Exposing How Elephants Have Their Spirits Systematically Crushed in Captivity

Would interacting with a captive elephant still bring you joy if you knew the animal suffered extreme abuse and manipulation? If you have interacted with a captive elephant, chances are that the massive animal has gone through the tortuous process of Phajaan, or having her spirit broken, in order to make her more docile and open to human interaction.

How to Break an Elephant’s Spirit

One Green Planet explains Phajaan, as it’s known in Asia (or “crushing” in the United States), and how it makes elephant rides in the Asian tourism industry possible.

Phajaan begins when elephants are the most vulnerable. Baby elephants are forced into crates similar to gestation crates that we abhor seeing pigs in. While the baby elephant is being starved, he is also:

  • Tied from his feet with rope that will graduate to chains
  • Forced to have his limbs stretched
  • Beaten with sharp objects
  • Verbally abused and constantly yelled at
  • Mutilated through bull hooks that are used to “stab the head, slash the skin and tug the ears.”

Phajaan is relentless for many weeks until the elephant finally breaks. Heart of Ganesh explains that baby elephants are also denied medical attention during the crushing, and many will die during the process.

In case you’re wondering, circuses employ almost identical crushing methods. Paws for the News reports how elephant crushing is rampant in more captivity situations: elephants “begging in the streets, the ones in trekking camps, breeding camps, tourist camps, and zoos. At least more than half of them have gone through the Phajaan.”

Mahout Manipulation

Phajaan has a secret weapon to seal the deal, and he’s known as a mahout. The use of an elephant handler, or mahout, is arguably the most effective part of Phajaan.

The mahout sweeps in to “save” the elephant; they are not active participants in the Phajaan torture. They are the first person to bring the tortured and starved animal food and water. Mahouts also release elephants from the original gestation-like crates. A mahout will work and bond with only one elephant for his entire career. When a mahout retires, his relative will take over his mahout duties. Elephants are emotionally and mentally intelligent animals that thrive on social bonds, and mahouts are the only bonds that come close in the captive Asian tourism industry.

The Consequences of Exploiting Elephants

But wild spirits can never truly be broken. We keep seeing captive elephants in circuses and in the tourism industry retaliate:

  • In 1992, People reports how a usually calm circus elephant named Kelly became “frighteningly enraged” while she was giving five children and a mother a ride.
  • The Seattle Times reports how in 1994, a zoo elephant named Kenya “picked him [a zoo patron] up and smashed him to the ground, then tried to gore him with her tusks.”
  • In late 2014, The Independent reports how an elephant in Thailand ran off with a mother and her 9-year-old daughter from Russia on his back after he trampled his handler to death.

There’s also a major health concern that should limit our interactions with captive elephants, and it’s the spread of tuberculosis. In 2013, Maine took the extreme measure of banning elephants from entering the state because of the health threat.

Help End Elephant Exploitation

Despite the obvious evidence that elephants and captivity do not mix, many are determined to ride it out as long as possible. For example, an action plan is being drawn out to curb elephant attacks during festivals in an Indian state, says Manorama Online.

We don’t need an action plan to stop captive elephant attacks; we need an action plan to end elephant captivity. Money talks, and industries that exploit elephants listen, so don’t fund elephant exploitation. Heart of Ganesh offers more ideas on how you can help end elephant exploitation.

Photo Credit: Benoit Dupont


Paula A
Paula A2 months ago

thank you for sharing

Ann B
Ann Babout a year ago

just once i would love to take those abusers and snap them with elephant hooks and tie their feet with chains for hours---maybe days....
WE MUST do what we can to STOP ALL ANIMAL ABUSE...with out our present government leaders---- they are going in the wrong direction

Peggy B
Peggy B1 years ago


Tanya W.
Tanya W2 years ago

Sadly noted

H M.
H M3 years ago

https://heartofganesh.org/elephant-awareness/tourism-and-the-crush Here's the correct link for the last sentence.

donna m.
donna m3 years ago

cruel and disgusting treatment!

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Elizabeth Z.
Elizabeth Z3 years ago

So many different species are exploited for entertainment, experiments, consumption...it really needs to end. So depressing :(

Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell4 years ago

Signed, thank you

Lisa Zarafonetis
Lisa Zarafonetis4 years ago

This is absolutely HIDEOUS!!! :(
Shared on my FB wall.