The Depressed Elephant

56 year old Khum Phean lives in Thailand and is depressed
  • This week I stared into the eyes of the most captivatingly magnificent yet sad animal I’ve ever met. This is a story of Khum Phean, a depressed elephant living in a Thai Sanctuary who is grieving her missing daughter.

Before introducing you to Khum Phean, here’s a little perspective on the six other elephants she shares her newfound sanctuary with…

All the elephants have each spent a minimum of 45 years either…

  1. Carrying huge trees in the logging industry
  2. Performing in a circus
  3. Providing rides for tourists

The above might not sound like the most barbaric animal abuse cases at first, but to make a three-tonne wild animal bend to their humans owners’ wishes, they need to be kept on a short leash, shackled and have their will broken by enormous physical abuse . The abuse they encounter is catastrophic and all aimed at generating profit for the owners from the moment the elephants are born, and the abuse will continue for over half a century — often until the elephant dies from the cruelty it has suffered.

This is how young elephants are trained using sharp hooked stick

Most are blind in one eye (from being trained using a sharp hooked stick poked into their eye constantly).

One elephant in the sanctuary couldn’t control her bladder such were the beatings she’d endured.

Another elephant who’d just arrived after being rescued weighed a paltry 1.5 tonnes instead of the typical three-tonne average for a 50 year old elephant, due to a combination of gruelling 12 hour days carrying tourists and not being fed properly.

While the first five beautiful beasts we met had all suffered horrendous lives they did seem to be settling into their new safe surroundings with some relish. There was a real sense that many of them couldn’t believe their luck as kind hearted humans lined up to feed them their favourite sweet bananas and watermelons, followed by a dip in their own personal swimming pool.

The elephants enjoying some well earned R&R in the pool

The road ahead and dislodging the mental scars for these five tortured and overworked souls won’t be easy but they couldn’t be in better hands and their progress is there for all to see.

Things Aren’t As Good For Big Khum Phean

Here she is just before she was rescued. Shackled. Bruised. Overworked. Miserable and woefully neglected. A money making machine for over 50 years.

A fee was recently paid to her owner to release Khum Phean from her working hell

Thankfully Khum Phean has now been saved and brought to the sanctuary but she isn’t yet able to escape her past… Her big elephant spirit has been broken.

After her arrival at the sanctuary her keepers said…

Khum Phean prefers to spend her time alone from the herd but we hope that in time she is able to find a friend here.

She’s done the 45 years of back breaking work like the others and sported a body riddled with scars showing her abuse but it wasn’t the hard work that broke her.

Losing her daughter did.

While still captive she gave birth to a calf but despite her protestations it was taken away and sold to perform at the circus.

As the old saying goes an elephant never forgets. Khum Phean has not forgotten.

Numerous studies show that elephants have feelings..

Elephants, the largest land animals on the planet, are among the most exuberantly expressive of creatures. Joy, anger, grief, compassion, love; the finest emotions reside within these hulking masses. Through years of research, scientists have found that elephants are capable of complex thought and deep feeling.

The culmination of half a century of anguish and pain has taken its toll. She’s given up on life.

Khum Phean is depressed…

While the other elephants devoured their bananas by the dozen she slowly chewed hers ponderously one at a time. While the others flapped their ears showing happiness her ears never moved an inch. While the others’ eyes flickered playfully, hers were stone cold and glazed over peering into the distance.

While the others sought mischief or a swim she was rooted to the spot like a dead weight.

She had no interest in the other elephants, the gift bearing guests or her new 5-star surroundings.

In her mind, despite hitting the elephant jackpot late in life, there is simply nothing else worth living for. One look into her sad eyes and I knew she was done.

Her cheeks were stained with what looked like tears. Tears that were still fresh but which have clearly been running solidly for 15 years. Her manner and outlook is so sad that it even brings her carers to tears daily while telling her story to visitors at the sanctuary.


In my recent travels around Asia I’ve seen pigs slaughtered, dogs being burnt, skinned and eaten at the side of the road as well as chickens squashed into minuscule cages; so what makes Khum Phean so different? Why write about her and none of the other animal suffering I’ve witnessed?

It’s the simple fact that Khum Phean shows all too clearly that us humans are capable of breaking the soul of an animal so big and majestic. Looking for our selfie opportunity or quick laugh at the circus means more to us than the wellbeing of a breed of animal that has walked the earth for 55 million years. We’re not content with killing them (Asian elephants are down from 100,000 a century ago to 30,000 today and in all likelihood we’ll make them extinct soon) but we also have to imprison them, break their souls and make them depressed by stealing their babies, all to make a few quid.

Khum Phean prefers spending time on her own away from the other elephants

So why write this now? Well, being ignorant just a few years ago I didn’t know that riding elephants had such awful consequences. Like many naive animal lovers I’d easily have hopped up to have my photo taken without a care in the world, thinking that once there were no obvious signs of abuse the animal was well treated.

Visiting the Samui Elephant Sanctuary opened my eyes even more to just how badly elephants — and other animals — are treated around the world.

Hopefully the story of Khum Phean is one that makes us all think about how we treat animals in general. To make us think about the consequences that our actions have. I’m not saying we should all be vegans. Nobody is asking for money here, there is no ‘scam’ or false pretences. This is just a story about one beautiful elephant who has been mistreated (one of thousands) that I’m sharing and that can hopefully affect you and be passed on to others you know to help them understand.

As I shared a tear with her I whispered that I’d try do something to help.

This story isn’t just about Khum Phean, it’s about how we treat all animals including the ones we eat.

Finishing With A Miracle?

To show that not all humans are bad and that there is some hope, the people at the sanctuary are trying to find the missing baby.

They aren’t super confident as 15 years have passed but are making every effort scoring the country and chasing up leads.

Although the teenage elephant would never recognise her mum there is no doubt that it’s the one thing that would get Khum Phean ears’ flapping again and enjoying her bananas.

You can read more about the Sanctuary here

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