BANGKOK, 9 May 2016: Elephant rides are heading for exit door fast. That’s the prognosis presented by thousands of tourists who make their voice heard through animal rights’ blogs and social media.
It is also the opinion of a few far-thinking elephant owners. One of them, Shanker Dainju, who sells treks rides in the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park in Nepal,” comments in a report on the tourism elephant’s predicament: “They (rides) will be a thing of the past in a few year time. We have to prepare ourselves for the future.”
The demise of the elephant ride is a dilemma that faces elephant owners across Southeast Asia. Will they respond to consumer opinion and reinvent the elephant experience? Or will it ultimately lead to domestic elephants returning to the streets of Asian capitals to beg a living?
We all admit to having ridden elephants sitting aloft on a wooden howdah. In Thailand, you face forward on the carriage, side-by side with your companion and in Nepal you sit side-saddle, back-to-back, legs dangling over the elephant’s flanks.
Whatever the seating arrangement we look back on the carefree trips and admit that they were pretty uncomfortable experiences. We clung white-knuckled to the armrests of a rickety, wobbly carriage scorched by the tropical sun, as the elephant trundled through rivers and down slippery hillside trails. Buffeted by the elephant’s ponderous gait we were ready to return to base 10 minutes into the trip.
It was equally uncomfortable for the elephant, but it never occurred to us at the time.
That was in the 80s and 90s, before ‘selfies’ and ‘sustainable’ surfaced to awaken our conscious. Today, we know better. We no longer accept the tour guide’s story that the bull-hook tickles the elephant’s skin and that these noble creatures, at up to 5,000 kg a hulk, are happily domesticated just like our pets back home.
But the controversy focuses more on the definition of a ‘ride,’ than the cruel breaking-in and ill-treatment elephants endure that shortens their lifespan considerably.
Here lies the big divide between growing consumer opinion and tourism operators. Popular opinion wants to halt every elephant ride across Asia, while tour operators claim there is such a thing as a responsible ‘ride’ that gives elephant owners a chance of survival.
So when tour companies say they are not selling elephant rides, shows, treks, or entertainment, they are really referring to a ban on the traditional ride in the precarious wobbly howdah. They still sell trips to elephant camps and they do often include a ‘ride’ of sorts.
They are splitting hairs. Their online reports and tips on sustainable tourism state they choose elephant camps that offer visitors a chance to interact with elephants in a natural environment, while meeting the highest animal welfare standards. That claim could be called into question as commercial considerations often override sentiments.
Even this concession will probably not be enough to justify the ‘ride’ for many visitors.
Around 100 leading tour operators in Europe, earlier this year, vowed they would no longer offer elephant rides and ultimately as pressure builds to improve the care of elephants in captivity even bareback rides could share the fate that awaits the traditional howdah.
The move to end elephant rides gained traction in 2014, when Intrepid Tours, a leader in adventure tourism, took the bold step to remove all rides from its itineraries.
In a statement posted on it website March 2014 it said: “From January we no longer offer elephant rides on any of our trips. Instead we are visiting a limited number of places where elephant welfare is clearly highly prioritized and the elephants are free to move without restraint for much of the day.”
A quote from the survey “Elephant is Not a Machine”, published in 2014 to highlight the problems of elephant welfare in Nepal says: “The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has taken the lead in assessing the welfare of captive elephants used in tourism.
The Nepal survey estimated the ban caused a 25% drop in elephant rides in the country, but noted that today the majority of clients are from Nepal, India and China.
Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) has developed standards for assessing captive elephants in tourism that are used globally as a benchmark to improve elephant welfare.
Europeans may shun the traditional elephant ride, but travellers from China and India, prime markets for Southeast Asia, do just the opposite. They clamour to sit on the howdah for yet another holiday ‘selfie’.
Even the audits and assessments that some Asian tour operators conduct to determine which camps meet welfare standards could be compromised.
If a government official’s family owns the camp, there is enough leverage in place to encourage the local travel agency to revisit its audit results.
