Opinion: 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 a crucial change, argues World Animal Protection advisor Jan Schmidt-Burbach
This article was published in the August edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.
Two years 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, endured inadequate shelter, poor diets and stressful interactions with tourists. It was heart breaking, but by documenting these conditions we hoped to inspire people to join us in changing the live 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 over 1,000 visitors a day. Day in and day out, elephants are required 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, over 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 when not working, preventing them from moving more than three meters 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 visitor groups. 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 elephants. Over the course of our two-year-long investigation, our team 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 either 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 captive 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, as well as individual travellers, are part of the solution. Tourism operators and others in the travel industry are particularly well to inform their clients about the reality of venues showcasing elephants and increase the demand for better welfare.
It has been a long and often heart-breaking 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.
Jan Schmidt-Burbach is the Global Wildlife and Veterinary Advisory at World Animal Protection. Jan graduated with a degree in veterinary medicine in Germany and completed his PhD on diagnosing health issues in Asian elephants.