Elephant riding was big business, but in Thailand things are changing, writes Lindy Laird.
We are at a high spot, several hours from Chiang Mai near the northern tip of Thailand where you can see the border between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, the once-notorious Golden Triangle where hills swathed in opium poppies were the district's main economy - that and other drug-growing and smuggling industries.
Our group of journos and animal protection advocates learns that that was a few decades ago, and the hillsides and valleys are now covered in forests and rice paddies.
But since the Golden Triangle era opened the district to tourism, which grew as fast as a golden shower tree (Cassia fistula, the national flower of Thailand), another questionable trade has flourished — unethical elephant tourism.
Our group, bouncing along roads as rough as Northland highways, is on the way to see the good, the not-too-bad and the ugly of an internationally abhorred but still high-demand practice, which is slowly but steadily changing.
We are being hosted by World Animal Protection (WAP) Australia and New Zealand communications managers Elaine McNee and Fran Keary, and Somsak Soonthornnawaphat, Thailand Wildlife campaign manager.
On the first of three days in the area, we visit a former elephant riding and bathing venture.
This camp, high in the mountains has changed its name from Happy Elephant Care Valley to ChangChill, to reflect the ''chilled-out'' nature of its elephants' new lives. (Chang means elephant.)
Project manager Dee Kenyon says the name change also reflects the fact that once the new camp is open the word ''care'' will be obsolete; the elephants will be completely rehabilitated.
This is a pilot case study, closely, watched by WAP, the government and the tourism industry.
''In 2017 we decided to change the package from riding to watching elephants in the wild, acting naturally,'' Kenyon says.
It has taken since then to complete negotiations and sign contracts with contractors, officials and neighbouring landowners and start construction on the elephant-proof fences, the mud pit viewing platform and other lookouts, the education and refreshment centre, staff facilities and sleepouts among the treetops, above grazing, roaming or sleeping elephants.
As the site is only 3.5ha, the owners of ChangChill want to rent land off neighbours to increase the elephants' territory. The Karen, or hill tribe people, will have another bite of the cherry with plans to include a cultural centre at ChangChill selling traditional handmade goods and offering related tourism.
Each elephant still has a mahout or keeper, but that traditional role will change and the mahout will become a ranger and educator.
''At first, the mahouts were unsure about the new direction,'' Kenyon says, ''but we can't leave humans behind. The two have to go hand in hand, and the mahouts have to believe in it. We cannot and will not keep doing something we know is wrong.''
In the meantime, the keepers still carry bullhooks for emergencies, the elephants are loosely chained at night and sleep in a man-made shelter, ''being not yet used to the new unchained world."
''Those elephants are blowing air up each other's vaginas. They like doing that,'' says our host of the second day.
The strange, farty noise in the background has interrupted Elephant Valley owner Jack Highwood as he tells us about this wonderful place.
The unchained world is certainly something the elephants are learning about at this sanctuary near Chiang Rai, northwest of Chiang Mai. This is a consummate example of rehabilitation and, ideally, preparation for release back into a national park.
Here we see something of the ''tipping point'' officials speak about. Ten years ago every place offered elephant rides, five years ago there was less riding, and now it's about transitioning to elephant observation tourism.
The idea is to focus resources on the thousands of elephants in captivity, and WAP, as well as other advocacy groups, have a no-breeding policy. But one of the cows at Elephant Valley is pregnant, much to the undisguised delight of Highwood.
''You need to maintain the population,'' he shrugs. ''We want them to breed for a conservation purpose, not for people's entertainment.''
The effervescent Highwood owns Elephant Valley as well as a large former riding camp in Cambodia, now a sanctuary. An English farmer in a former life, he grows food for the elephants with the eye of a pastoralist and a conservationist. Here happy, calm creatures bathe in mud pools, graze on the long lush grass or break branches off saplings planted for the purpose, and wander the many hectares of what was once a chicken farm on wooden slats over a fish farm. The terrain is ideal for elephant mud holes and grassy walks.
Their mahouts are never far from them, but nor do they interfere.
Highwood and his large staff are creating an infrastructure of post-captivity care where elephants needing rehabilitation are brought in and then prepared, mainly through social elephant company, to be moved on to national wildlife parks.
When they arrive, they have to learn to be elephants again. From early ages, they had their spirits broken, were hand-fed, trained to do unnatural things, never left to roam free, and never left with their mothers or in a herd long enough to learn basic natural behaviours. Damaged feet, one of the more common injuries caused in the tourist trade, could prevent them ever being set free.
At Elephant Valley elephants are paired so that those with a natural range of behaviour ''mentor'' those who have next to none.
''Humans can teach elephants how to do things,'' Highwood says. ''Only other elephants can teach them to be elephants.''
Highwood says he doesn't buy into the argument that if tourism doesn't support elephant riding and bathing then the poor people won't have an income. He employs 45 people, has 50 paying visitors a day in the high season, makes money from guest accommodation, and gives the local village five bhat from every entry fee paid.
There is a difference between ethical and responsible elephant treatment, he says: releasing rehabilitated animals back into the wild is ethical; what he does comes under "responsible".
And he does do not advocacy - only practical welfare; and tourists pay for that.
''We fix the animals and give them a healthy environment. People want to come and see that environment. They hear the story, then they do the advocacy.
