Taken For A Ride: A Report On Asia’s Elephant Tourism
Worldwide, the tourism industry uses wild animals for entertainment in different ways. In Asia, elephants are kept in tourism venues that offer entertainment activities such as rides, shows, elephant washing, feeding, selfies and observation. Even with a greater demand for ‘ethical tourism’, a report from World Animal Protection shows that the vast majority of captive elephants in Asia still experience widespread and lifelong cruelty, living in severely inadequate conditions.
The report is a result of a 10-year work and shows the condition of the 3,837 elephants used in tourism in Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. During this period, the researchers conducted more than 1,000 visits to more than 350 elephant entertainment venues, conducted several global public surveys, engaged with hundreds of travel companies and associations, and worked with elephant venues on the ground.
The researchers found that 63% of the elephants were suffering in severely inadequate conditions, 30% were experiencing inadequate conditions, and only 7% were kept in truly high-welfare observation-only venues. The severely inadequate conditions of the 2,390 elephants from the first group included short chaining, demanding activity schedules for the elephants, limited possible social interaction between elephants, and conditions that allowed for very little natural behavior.
The 1,168 elephants of the second group faced improved, yet still inadequate conditions being often located in venues that offer half or full-day elephant washing or bathing experiences. Even showing better welfare conditions than riding venue, they still had serious welfare problems. For instance, elephants could be washed repeatedly during the day, damaging their skin without providing additional hygiene benefits. These facilities were often misleadingly promoting themselves as an ‘ethical no-ride’ venue, covering up potentially poor elephant management.
The third and smallest group of 279 elephants able to experience high welfare were located in primarily observation-only venues that allowed the animals to behave more naturally and within natural habitats. In these venues, visitors had very limited or no direct interaction with the elephants, but were able to enjoy observing elephants being elephants.
Besides the distressing cruelty to captive elephants found in all countries, from harsh training methods to poor nutrition, breeding was seen by the researchers as the core problem of elephant captivity. Captive elephant breeding not only fails to address the problem of captivity but also reduces the limited resources available to the elephants already in the industry, especially in a pandemic scenario with fewer tourists and venues struggling to feed their elephants and pay their workers.
Nonetheless, researchers in this study also found a movement of consumers towards more awareness of animal welfare issues. In 2016, tourists interviewed in Thailand cited riding an elephant as their favorite activity (36%) and observing elephants as their least preferred activity (14%). By 2019, seeing wild animals in their natural habitat (37%) and observing elephants (24%) became the two most preferred activities. Also, 85% of tourists interviewed in a global poll believed that tour operators should avoid activities that cause suffering to wild animals. Decreasing demand for captive elephant tourism entertainment attractions is seen by the report as one of the 3 essential elements to address this issue and end this inhumane practice. The second is reducing the number of captive elephants used for commercial tourism, and the third is improving conditions for the current generation of captive tourism elephants and their caretakers.
To make this generation of elephants the last to be kept in captivity, the report proposes actions from governments to prevent captive breeding and the intake of wild elephants for commercial use. Government also has an important role in supporting transitions to high-welfare, observation-only venues. Meanwhile, travel companies and individual travelers are urged to promote and visit venues offering observation-only experiences, or choose to observe elephants responsibly in the wild. Lastly, the report reminds us that these improvements also have to consider the mahouts (human trainers), who need to receive career development that will take them beyond the lifespan of the elephants in their care.