim to not use bullhooks, use hidden rusty nails as an alternative. At least by carrying a bullhook you can see when it is being used and if the use is appropriate. Mahouts are generally aware that the use of bullhooks are frowned upon by the Western tourist, so tend to concentrate on commands rather than sly jabs.
Many ethical venues and projects in Thailand that put elephant and mahout welfare first, still carry bullhooks but tend not to use them. They are carried for the safety of visitors or to guide elephants in a certain direction. Most mahouts working on the projects we recommend communicate and guide their elephants using commands and the bullhook is generally kept in case of emergency.
Elephantvoices.org. (2018). About the Bullhook. [online] Available at:
www.elephantvoices.org/elephants-in-captivity-7/about-the-bull-hook.html [Accessed 30 Nov. 2018].