Sure, riding an elephant if you ever visit Thailand might get you a ton of likes on Instagram, but you might just be animal abuse. A report released by World Animal Protection (WAP) on Thursday has detailed the cruel conditions faced by elephants used for tourism in Asia.
The study by WAP surveyed 2923 elephants in venues across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and India between late 2014 and mid-2016. Their findings were shocking.
According to the report, the “scale of suffering at most of these venues is severe.” Night and day, the elephants were usually kept on short chains and fed poor diets. Veterinary care was limited, and the animals were often kept on concrete floors in “stressful locations near loud music, roads or visitor groups.”
The conditions took no account of the elephants’ “intelligence, behaviours and needs”. The elephants also experienced intense periods of trauma in the process of making them fit for captivity.
Many of the elephants were separated from their mothers in the wild and underwent a brutal period of training to “break their spirits” and make them mild enough to carry tourists and perform. The “breaking-in” or “crush” period involves frequently beating the wild elephants until they are submissive.
The process is lead by handlers – mahouts – who rely on the elephant tourism industry as a source of income. The report noted that traditionally, the mahout-elephant relationship was extremely close, and many older handlers can be gentle with and have great respect for the animals .
However, commercial exploitation in recent years has negatively impacted this relationship. Mahouts are subject to “unacceptable living conditions and low wages” at many elephant camps.
Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach, WAP’s Senior Wildlife and Veterinary Advisor, said:
“The cruel trend of elephants used for rides and shows is growing – we want tourists to know that many of these elephants are taken from their mothers as babies, forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions throughout their life.
“There is an urgent need for tourist education and regulation of wildlife tourist attractions worldwide. Venues that offer tourists a chance to watch elephants in genuine sanctuaries are beacons of hope that can encourage the urgently-needed shift in the captive elephant tourism industry.”
Around 160 travel companies, including TripAdvisor, have pledged to stop selling tickets or advertising venues that offer elephant rides or shows.
The WAP report also highlighted some venues which kept elephants in better conditions. However, just 194 elephants at 13 venues were deemed to be living in conditions with high levels of welfare provision.
These venues would offer no rides or performances, limit interaction between tourists and elephants, and allow the elephants greater levels of freedom to roam.
Thailand, one of the top destinations for elephant tourism, uses almost twice as many elephants as the other surveyed countries combined. The research noted that 40% of tourists from the top nationalities who visited the country stated they had been on intended to ride an elephant.
Daniel Turner, Associate Director for Tourism at Born Free told the BBC:
“Riding an elephant still features on many people’s bucket list when visiting Asia and, more recently, Africa.”
“Riding or interacting with captive elephants, swimming with dolphins, walking with lions, or cuddling a tiger cub for a photo […] can impact on the welfare of the animals involved, and risk people’s safety.”
Tourists planning to visit the surveyed countries should think twice about patronising venues that offer elephant rides or performances. The WAP is clear on its stance: “elephants are wildlife; not entertainers.”