Caregivers’ Relationships With Tigers And Elephants In Thai Tourism
Tourism with elephants and tigers is often framed as being important for Thailand’s economy. While there has rightfully been a lot of research and media attention on the welfare of wild animals in tourism, not much has been studied about how tourism affects the relationships between animals and their caregivers — a dimension that could greatly inform advocacy.
Mahouts (elephant caretakers) in Thailand traditionally had lifelong special relationships with their elephants. In 1989, Thai national parks banned logging, which made many of their jobs illegal and caused most of them to move to work at tourism facilities. The relationship between caregivers and tigers is a modern development and not well-studied. Meanwhile, there are private organizations that shelter tigers rescued from the illegal pet and hunting trades, where they sometimes actively interact with tourists (e.g. petting) — as well as less-reputable breeding facilities that offer tourist interactions on the side. Tiger caregivers manage these interactions. The authors of this study felt it was important to learn about the experiences of tiger and elephant caregivers to understand their quality of life and their perceived relationships with the animals.
To better understand these relationships and their dynamics, the authors of this study interviewed 55 elephant caretakers and eighteen tiger caretakers. Some of the caretakers worked at private facilities, while others worked at government facilities. The private facilities permitted more tourist contact with the animals than the government facilities did.
The survey found that private facilities have fewer staff, who tend to be younger and less well-paid than the staff at government facilities. Mahouts at private facilities almost all have a traditional one-to-one relationship with an elephant. Only about half of mahouts at government facilities have a one-to-one relationship; the rest care for a group of elephants as part of a team. Group management can improve financial security for mahouts, because they can still work if an elephant is sick or injured. However, some mahouts prefer the closer relationship with their elephant that one-on-one care allows. Tiger caregivers at private facilities directly interact with the tiger cubs that tourists interact with, while tiger caregivers at government facilities don’t directly interact with tigers.
In their own words, mahouts usually think of their elephants as family. Tiger caretakers are about equally likely to think of tigers as friends or family. Mahouts and tiger caregivers only rarely think of their animals as employees. Mahouts believe that the most important trait of a good mahout is loving and being dedicated to the elephants. Tiger caregivers, conversely, believe both that you should love tigers and that you should be able to keep both humans and tigers safe. Private-facility tiger caregivers, who interact with tiger cubs, tend to prioritize loving tigers, while government-facility tiger caregivers prioritize safety.
The survey further found that almost all mahouts believed that elephants being used in tourism benefited the elephants. However, only half of tiger caregivers who worked in tourism believed the tigers benefited from tourism, and none of the caregivers who worked for zoos believed the tigers benefited from tourism. The most common answer when caregivers were asked what they’d change to improve their animals’ welfare was that the caregivers didn’t want to change anything. Mahouts who wanted changes tended to support improved living conditions and more legal rights for elephants. Tiger caregivers who wanted changes tended to support larger habitats for the tigers.
The Thailand tourist industry offers the opportunity for tourists to interact with tigers and elephants, which creates more jobs for mahouts and tiger caregivers. In their own words, caregivers generally have close relationships with their animals, and believe that elephants and tigers have adequate welfare. However, many want improved living conditions for their animals and have concerns about the effect of tourism on them. The Thai government could implement new regulations on the Thai tourism industry to protect both the animals and their caregivers. While this study focuses specifically on the experiences of mahouts and tiger caregivers, the animals themselves also have a stake — perhaps the most significant of all.