▲ Seo Rami of Korea Animal Rights Advocates (KARA) described the elephant shows at Jumbo Village as "very depressing." Photo courtesy Korea Animal Rights Advocates
Campaign group Korea Animal Rights Advocates (KARA) uncovered “depressing” scenes of animal abuse on a recent research trip to Jeju Island. KARA witnessed elephant shows at Jumbo Village on April 7 as part of a campaign against animal cruelty at tourist sites.
Seo Rami of KARA described the visit as “interesting, but very depressing.” Seo had just accompanied Lek to Jumbo Village, Seogwang-ri, Andeok-myeon, probably the only place in Korea that performs elephant shows, she said.
Thai animal rights campaigner Lek (full name Sangduen Lek Chailert) - renowned among animal rights campaigners - accompanied KARA. Lek established the Elephant Nature Park near her home village in northern Thailand in 1996 after spending much of her childhood caring for sick animals in the jungle. Now an expert in the use of elephants in circuses, begging and logging, Lek’s sanctuary houses 39 animals.
Lek has received many awards for her animal rights work, including 2005 Time Magazine Asian Hero of the Year. This was her second trip to Jeju Island, having first come with KARA in Nov. 2012.
“It was a lot worse than could be possibly imagined - they were out of control...it was [also] sad that so many children were laughing at the performance,” said Seo. “The music was really loud...The elephants were showing signs of distress by swinging their heads...they looked like zombies, they didn’t have a soul.”
Visits to Jumbo Village are included in many tours around Jeju and KARA has pressured tour operators to remove visits there: only one in 20 contacted said they would reconsider. Jeju provincial government also said it was not possible.
Lek said that the laughter of the children during the show was most disturbing for her, as it teaches them that animals are just here for entertainment. KARA, accordingly, “plan to set up an education center and visit schools for animal protection education.”
▲ Lek cares for elephants at her Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. Photo courtesy Elephant Nature Park
The biggest obstacles to protection are low public awareness and weak regulations, which makes education and awareness raising central to KARA’s work: “if people knew about the [conditions] behind the stage they wouldn’t be happy to go,” insists Seo. In addition to the education program, KARA distributes leaflets and organizes high-profile visits, such as Lek’s, to garner media attention.
Despite conditions for the elephants having deteriorated since KARA and Lek’s last visit in November, the shows continue to be popular.
“Jumbo Village has nine elephants... and they are made to perform four times per day without a break. Since the shows have been moved inside they have to perform regardless of the weather,” said Seo.
“The trainers were clearly using a bullhook on the elephants - there were marks all over the legs, trunks and body. Even the KBS crew [they traveled with] noticed. The animals skin had turned purple due to the antibiotics,” she said.
The continued lack of cooperation and avoidance of contact worries Seo.
“If they have nothing to hide, they should allow [the workers] to speak,” said Seo. “We weren’t able to visit where the animals stay at night...we don’t want to make enemies, we just want to work together for change.”
During the visit to Jeju Island, the research team heard rumours that there may even be plans to expand the elephant shows.
“There is a rumour that more elephants will be sent to Jeju from southeast Asia...this shows it is a growing business,” Seo said.
In addition to low public awareness, weak legislation is a barrier to protecting animal rights in Korea. Seo says campaigners are powerless to intervene, as was evident with the recent dolphin abuse at Pacific Land, Jungmun.
“Ideally we would like to stop such shows...but we need to be realistic. Currently the local authorities have to investigate claims of abuse under the Animal Protection Act (APA), but if it is not occurring when they visit there is little they can do,”
Some animal campaigners have even called Jeju, “The Island of Animal Abuse.” Over 16 thousand people have signed a petition on change.org to stop the inhumane treatment of dogs and another petition urged action at Pacific Land, whose owners were found guilty of violating fishing industry laws. Aqua Planet also attracted widespread criticism relating to the capture and use of two whale sharks: the owners later apologized.
Seo recognizes that there is an animal abuse problem on Jeju Island, particularly in the tourist industry.
“It’s sad because it is such beautiful island, but animals are still used for such shows,” said Seo.
To act for change, KARA is teaming up with a group of young lawyers, including Song Ji-heon who fought the case against Pacific Land, to reform the APA. Workshops have also been held with members of parliament to raise awareness around animal rights: “We have realistic expectations; we are not living in an ideal world. We just want the chance to sit down and improve conditions for animals.”
The Jeju Weekly contacted Jumbo Village, but no one was available for comment.
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