Tourists need to know about the mis­ery among Asia’s show ele­phants

Since 2015, World An­i­mal Pro­tec­tion has vis­ited 220 venues across Asia that use ele­phants to en­ter­tain tourists. The find­ings were wor­ry­ing, but bet­ter-in­formed tourists can be part of cru­cial change

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - Opin­ion by Jan Sch­midt-Bur­bach

TWOyears ago, World An­i­mal Pro­tec­tion em­barked on an am­bi­tious project to doc­u­ment the con­di­tions en­dured by ele­phants used in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try in Asia. We vis­ited 2,923 ele­phants at 220 venues in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, In­dia, Laos and Cam­bo­dia. Two years later, our re­search is com­plete and the re­sults are deeply con­cern­ing.

Very early on it was clear that many ele­phants at tourist venues were en­dur­ing ter­ri­ble liv­ing con­di­tions. Many an­i­mals had chains around their an­kles, had no other ele­phants to in­ter­act with, and en­dured in­ad­e­quate shel­ter, poor di­ets and stress­ful in­ter­ac­tions with tourists. It was heart­break­ing, but by doc­u­ment­ing these con­di­tions we hoped to in­spire peo­ple to join us in chang­ing the lives of these ele­phants.

The sheer numbers of ele­phants that are suf­fer­ing is tragic. The re­port re­vealed that a stag­ger­ing 77% of ele­phants used in tourist venues in Asia are liv­ing in severely in­ad­e­quate con­di­tions. All of these ele­phants are kept at venues of­fer­ing ele­phant rides – one of the most pop­u­lar tourist ac­tiv­i­ties in the coun­tries we vis­ited. Just 7% of the ele­phants at the re­searched venues were be­ing kept in the best pos­si­ble con­di­tions.

Thailand is home to about three-quar­ters of all ele­phants kept in cap­tiv­ity for en­ter­tain­ment in Asia. There has been a 30% rise in the num­ber of ele­phants at tourism venues in Thailand since 2010, when we did our first study there. It’s clearly a lu­cra­tive in­dus­try – some venues in Thailand re­ceive more than 1,000 visi­tors a day. Day in and day out, ele­phants are forced to give rides, per­form and in­ter­act with tourists. The crowds love it. But the con­di­tions at these large venues were some of the poor­est we came across.

Across Asia, more than 2,000 of the ele­phants we sur­veyed were used for sad­dled rides or shows. Whilst see­ing the ele­phants per­form was up­set­ting, it was even more dif­fi­cult to see what they had to en­dure when not giv­ing rides or per­form­ing. The ele­phants were typ­i­cally chained up when not work­ing, pre­vent­ing them from mov­ing more than three me­tres in any di­rec­tion. They were also fed poor di­ets, given lim­ited vet­eri­nary care and of­ten kept on con­crete floors in stress­ful lo­ca­tions near loud mu­sic, roads or groups of visi­tors. The con­di­tions make ele­phants – nat­u­rally so­cial and highly in­tel­li­gent – more likely to live shorter lives and con­tract chronic dis­eases, among other prob­lems.

Al­most all of the tourists we spoke to were un­aware that many of the ele­phants they were watch­ing or rid­ing would have

been taken from their moth­ers as ba­bies and forced to en­dure harsh train­ing be­fore spend­ing the rest of their lives sub­servient to hu­mans and in op­pres­sive con­di­tions.

But there were some signs of a what could be a brighter fu­ture for these an­i­mals. Over the course of our two-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion, we also come across a hand­ful of venues across Asia that strive to pro­vide ex­cel­lent wel­fare for their ele­phants.

One key as­pect of these venues is that they have moved away from too much in­ter­ac­tion be­tween visi­tors and ele­phants. The rid­ing or wash­ing ex­pe­ri­ences are re­placed by an ob­ser­va­tional ex­pe­ri­ence – al­low­ing hu­mans to watch ele­phants be­ing ele­phants. Such in­ter­ac­tions make it more likely that visi­tors will un­der­stand that these com­plex and mag­nif­i­cent an­i­mals are not made for cap­tiv­ity. Some of these venues of­fered ob­ser­va­tion of cap­tive ele­phants in en­clo­sures with semi-nat­u­ral habi­tats; oth­ers al­lowed visi­tors to fol­low a group of cap­tive ele­phants on foot and from a safe dis­tance through nat­u­ral habi­tat. Of cru­cial im­por­tance is that the ele­phants are not forced to par­tic­i­pate in any ac­tiv­ity and can be­have as they would if hu­mans were not watch­ing.

While still few in num­ber, these venues are bea­cons of hope that can en­cour­age and in­form the ur­gently needed shift in the ele­phant tourism in­dus­try. Their repli­ca­tion, com­bined with in­creased ed­u­ca­tion of tourists, will re­sult in greater de­mand for bet­ter wel­fare and a de­crease in prof­itabil­ity for venues that fail to pro­vide it.

The travel in­dus­try, gov­ern­ments, ele­phant own­ers and han­dlers, lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, and in­di­vid­ual trav­ellers, are part of the so­lu­tion. Tourism op­er­a­tors and oth­ers in the travel in­dus­try are par­tic­u­larly well po­si­tioned to in­form their clients about the re­al­ity of venues show­cas­ing ele­phants, in­creas­ing the de­mand for bet­ter wel­fare.

It has been a long and of­ten heart­break­ing project, but our team has pro­duced one of the most com­pre­hen­sive stud­ies ever on the wel­fare con­di­tions for cap­tive ele­phants in the tourism in­dus­try. For ev­ery­one in­volved – travel agents, gov­ern­ments, ele­phant care­tak­ers and tourists – the first step to fix­ing the prob­lem is un­der­stand­ing its scope and agree­ing that there must be a shift in the sta­tus quo.

Most tourists sign up for ex­pe­ri­ences with ele­phants be­cause they love wild an­i­mals. They sim­ply don’t know about the cru­elty be­hind the rides, tricks and photo op­por­tu­ni­ties. If peo­ple knew the facts, then they wouldn’t do it.

Ele­phants forced to per­form tricks in Thailand

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