To ride an elephant, you have to break an elephant.
Every elephant undergoes the same training to learn how to carry a human rider. This training can start as early as the first few weeks of an elephant’s life, when it is taken from its mother and kept in a small enclosure. The baby elephant is then beaten for 24 hours at a time, employing a variety of torture methods. The intent of this is to break the motherly bond, and to replace that with a fear of man.
If the training doesn’t stick, it will be repeated again and again until proven effective.
This training is used to enforce elephant riding, elephant tricks and even elephant painting.
This is the shocking truth that 27 year-old actress Ashley Bell discovered the first time she met an elephant. In her upcoming documentary “Love and Bananas,” Bell and a camera crew join forces with elephant conservationist Sangduen “Lek” Chailert and a team of elephant researchers to shed light on elephant abuse and the rapid deforestation of the Cambodian jungle. “Love and Bananas” is currently in the funding stage, seeking a goal of $50,000 to embark on a full elephant rescue.
Bell, a lifelong vegetarian and animal rights activist, learned about elephants from family friend David Casselman, the owner of the one-million acre Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.
“The land was previously used by the Khmer Rouge, so it is completely free of land mines,” Bell said. In the 10 years since Casselman received the land, he has been building medical and housing facilities, and preparing it to be inhabited by elephants.
Last year, the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary became home to its first two elephants, Khan Lin and Arun Rai. Casselman sent out an email inviting anyone interested to come watch the elephants take their first steps of freedom.
“I’m normally not inclined to travel or go on vacations or anything, but something in me just said ‘yes! I have to do this and I have to go film it!'” So Bell and her boyfriend John McCarthy of Change For Balance Productions boarded a plane for Cambodia.
“Elephants are amazing. They’re these massive, mythical creatures that walk silently through the jungle,” Bell said. “You could read their bodies like maps. The dehydration, the scars—one of them had a bad eye because the children at the logging facility it came from thought it was fun to sling-shot rocks at them.”
It was during her time at the Sanctuary that Bell first met Lek Chailert, the driving force behind the elephant rescue missions.
“I’ve known about her for a while, and when I met her, I was just absolutely stunned. I didn’t know what to say. I’ve never encountered someone so truly selfless. She is truly a force to be reckoned with,” Bell said.
Before being named TIME magazine’s 2005 Asian Hero of the Year, Chailert was the founder of the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, a sanctuary for elephants that is open for visitors to interact with elephants on the elephant’s terms. There is no elephant-riding allowed, and the park employs multiple locals—thus giving them steady employment and leading them away from the financially prosperous field of ivory poaching.
“Lek has completely changed the area. Twelve years ago, Thailand was where Cambodia is now. Rapid deforestation, rampant elephant abuse and a lot of poaching,” Bell said.
Chailert is now working with Casselman and his team at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary and looks for abused elephants to rescue from circuses or logging facilities. These rescues are often incredibly difficult to arrange, and often involve a substantial amount of money to buy the elephants.
This is almost always the case when rescuing elephants from logging facilities. Seventy-five percent of the forests in Cambodia and Thailand has been cut down by logging, and these companies do not have the tractors and machinery necessary to pull down trees. Instead, they use elephants.
“This is grueling work that no animal should have to go through, ” Bell said.
Bell hopes that “Love and Bananas” will help spread the word about the state of the Asian elephant and the rapidly decreasing jungles they live in.
“One of the goals of “Love and Bananas” is to just inform people and spread awareness. I’ve always considered myself very aware of animal rights and situations, but I lived my whole life without knowing about elephant rights,” Bell said.
Throughout her time working with Chailert and Casselman, Bell discovered a lot about the plight of the Asian elephant. For example, there are no wild Asian elephants left in Cambodia. All Asian elephants currently live in captivity, and are estimated to be extinct by 2020.
“We want to raise awareness, and we want people to ask questions. We hope that this film will help end the abuse and terrible conditions that these elephants live in everyday. People just don’t know.”
During her time at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, Bell was able to spend time with the elephants by feeding and washing them.
“It took about three days for them to build up trust with me,” Bell said. “They say an elephant never forgets, and it’s true. Whenever I go back, they remember me. But their memory also means that these creatures can never forget the abuse they have suffered.”[divider] [/divider]
“Love and Bananas” is ele-fund-raising until March 25 via Indiegogo. Currently, they have only raised 65% of their desired funds so donate today and help save the elephants!
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