Elephant tourism in Thailand sometimes results in the abusive treatment of the animals involved. And overseas visitors who pay to ride on the backs of elephants, or to watch them perform circus stunts, are only contributing to the problem. This pair of pachyderms, however, were given a chance to break free.
Part of the wider problem is being able to encourage tourists to appreciate the situations elephants are in. And this is something that Christian LeBlanc, a travel blogger from Vancouver, Canada, is trying to help with.
Christian first visited Thailand on an exchange program in January 2015 and has since established a close connection with the country. Indeed, he later went traveling there with his girlfriend Laura. The pair Instagrammed their adventures in the one-partner-leading-the-other “followmetoo” style.
But in order to tell the elephants’ story, LeBlanc returned to Thailand to make a half-hour documentary about the conditions they endure. It’s called Black Tusk, and the idea, as Christian explained on his YouTube channel, was to promote the fact that “tourists need to coexist with these beautiful animals.”
Christian’s adventure began in earnest when he arrived at northern Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park (ENP). It was there that he met Lek Chailert, its founder, and her Canadian elephant-saving partner, Darrick Thomson.
When shooting began, the scope of Christian’s film quickly got bigger, however. And that’s because Darrick invited his fellow Canadian on what was, in essence, a rescue mission. ENP had arranged the acquisition of two abused elephants near Surin, not far from the Cambodian border.
The pachyderms in question were 85-year-old Boonmee and 45-year-old Buaban. And it was the former who was in particularly bad condition. “Boonmee fell over from exhaustion,” Christian explained, “[so] they got a crane to pick her back up, and put a saddle back on her, so she could do more trekking.”
Furthermore, it made sense for ENP to buy both animals as they were, according to Christian, “best friends.” Indeed, his footage showed the elephants taking a river bath together before their transfer.
Before they left, though, LeBlanc was given a tour of a nearby elephant pen. And he described the sorry scene, in which elephants were chained up, as “heartbreaking.” In one shot, for example, a pachyderm is seen, in Christian’s words, as “rocking back and forth from insanity.”
Some elephants, moreover, appeared to have been mutilated, with one in particular showing a gash in her trunk. Christian filmed the same animal trying to break free from her chain, screeching and moving from side to side in obvious frustration.
And his film revealed that most, if not all, of the elephants were living in squalor. “They are shackled on short chains, typically in the sun, with no water for long periods of time,” Christian explained. He also said that the food they received was inadequate.
After filming some of the unfortunate elephants, then, Christian turned to the camera to urge tourists not to support Thailand’s elephant trekking industry. “It’s all about money,” he said. Indeed, such businesses wouldn’t exist if vacationers didn’t part with their cash.
The filmmaker added that tourists should instead support organizations like ENP. “Educate your friends and tell them to support the sanctuaries,” Christian urged, “because if they become more popular, more businesses will convert to sanctuaries.”
After their tour, meanwhile, Christian and Darrick returned to the matter at hand: the purchase and rescue of Boonmee and Buaban. The filmmaker described the transaction as “like some sort of a crazy cartel deal you would see in the movies.”
The elephants were then loaded into custom-fitted trucks, which safely took them all the way to ENP. And since it was a 25-hour drive, the elephants had no choice but to be patient – even if they were of a certain age.
And Christian has said that he’ll “never forget” the arduous journey. “We drove through unbelievable humidity and the occasional storm,” he wrote on Imgur. But when they finally arrived at the sanctuary, located 50 miles north of Chiang Mai, the elephants were understandably cautious about where they had ended up.
This, however, was their new home – and it was better than anywhere they had seen before. Indeed, some 69 other elephants were there to greet them, though admittedly Boonmee and Buaban’s introduction wasn’t plain sailing. “There have been some discipline problems,” Christian said. “They made a run for it.”
The filmmaker further added that Boonmee and Buaban’s first two days at ENP were “insane.” Describing it as “one of the craziest experiences of my entire life,” Christian went on to say that “it wasn’t glamorous, wasn’t always fun, but the outcome was just brilliant.”
Furthermore, Christian hopes that his documentary will raise awareness of the important work being done by sanctuaries like ENP. “The second [the elephants] get here,” he explained, “they are living different lives. They are living the lives that I hope for all elephants.”
Whether his film will persuade tourists to change their habits remains to be seen. But if it has even a small effect, then perhaps more elephants like Boonmee and Buaban can be freed from the chains of cruel captivity.