No Longer a Circus Act

Elephant-friendly tourism is providing better wildlife welfare

By Guo Meng

Elephants remain big business for many tourism venues offering interactions such as riding, dancing, painting, swimming, or photo ops. How do the elephants feel about these activities? Global consensus is that it’s mostly horrific abuse. The animals don’t know what it’s all about or why they get punished for failure. The gentle giants have tender hearts. They look muscular under the rough skin, but they are still sensitive to pain. Those used to entertain tourists with tricks at money-spinning shows are removed from their families and tamed by mahouts (elephant handlers) with abusive methods such as pointed hooks. After the shows, they are chained up and live miserably.

“For many tourists, traveling to Asia wouldn’t be complete without an encounter with an elephant, be it seeing a show, riding, or bathing one,” said Audrey Mealia, Global Head of Wildlife at World Animal Protection (WAP), an international animal welfare organization. “Yet sadly, elephant-loving tourists who want that ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity are fueling demand for a mammoth sized problem that causes unthinkable cruelty behind the scenes, even if they don’t realize.”

The coronavirus has decimated the number of foreign tourists to Thailand, resulting in “layoffs” of more than 1,000 elephants used in the country’s tourism sector. Save the Elephant Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Chiang Mai Province of northern Thailand, has been seizing the pandemic as opportunity to save elephants. They became known for publicizing elephant abuse in tourist shows. Their mission is to save elephants from tourism and send them back to their native lands.

Elephant-Friendly Tourism

Despite the pandemic, Hug Chang Chiang Mai Elephant Camp in Thailand remains open to tourists. The camp is an eco-friendly tourism attraction that allows tourists to observe elephants. The manager on-site reported an average of 20 to 30 tourists to see the elephants every day before the coronavirus outbreak, but few to none since. The camp is a sanctuary for 12 elephants which receive good care from mahouts with regular checkups and walks in the woods. With proper treatment, elephants are very friendly with tourists.

Jirada Moran, a 5-year-old Thai TV star, visited the camp a few days ago. She prepared food for the elephants and watched them frolic in the woods and lakes.

“Elephants are our friends,” said Moran. “I’m happy to interact with them like this and express love for them.”

On June 30, 2020, the WAP released its first research report on excellent practices in wildlife-friendly tourism. The report showed that global wildlife tourism, which is growing at a rate of 10 percent every year, is expected to reach 12 million trips annually in coming years. The report also suggested wildlife-friendly tourist attractions include several core elements: no interference with the natural behavior of the animals, management and education of tourists, solid customer reviews, and earnest efforts to promote local wildlife protection.

With support and assistance from WAP, Chiang Mai ChangChill Elephant Camp has transformed from a tourist entertainment attraction to an elephant-friendly high-welfare venue. In Thai, ChangChill means “resting elephant,” which was chosen with hope that the elephants find a new life there. From observation platforms, tourists can acquire detailed information on the background of each elephant. Tour guides caution tourists to avoid flashlights, carrying food, staying alone, making loud noises, and getting too close to the elephants.

Over the past decade, the WAP has followed up on the welfare of captive elephants in tourism in Southeast Asia with three comprehensive empirical studies. The latest study evaluated the welfare condition of 3,837 elephants at 357 venues in Thailand, India, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. The study found that 63 percent of captive elephants were suffering in severely inadequate conditions, 30 percent were in improved, yet still inadequate conditions, and only 7 percent were kept in high-welfare venues.

“Elephant-friendly tourism” is an initiative from the WAP to push tourism operators to stop selling and promoting travel products such as elephant riding and show, and to promote the transformation of the tourism industry to “animal-friendly” sustainable development. So far, more than 250 tourism operators from around the world have pledged to remove wildlife entertainment products such as elephant riding and performing.

Positive Changes

August 12 is World Elephant Day. Recently, the Thai Elephant Alliance Association organized a seminar for owners of private elephant camps in Chiang Mai to exchange views on the negative impact of the pandemic on camps and ways to help camp owners and elephant owners improve the welfare conditions of elephants.

“Ongoing suffering – but also some positive changes,” declared a WAP report titled Elephants. Not commodities–Taken for a ride 2, which evaluated the welfare conditions of 3,837 elephants at 357 venues in Asian countries from January 2019 to January 2020. The report concluded that 2,390 (63 percent) of the elephants were suffering in severely inadequate conditions at 208 (58 percent) venues, 1,168 (30 percent) were experiencing improved, yet still inadequate conditions, and only 279 (7 percent) were kept at high-welfare observation-only venues.

Distressing conditions at venues with severely inadequate welfare conditions include: frequent restrictions with short chains, demanding activity schedules, limited freedom for social interaction, and conditions that allowed for very little natural behavior. Venues with improved yet still inadequate conditions often offered half or full-day elephant swimming or bathing experiences. Despite tourist perceptions that elephant washing and bathing venues treat elephants well, concerns about these attractions are well documented because such close contact requires harsh training conditions. The attractions also prevent the elephants from ever returning to the wild.

The coronavirus outbreak has underscored the vulnerability of captive elephants and their dependence on tourism. Tourism venues have been struggling to feed the animals as of late. In Thailand alone, it is estimated to cost more than US$900,000 a month to feed all the elephants and a similar figure to pay mahouts. The WAP and other international and local non-governmental organizations have offered help to save the animals from hunger.

Zhao Zhonghua, chief representative of the WAP’s Beijing office, explained that wildlife-friendly tourism not only protects wildlife, but also better conforms to policy and market changes because operators’ risk drops drastically when they live more sustainably. It has emerged as an important way to protect natural heritage and biodiversity.

Elephants are marquee victims of wildlife mistreatment in the tourism sector. “Elephant-friendly tourism” is expected to soon become the new normal as the last generation of captive animals are returned to their native land.

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