"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated" - Mohandas Gandhi
The story of captive wildlife tourism is a hard one to tell.
It might leave you wondering why this is still happening. But people have the power to change this, because the entrepreneurial nature of this industry means that when the public decides the interaction with animals should be different, businesses themselves will shift practices to remain profitable.
This story outlines the lucrative asian elephant industry, a frequently misunderstood and overlooked business that is heavily entangled in Thailand's economic system, culture and history. The complexity lies within the fact that seemingly harmless elephant tourism is clouded by vague legislation and regulatory loopholes that drive illegal elephant trade, animal abuse and public ignorance.
We effectively 'neoliberalised' nature, privatising it, market de-regulating it and re-regulating it to profitable interests. And this form of tourism not only reflects neoliberalism, it also drives and deepens it. Especially with regards to asian elephants in Thailand, one could argue that the country has failed to conserve elephants based on their intrinsic worth as living creatures, and so their future depends on demonstrating their economic importance and utility to human beings (Kontogeorgopoulos, 2009:443).
The story of the elephants of Thailand
Asian elephants are humble, curious and intelligent giants living in large families in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Decades of logging, habitat destruction, poaching and trapping have driven asian elephant populations towards only 20% of the world's African elephant population, giving them the IUCN status 'Endangered'. Whilst some countries like Botswana have only recently implemented elephant back safaris as a niche form of tourism with no historical association, Thailand has a contrasting context of millennia of elephant exploitation and monetisation that is deeply rooted in its cultural heritage. Because Botswana has no history of domesticating elephants, most of the African elephants that end up in the tourism business are ex-circus or ex-zoo animals or are orphaned babies that are sold to private business owners. There are reports that a lack of experience with training African elephants is making the practice more dangerous for the caretakers or 'mahouts' as well as for the tourists, and the heavy focus on quick profits often leaves elephant welfare neglected.
This background fundamentally differentiates African elephant back tourism from its Asian counterpart. Long before tourism took over Thailand's economy, Asian elephants were used in teak logging and transportation activities. More than half of the country's total elephant population lives in captivity because of this long history. When national laws changed and banned logging in 1989, hundreds of elephants and their mahouts lost their jobs and there wasn't really an alternative to employ them. The tragedy is that Thailand simply doesn't have enough protected nature reserves to house all the unemployed elephants, and many were either used in illegal practices or were found roaming the country's city streets.
Eventually, the economy shifted towards a completely different industry; international tourism that was largely managed by the private sector. Because tourism was so lucrative, boosting the country's economy, and because it was so easy to privately own an elephant, the animals became victims of a barely regulated and very diverse business plan.
Elephant tourism & welfare
It is the complexity in private ownerships and the lax implementation of Thailand's laws around animal trafficking and animal welfare that makes that all forms of elephant interactions should be avoided by tourists until there is a better regulative system in place.
Generally any form of elephant tourism, no matter how well-intentioned, is inherently wrong because animals do not exist for our entertainment, and you can never be sure where the elephants are coming from or if they are abused once the tourists leave the camps. Even if a camp has been thoroughly audited and certified for the good treatment of its elephants, there's another dark business that is feeding into elephant tourism to ensure new elephants are flowing in.
"Make no mistake; the only reason why you are able to come close to asian elephants and interact with them in any shape or form, is because they were usually beaten into it, with only very few exceptions"
It is required by law that young elephants are bred from captive populations, but in reality many baby elephants are taken from the wild and smuggled from Myanmar to Thailand. The process involves brutally killing the elder elephant family members and kidnapping the baby. When they eventually arrive at the camps, they are subjected to a ritual called 'Phajaan', which means breaking their spirit by beating them into submission and starving them until they fear humans. This is necessary to ensure the elephants are docile when they come in contact with tourists. Bull hooks are used by the mahouts to further instil fear and control the elephants and prevent them from hurting tourists or the mahout.
The taking of wild elephants is illegal because the government owns & manages the wild population while captive elephants are private property. Typically, elephant tourism operators falsify birth documentation and place the baby elephants with surrogate mothers that are not lactating to feed the baby. This makes that there are often very poor and stressful social interactions in elephant groups in these so-called sanctuaries, much like orcas that are placed together in aquaria. The elephants are often dehydrated and malnourished, and experience severe foot injuries from walking on concrete floors. A National Geographic documentary found elephants were pin-chained in small pens when they are not performing for tourists, leaving them in agony overnight and suffer from sleep deprivation.
"In an ideal world, captive asian elephants would be released in natural reserves and enjoyed by tourists from afar. But Thailand simply doesn't have enough natural space to host them. So what can we do?"
Not all camps and tourist attractions where human interaction is involved are evenly bad; there's a spectrum. On one end you have the worst places where elephants are displayed in chains on a concrete platform and have to perform circus-like tricks on giant tricycles, handle fireworks, lift tourists or paint 'artworks' to entertain the masses. This happens particularly in Thailand's tourist hotspots like Pattaya and Chiang Mai, or the elephant breeding hotspot Ban Ta Klang.
The practices are banned by the European-based Captive Elephant Welfare Initiative certification program (Travelife) and renounced by many tour agencies. Many Europan travel agencies have boycotted elephant riding and bathing camps after an aggressive publicity campaign a few years ago.
On the other end you have elephant camps that are keeping human interaction to the uttermost minimum, like Elephant Valley in Chiang Rai. Rescued elephants are living on a large valley patch and tourist can visit them and feed them from a distance, but that is all they are allowed to do. The elephants are separated by wooden bars and only well-trained mahouts interact with them more.
There's a ton of projects that offer elephant experience in between these two ends, and all should be handled with great caution with regard to animal and community welfare aspects. It's a complex issue that is not black and white, because the mahouts are execrably paid and housed by attraction owners, and rely fully on the elephant to generate income and feed their families. The high poverty in Thailand in some communities offers no viable alternative for either the captive elephant population or the mahouts.
So is there any hope for asian elephants? Can we mitigate the ignorance of tourists and transition into elephant tourism that is actually sustainable and animal-friendly?
The following actions would vastly improve this controversial industry:
- Inform tourists through campaigns about the dark side of elephant tourism
- Make International tour agencies boycot abusive elephant tourism
- Amend national and international regulations that reward good practices but put heavy penalties on illegal and abusive practices
- Changing the business model into a concept with minimum human interaction
- Use social media to educate your own communities about the dangers of this industry
Please feel free to share this with anyone that you know has visited elephant sanctuaries before or wants to in the future! I hope it helps creating more awareness for these amazing, friendly giants.