Rows of elephants chained up in cramped stables, saddles resting heavy on their backs. Mahouts (trainers) stand close by, clutching sharp bull hooks. Nearby, groups of tourists wait to mount the beasts ahead of an exhausting trek through jungle.
“Elephant tourism in Asia has traditionally relied on elephants being used for riding, street begging and performing demeaning tricks for tourists,” says Ry Emmerson, projects director at the Save Elephant Foundation in Chiang Mai (www.saveelephant.org). “Visitors to Asia should understand that behind the scenes, the elephants are suffering at many camps and circuses.” He explains that elephant tourism is widespread in the region, from elephant tours and zoos to circuses and street performances in which the animals perform tricks and paint pictures. Often-unwitting tourists help perpetuate the industry, which campaigners say is still tainted by cruelty, despite efforts to bring about change.
“Tourists need to know that elephant riding and performing tricks comes at the high price of elephant suffering.” Baby elephants are often separated from their mothers at a young age and subjected to a process referred to as “elephant crushing”, or breaking the baby’s spirit. This involves a series of barbaric measures carried out across several weeks, including keeping them in small cages, tying their feet with ropes and repeatedly beating them with bullhooks. Once the elephant is broken, its dedicated mahout releases it and offers it food and water, becoming its “saviour”. Violence and the threat of it continue to be used throughout the elephant’s life. “Most elephants suffer from both physical and psychological injuries as a result of daily trauma.”
Tourists are being encouraged to play their part in the overhaul. Emmerson recommends doing research before visiting an elephant attraction by reading newspaper articles and checking independent reviews and photographs posted online by visitors and elephant tourism operators. It is also advisable to check with tour operators what sort of elephant activities are planned, whether bull hooks or other objects are used, and group sizes – intimate tours are better for the elephants. Emmerson also urges visitors who witness cruel practices while on a tour to post online reviews and social media comments to help others avoid them. “Travelers have the power to influence positive change for elephants in captivity by withdrawing their support from elephant tour operators offering elephant riding and shows,” Emmerson says. “This sends a strong message that these traditional forms of elephant tourism are no longer considered acceptable.
“When demand for elephant riding and performances are diminished, the widespread transition to a more compassionate form of elephant tourism is inevitable.” “We consider elephant polo as wildlife exploitation”, says Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation. After it was revealed that elephants were repeatedly beaten and gouged with bullhooks and their ears violently yanked in training for the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in Bangkok, the organiser announced that it would stop hosting the event in order to take a stand against cruelty to animals. The Thailand Elephant Polo Association, the main governing body behind the tournament, did not to seek permission for a 2019 tournament and has ceased operations in Thailand.
The Wildlife Friends Foundation provides the opportunity for an ethical elephant experience near Hua Hin. They run a successful day trip program which welcomes visitors from all over the world. For more information see www.wfft.org.