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There's a really dark side to elephant rides for tourists in Southeast Asia

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WATCH  | For most tourists visiting Southeast Asia, interacting with elephants is at the top of their to-do list. 

But there's something really dark behind the elephant tourism industry in Southeast Asia. 

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Elephants are trained by a process called phajaan -- it means "the crush." The purpose is simple: to break the independent spirit of an elephant so they obey human commands. It's deeply and permanently traumatizing.


Caged, beaten, starved

Phajaan is used on elephants in the tourism industry, because it's not in an elephant's nature to allow anyone to ride them. Nor do elephants easily learn to paint, play instruments or perform for humans.

Very young elephants are placed in a cage that is too small for them to move or even lay down. Then they're beaten and often starved of food and water. This process can take anywhere from a few days to a month, until trainers feel the elephant is sufficiently ready to take commands.

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Most tourists in Southeast Asia are not aware of this when they sign up for elephant trekking or short rides. But there are more ethical ways to enjoy elephants in the region -- and one of them is Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

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Lek Chailert runs ENP, which rescues elephants not just from the tourism industry, but also the logging industry (long-since illegal in Thailand, but still a problem).  Lek said she has a special bond with the elephants she rescues. 

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Lek sings to the elephants, especially to those who have suffered mental scars from their previous life in tourism. Faa Sai is the elephant who is especially bonded to Lek, and when she sings, Faa Sai often falls asleep. 

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Other elephants have more obvious injuries. Kabu broke her leg in a logging accident, and it healed poorly. ENP is also home to 16 blind elephants, all from injuries sustained during their time in captivity. 

What's being done for elephants


Thailand, for its part, has passed animal welfare bills before. But animal advocates like Lek say the problem comes down to enforcement: There isn't any -- not yet. 

Elephant tourism is still one of the biggest draws for tourists. And until tourists get wise to the issue, it will probably never go away. 

Lek's dream is for tourists to be able to enjoy elephants in their natural habitat. She's hoping her volunteer program will help her reach that goal. 

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The solution, Lek says, is education. The more tourists know, the better equipped they will be to make ethical choices when vacationing in Southeast Asia. It may take a while, but it's a fight she's dedicated her life to winning. 

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