The Elephant in the Room | How the Animal Tourism Industry Fuels Cruelty

The uncomfortable truth behind one of South-East Asia’s most popular attractions

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Oct 10 2018, 9:02pm

“When not being made to give rides, elephants are often chained so tightly they’re barely able to move,” Elisa Allen, PETA Director, soberingly tells me. “In the wild, these highly emotional animals have complex social networks. They experience the same loneliness and grief that humans do.”

Elephant tourism has long been a feature of trips to Thailand or the Indian subcontinent. Whether it’s riding them, washing them in the river, or merely posing with their trunk wrapped around your arm, photos of these magnificent beasts have become such staple of gap yah Instagram accounts that they’re almost beyond parody. But while it’s easy to laugh at the clichés, there’s a much more serious side to the industry. One that’s increasingly being laid bare as new research emerges.

In 2014 Intrepid Travel worked with World Animal Protection to commission one such report. The findings made for pretty shocking reading, highlighting the systematic abuse by mahout (elephant tamers) upon their elephants in the name of tourism.

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Tourists taking an elephant ride in Thailand. Photo: World Animal Protection

It found “elephants suffering in terrible conditions, taken young from the wild, separated from their familial groups, broken again and again using sharp hooks and other tools, chained up at night and denied good nutrition,” Aaron Hocking, Intrepid Travel’s UK managing director, told us.

Since 2014, over 200 travel companies, including the big shots like Thomas Cook have slashed elephant rides from their itineraries. And judging from the glut of encouraging articles on Google warning about the dangers of elephant riding, word, at least in the West, is spreading about the objective harm and danger elephants are put through when giving rides.

“To effect change, we must understand that elephant abuse is the result of supply and demand”

But while there may be heightened awareness, there’s also a misconception that things have changed for the better, says Chiara Vitali from World Animal Protection. “There’s been a growth of 30 percent in five years of the number of captive elephants in Thailand,” she says.

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Montri Todtane, founder of the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

“Whilst there has been a modest increase in the number of elephants living in better welfare conditions, this has been overshadowed by the far bigger increase in number of elephants living in poor conditions (probably largely driven by the growth in tourism from countries like China)”.

It’d be easy to blame the mahouts themselves, but, says Elisa from PETA, “it’s tourists – not locals – who are fuelling the elephant tourism trade.” She says her work “focuses primarily on informing holidaymakers of the abuse involved so that they’ll stop perpetuating cruel attractions with their wallets and on urging tour operators to cease promoting these activities to unwitting customers.”

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Two elephants at play in Phuket. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

To effect change, we must understand that elephant abuse is the result of supply and demand. “If demand dries up, so does the financial incentive,” explains Aaron Hocking. “Demand reduction from the public is key to changing policies and practices of both travel companies and the wildlife attractions on the ground,” adds Chiara Vitali from World Animal Protection.

“If people demand cruelty, it will thrive and if they demand elephant-friendly venues, then the industry will follow. “

As well as these international organisations, there has long been a contingent of community figureheads pushing for change. In Thailand, for instance, a country traditionally associated with elephant riding, Lek Chailert has been spearheading a movement towards ethical elephant tourism since the early noughties.

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An elephant interacting with tourists. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

She is the founder of the Save The Elephant Foundation, and in 2001 was awarded the Ford Foundation’s ‘Hero of the Planet’ award. In 2005, Time Magazine named her one of their ‘Heroes of Asia’.

The surge in publicity surrounding the welfare of elephants over the last few years has raised the profile of Lek’s work, and given it more of an international context. And gratifyingly, she’s not alone – others are campaigning for elephant tourism without the harming interactive elements, like elephant riding or elephant bathing, all of which are highly stressful to the animals.

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The main base of the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is one of the tourism centres to have adapted from an abusive approach to an ethical one. “Our founder used to run an elephant trekking camp in the past,” says Vincent Gerards from the Sanctuary. “Then he reached out to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai which was founded by Lek Chailert and is home to more than 70 elephants. It was only when he sent his elephant there to retire and went to look for himself that he learned about a more ethical, sustainable approach to elephant tourism.”

