By now, anyone with even a passing interest in responsible travel has picked up on the debate about Asian elephants in tourism. It has unfolded over several years and shows no sign of abating. It defies easy summary, as I’ve recently learned, but it is anchored in a growing belief that we need to make elephant tourism work for more elephants.
Yes, there has been major progress in improved public awareness, led by key tourism industry players, but the welfare of Asian elephants working in tourism remains a grave concern.
Some Important First Lessons
I have only a layperson’s view of the entire debate. In recent months, though, our team at Horizon Guides has been working on a guidebook, called Elephants In Asia, Ethically, drawing on the knowledge and expertise of dozens of elephant welfare experts and advocates.
Like so many others, I’ve visited animal sanctuaries in Thailand and was already aware of some of the background issues. But hearing from leaders who’ve been immersed in this subject for years has been deeply illuminating. I now realize just how complex the situation is, and how dangerous it can be to insist on simplistic solutions (as I once did).
My first lesson was about the sheer scale of the problem. The population of Asian elephants has plummeted by 90% over the last 100 years. Once abundant, they now are estimated to number as few as 25,000 in the wild.
The main culprit has been rampant deforestation by a rapacious logging industry. This has been doubly painful to elephants as they were used as beasts of burden to destroy their own habitats.
In Thailand, the government finally banned private logging in 1989 after severe flooding was linked to the exacerbating effects of deforestation.
Once again, however, the elephants bore the real brunt of human legislative shortsightedness. Innocent of all responsibility and blame, more than 2,000 elephants and their mahouts (the people who drive and look after them) lost their jobs overnight. No contingencies were made for their welfare or livelihoods.
If you consider that an elephant can eat a staggering 200 kilograms of food per day, what were the mahouts to do? The choices were stark: let their elephants starve, smuggle them into the Myanmar for service in the logging industry there or beg from tourists on the busy streets of Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket.
The tourist boom in Thailand certainly seemed like the lesser of three evils. In all fairness, the sudden growth of “employment opportunities” for elephants could have been a godsend. For many elephant camp owners, it has been very lucrative.
But it didn’t really trickle down to the elephants and their mahouts. They have again found themselves at the wrong end of the stick, as there are now an estimated 13,000 Asian elephants in captivity, of which 2,700 work in tourism in Thailand alone.
Poor Oversight and Regulation
With no meaningful oversight or regulation, elephant welfare and working conditions for mahouts can vary tremendously. At one end of the scale is a handful of exemplary operators that have made elephant welfare a central concern. At the other end are a great many camps that treat their animals like fairground rides for unthinking customers.
In these camps, well-documented abusive elephant training practices are rampant, whereas the space, time and support for natural behavior is nonexistent.
Fortunately, some of the dirty secrets are seeping into mainstream awareness through the campaigns of numerous industry operators, such as ABTA and the Born Free Foundation, Intrepid Travel and Elephant Nature Park, among many others, and awareness-raising efforts like World Elephant Day or led by responsible tourism advocates and bloggers.
But there’s a lot more to be accomplished. Travel media continues to showcase photos of tourists enjoying elephant rides and watching performances in camps of dubious integrity.
So What’s the Answer?
For a long time I assumed it was simple: ban elephant tourism. What else do we do when something is considered unacceptably cruel and inhumane?
But producing Elephants In Asia, Ethically has revealed the privilege and naivety underpinning my position. An outright ban on elephant tourism would be as shortsighted as the Thai government’s logging ban. Where would the elephants go? How would their mahouts earn a living? Who would pay for each elephant’s 200 kilograms of daily nutrition?
Furthermore, what about the notable sanctuaries and camps that offer elephant interactions without forfeiting the animals’ welfare and dignity? Many of these operators funnel a portion of their profits into conservation projects for animals still in the wild and education for other camps and mahouts. Are we to do away with all that, too?
As our guide’s editor, Cynthia Ord, wrote: “There are no clear, tidy answers.” I’ve embraced this as true and accepted that only through pragmatic compromise can we inch toward a happier, fairer settlement for working elephants and their mahouts.
Facing a Tough Reality
The reality is that as long as demand exists, so will supply. And there will simply always be demand for close-up elephant encounters, including riding. To move forward, we therefore need to push beyond binary arguments and talk practically about making elephant tourism work for more elephants.
As Jakrapob Thaotad, founder of Phang Nga Elephant Park, wrote: “You can’t compare an hours-long ride in a saddle, on a road among traffic and in the midday sun, to a 20-minute bareback ride to a waterhole in the jungle.”
We need to applaud and support the industry organizations that show leadership and strive for better standards in the camps, but we also need to accept responsibility for our own actions.
As travelers, we must demand better and vote with our feet (and wallets). We need to make informed, educated choices about the operations we support. We also need to be confident about spreading the right message, especially on social media, when we see friends and family sharing holiday snaps of elephant performances and stressful, painful activities.
Cynthia is right, there are no easy answers. But we’ll be happy if our guide makes even a small contribution to this debate.