The World Animal Protection has surveyed the conditions of almost 3,000 elephants used in tourist venues across Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India.
Their report found that elephant tourism is having a significant impact on the welfare of thousands of animals across Asia. Travellers hoping to get an elephant selfie or to cross an elephant ride off their bucket list are frequently unaware of the damage that their activities are having on elephants; this is especially true in Thailand which has twice as many elephants used in tourism than all of the other Asian countries combined.
Asian Elephants are considered endangered by the IUCN and the captive elephant population is estimated to constitute between 25-33 per cent of the whole Asian elephant population. Elephant tourism is part of the reason that elephants populations are in decline. Calves are commonly taken, as they are easier to train, from the wild as their protective families are slaughtered around them. Elephants are taken from the wild into captivity to provide a photograph for the thousands of tourists who contribute to this industry every day.
Many people argue that captive populations help maintain wild populations and yet, the World Animal Protection found that wildlife tourist attractions actually have a negative impact on welfare and conservation.
The animals used in these tourist attractions are suffering. Clearly, elephants do not naturally play football or paint pictures with a paintbrush. Wild elephants go through a process called breaking-in where they undergo extensive, and often cruel, training to teach these unnatural behaviours.
Recent research has linked breaking-in with the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. The World Animal Protection report found that abnormal repetitive behaviours, such as swaying, were seen in 30 per cent of elephants. This can also lead to serious injuries and since 2010 there have been at least 17 fatalities caused by captive elephants; the toll is thought to be a lot higher but often incidents are unreported if they do not include tourists.
A third of elephants are being used for saddled rides, circus or shows and for many travellers, this is clearly exploitation and not an industry they would support. However, even tourists who visit elephant sanctuaries with the best will in the world do not know what happens behind closed doors. Even in centres labelled as rescues, sanctuaries or refuges, researchers found that animals were kept on short chains, physically abused with metal poles or wooden sticks and the centres were not able to account for the elephant’s origin.
As with everything, this industry is driven by money. The World Animal Protection report found that elephants were worth between US$28, 000 and US$56, 0000 each and centres draw thousands of paying tourists every day.
The report hopes to channel tourists away from these activities to elephant-friendly tourism which in turn could stop wild elephants being poached.