“Khun Lek inspired him and provided the necessary guidance to start the first ethical elephant sanctuary in Phuket in 2016.”

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An elephant tossing dirt up into the air. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Since then, Gerrards and his team have made a point of trying to inspire similar changes at other operations. “Our way of inspiring other camp owners in Southern Thailand to follow this path is to ‘lead by example’ and show that there are alternative, more ethical ways to present the Asian elephant to tourists.

Vincent Gerrards cites an example: “We had the opportunity to assist a smaller park nearby to become a sanctuary with a very similar concept, by providing guidance during the launch phase , by helping with rescue missions and by looking after the elephants at our sanctuary for the first month after their rescue before moving them to the new sanctuary as their final home.”

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Schoolchildren feeding one of the elephants. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

In an ideal world, PETA’s Elisa explains, “former mahouts can be given priority for employment at these facilities, so there would be no loss of livelihood.” As things stand, the quality of life for old-style mahouts is already seriously challenging. “Mahouts receive low pay for a high-risk job, with many suffering injuries and having little financial security,” says Aaron Hocking.

Abusive elephant handling was, sadly, part and parcel of traditional mahout work. The bull hook has been used to control elephants for hundreds of years, dating back to when elephants were commonly used for logging.

However, as Intrepid’s Aaron states: “We don’t believe tradition is an excuse for elephant riding.” And in any case, according to Chiara from World Animal Protection, elephants in tourism are exposed to tougher conditions than they ever were when used for logging: “The rise of an elephant tourism industry is very different from how elephants were traditionally kept,” she says.

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One of the sanctuary’s staff riding out with bananas for the elephants. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

As demand for abusive rides decreases – at least in the West – more mahouts are catching onto the Lek Chailert formula. But there’s still more work to do. Much of the effort so far has been led by not-for-profits and tourism protection bodies. “World Animal Protection works closely with leaders within the travel industry to demonstrate the strong demand for elephant-friendly (observation-only) tourism,” Chiara Vitali explains.

“In 2017 we brokered a meeting between these travel companies and elephant owners in Thailand. Hearing from the industry first-hand about the growing demand for ethical wildlife tourism gave the owners the confidence to make this change and catalysed the transition process that is underway right now at Happy Elephant Valley.”

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Two elephants feeding in the forest-land. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

At observation-only attractions like the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Save The Elephant Foundation and Happy Elephant Valley, animals roam free and aren’t shackled up at night. They aren’t allowed to be directly interacted with under any circumstances, and under these conditions, older elephants who were privy to abuse are able to thrive in old age.

One challenge is the seedy underbelly of ‘ethical’ elephant ‘sanctuaries’ mistreating elephants but fooling the public into believing they are getting an ethical experience. “It’s worth noting that many self-proclaimed “elephant sanctuaries” are nothing more than glorified circuses,” insists Elisa from PETA.

She believes the only solution is an absolute one – steer clear of elephants altogether unless they’re in the wild, or a nature reserve. “There’s no ethical way for travellers to engage in activities that use captive elephants – cruelty is inherent in using animals as tourist attractions.”

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One of the sanctuary’s staff feeding an elephant. Photo: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

World Animal Protection takes a slightly more nuanced view. Chiara claims that, at properly ethical sanctuaries, “people can have the incredible experience of watching elephants behave naturally – free from suffering and exploitation”.

So what’s the answer? Well, if you do want to see these majestic creatures, beware of ‘sanctuaries’ offering elephant bathing, feeding or riding experiences, or where elephants are confined to tight spaces. If in doubt, steer clear completely. And if any of your friends start posting selfies with the animals? Make sure you mention the elephant in the room.

Intrepid Travel organise fairly priced trips combining ethical elephant experiences, visit their website for more information.

Adam Bloodworth is a freelance writer, based in London. Catch up with him on Twitter.