"I don't go into details about how the elephants were trained, the reasons behind it. It's what the elephant needs now that I'm focussed on."
But then he tells a story that shrieks advocacy.
''Left alone and able to, elephants spend 19 hours a day eating grass, not being 'bathed' by crowds of sunburned European girls in bikinis. In those camps, the elephants are bathed for people's entertainment, then taken back to a concrete compound and chained, endlessly, all day, every day. And people think the elephant loves it.
''But once rescued or transitioned the elephant is terrified of going into a watering pool again. They need to be treated so carefully to learn what is a natural behaviour.''
The three plump little girls are very cute and they play to the audience. As the loud brassy music blares out, they shimmy and shake, they quickstep and they twirl those hula hoops as if they were born to it, as if they love it.
They were not born to it and they probably don't love it. These are young elephants — one is 4 years old and the other two only 3, an age at which they should only just be weaned from or living independently from their mothers. Instead, they have been away from their mothers for half or more of their lives while being trained as a novelty act at an elephant camp — one of the tourism-driven activities World Animal Protection and colleague organisations are trying to get outlawed or transitioned into ethically-based care facilities.
Guests of WAP, our small group of journalists sat through this show, appalled, self-conscious, highly aware of the level of cruelty and exploitation behind this show. Buying many bunches of bananas afterward and hand-feeding these young elephants didn't make us feel better. But we're not angry with the handlers, who are also trapped in this cycle of need, an unholy alliance between the tourism dollar and local economy.
These camps abound in the northern provinces of Thailand, although elephant rides and shows are on offer at other tourist centres, as are the bizarre washing venues where dozens of tourists climb into a muddy pool and shower buckets of water over poor elephants that only want to follow their natural instinct to roll in mud and hose themselves down.
There are 15 elephants, some of them rented from other owners, at this large riding camp. I won't name it as it is one of many low-welfare camps near Chiang Rai, and performing baby elephants are a signature trick.
Also on offer and immensely popular are rides on mature elephants lumbering around repeated circuits on a dirt track with a tourist or two on their backs.
First thing in the morning, these animals get dressed up with baubles and saddled with hard seats (howdah) with tall umbrellas attached, ostensibly to shelter the paying tourist but also a grotesque reference to the days when such drapery - and even riding in a howdah on an elephant - meant societal privilege.
What does it say about visitors to South East Asia who want to experience that? Ignorance is bliss? Or for the people who run these activities, needs must?
It is a quandary for Thailand's central and provincial governments that communities' existence for generations has been tied to elephants, often through activities that are now outlawed. They include forest clearing and logging (it's now illegal to use elephants), riding camps, circus shows or a family's father being a mahout- traditionally the full-time carer of a single elephant, now more often a trainer and showman in a parody of a former relationship.
Research in 2018 into the social and financial situation of mahouts across Thailand, by World Animal Protection and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Chiang Mai University, found there are no winners.
Without the mahouts and elephants pulling in money, often through unethical treatment, family and entire village economies are compromised.
While the animals suffer in poor living conditions and are forced to carry people on their backs, mahouts experience low pay for a high-risk job, with many being injured and having little financial security.
The risk factor for mahouts, tourists and elephants is exacerbated by a lack of comprehensive training for mahouts. The risk of injury to people is something the travel industry needs to take extremely seriously, the report advised.
Back at Chiang Rai, the fact these young animals we see put through their moves can do abominably unnatural acts is the result of mistreatment - pure and simple, says WAP.
The handlers poke at their undersides and behind their ears with small sharp implements to keep up the sashaying and footwork, but that is not the half of what it would have taken to train them to do tricks such as "handstands" on their front legs, sitting on their bottoms with legs crossed in a human-like pose, and more.
The show is hard to watch, more so because we've spent several days in the company of WAP. We are not naive visitors experiencing what's available on a trip to this lovely land of shrinking rainforests and local economies, and animal abuse; we've been well-schooled.
We have an insight into what happens in the long concrete enclosure where six adult elephants stand at this and at many other camps like it. They live inside the enclosure except when they are on duty for rides or desperately need to be rested.
In these open-sided elephant houses they are fed cut fodder, tied side by side in a row by short chains on sometimes three of their legs, stand over gutters in the concrete down which their urine and faeces are washed.
Elephants have soft cushions behind the soles of their feet so standing on concrete is bad for their feet, and therefore the whole skeleton. But standing on either side of these drains is doubly harmful as their feet are not flat on the ground, they are angled, splayed, and their toes deformed.
Despite their size, elephants are not designed to carry weights on their bony backs. X-rays prove the damage caused. There are further complications from having a chair attached as it rubs on their backs, causing sores.
In the wild or given adequate space in captivity, elephants live in herds, graze all day and roam for many kilometres seeking food and water. In the camps, tied, often unable to move even a metre at a time and shifting their weight from leg to leg, they show signs of deep distress. With their bodies rocking, huge heads hung low or bobbing up and down, they sway their trunks from side to side in a mad, jagged rhythm.
This is the physical manifestation of mental anguish. It is not part of a dance, these beautiful creatures are not a Dumbo-like anthropomorphic novelty swaying for human entertainment. And yet, tragically, they are.
It is incredibly sad. And its resolution depends on tourists choosing to boycott these places and opt instead for ethical venues where they can see elephants living in a natural environment, in freedom, in an unchained world.