European tour operators rely on their Southeast Asian partners to do the police work to ensure compliance. This task should be in the hands of independent bodies, or preferably a government institution, possibly led by an ASEAN endorsed “standard”.
The supply side of tourism is massive industry with commercial clout often driven by a buddy network motivated solely by profit. Ground handling companies (DMCs in ASEAN) are loathed to take steps that would damage business relations with a long-time friend, or business partner.
So when tour operators say they are checking and evaluating elephant camps does it ever lead to a camp being struck off the list? I doubt it. There is considerable lip service on the subject for media consumption. Call it green wash, but often the bottom line is that elephant camps faulted will be given the benefit of the doubt.
One of the welfare standards states the maximum load that an elephant should bear is 150 kg. A few studies set the extreme payload at 300 kg, with a working payload of 200 kg. This simple benchmark is broken every single day at hundreds of camps across the region.
Just how many tour operators bother to check if an elephant camp complies with the 150 kg rule? There are no luggage scales in sight at the passenger loading bays. Compliance would certainly be problematic if two average-size Europeans (80 kg each) were weighed along with the mahout (65 kg) and the wooden carriage (50 to 100 kg?).
Popular blogs alert tourists to these tell-take signs that an elephant camp is not complying with animal welfare standards. They tell us to watch out for camps that overwork their elephants, or leave them in chains for most of the day. Chaining an elephant during its rest hours is also classed as a malpractice.
Elephants with torn ears have suffered injuries caused by the bull-hook. The trekking chair, or howdah, causes saddle sores. A Tour de France rider can break a wrist or collarbone and stay in the race, but they drop out after a single day of saddle sore pain. Elephants endure saddle sores for their entire adult working lives. A report on the health of elephants in tourism across Asia suggested 64% of them suffered from lesions and ulcers caused by the straps, harness and chains.
The website Adore Animals tells us to watch an elephant closely as it can give us a good indication of its health and happiness.
“Healthy elephants are perpetual motion; swishing their tails, flapping their ears. If these actions are absent, it could be a sign of poor health.”
“A sign of great annoyance, is when an elephant ‘rocks’. This is a movement where they sway from side to side continually, sometimes with their whole bodies and sometimes swinging their legs with the action.”
According to The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation, “swaying is an indicator of deep stress, boredom and a lack of environmental enrichment and a sure sign of elephant cruelty that needs to be addressed”.
To ride or not to ride is a simple enough choice if the visitor has all the facts and can evaluate quickly if the camp complies with welfare standards.
It becomes more complicated when we visit ABTA and other web sites that set out standards that also ban elephant paintings and elephant polo.
We recognise that millions of dollars have been raised for the welfare of elephants in Asia through the Minor Group’s annual Elephant Polo tournament in Thailand. TTR Weekly has promoted the event through news reports and who could fault the successful raising of funds that are used to improve the welfare of elephants in distress?
There’s the conundrum. Is it wrong to raise funds for a good cause through an activity that may diminish the health and welfare of the participating elephants?
Paintings, but not all, are also on the ban list. Abstract paintings that allow the elephant a free foot to kick a pot of paint at the canvas, or whatever takes its fancy, is just fine. It assumes the elephant is having fun, as all abstract artists do.
But there is another form of elephant paintings, the ones painfully orchestrated by the mahout via jabs in the ear to guide the brush strokes.
It’s the behind-the-scene cruelty that will ultimately kill elephant-based tourism, rather than debate over rides, unless some radical steps are adopted to inject human kindness into the mix in elephant camps across Southeast Asia.
Further reading and background links
Elephant Experts on the role of elephants in tourism
Why we do not offer elephant rides
Intrepid Tours, 2014
Adore Animals: What to look for when visiting an elephant camp:
Millennium Elephant Foundation
World Animal Protection takes Trip Advisor to task:
Expert Vagabond on breaking an elephant’s spirit
through the process Phajaen or The Crush ( links to disturbing and graphic video on You Tube embedded in report)
Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation
Why elephant riding should be removed from your bucket list.