A 71-year-old Elephant “carried” Tourists for 25 Years with a Sunken Back and a Deformed Spine

Palin has been a riding elephant in Thailand for the past 25 years. While a normal elephant’s spine is dome-shaped, Palin’s spine is concave, causing the back to deform.

PatLin suffered a spinal deformity after 25 years as a mount. PatLin, 71, suffered permanent damage to his spine after years of carrying tourists on his back, according to Wildlife Friends of Thailand (WFFT). PatLin’s case also illustrates how elephant exploitation is typical of Thailand’s booming mountain tourism industry.

Elephants used for climbing typically carry the weight of up to 6 tourists at a time, plus a full day’s worth of handlers and howdah (chairs for guests to sit on).

The heavy load can cause the elephants’ bones and tissues to degenerate, permanently damaging their spines. The howdah also left a scar on Palin’s back.

Palin is one of dozens of elephants saved by WFFT. Most of these elephants have been abused for decades.

Continued heavy wearing of howdah can cause injuries and deformities to the elephant’s bones. “While elephants may be known for their great strength and size, their bones and back structure cannot handle such weight,” said Tom Taylor, WFFT’s project manager.

WFFT hopes to raise awareness and encourage visitors to only support sustainable, ethical elephant sanctuaries, while avoiding areas that offer elephant rides or other exploitative practices.

Elephants were diverted from logging to tourism in Thailand about 35 years ago. Elephants work in amusement parks that offer rides and shows.

Facing the growing abuse of elephants, NGOs have repeatedly called for the animals to be released into the wild.

However, the Thai government has yet to take any action, as elephants remain a significant part of the country’s tourism industry, with elephant entertainment estimated to be worth more than $500 million a year before the pandemic.

Palin, who had been exploited by the tourism industry for decades, was rescued. Asia’s largest land mammal, the Asian elephant, is critically endangered and at high risk of extinction. The species, once found across the continent, is now only found in southern and southwestern Asia.

Today, there are fewer than 52,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. More than half of wild elephants come from India.

Asian elephants are important herbivores because they help disperse seeds on the move. As large mammals, they also help create gaps in dense rainforests, allowing sunlight to penetrate and reach saplings or low vegetation.

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