CHIANG RAI – Few subjects elicit more impassioned debate than elephant tourism. Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and World Animal Protection have mounted influential media campaigns denouncing riding, where they show elephants as young as 18 to 24 months old being chained up and beaten with bullhooks.
Large tour operators like STA Travel, TUI Group, G Adventures, and Intrepid Travel have responded in kind, eliminating trekking and elephant shows from their itineraries. In 2016, TripAdvisor banned ticket sales to tourist attractions offering physical encounters (riding, petting, swimming, and so on) with captive wild animals and endangered species, elephants included.
Although the travel site made exceptions for educational, scientific, and conservation-related experiences, the sea change was clear: Elephant riding, once a bucket-list activity for many North American and European travelers visiting Southeast Asia, was rapidly falling out of favor. And that’s where things get tricky.
The relationship between Asian elephants and humans dates back four millennia. The majestic and intelligent creatures have been used for logging, in ceremonial celebrations, as royal status symbols, and as vehicles of war. For most of those 4,000 years, elephants were captured in the jungles and “broken” by mahouts, or trainers.
At present, 3,783 Asian elephants are estimated to live in captivity in Thailand alone—and the majority of them work in the tourism sector. Because it is now illegal to trap and traffic wild elephants in Thailand, some trekking camps breed elephants in captivity to maintain their populations.
Many would argue that every elephant should be wild and free. But even if you turned every elephant currently in captivity loose, there would be nowhere safe for all of them to go. Their natural habitats have been mostly destroyed; some captive elephants carry diseases that could harm wild populations; and besides, not all elephants get along—even in the jungle.
Quarrels between three-ton beasts can be fatal. So it’s a sad reality that thousands of elephants live in captivity. Furthermore, a single elephant consumes 550 pounds of food a day and costs around $18,000 a year to support. Something has to pay their way and that something, for now anyway, is still tourism.
One group working to address these issues is the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG), a task force established in 2015 and comprising some of the world’s foremost elephant specialists, including scientists, conservationists, and camp managers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Think Elephants International, Elephant Care International, and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF).
ACEWG’s goals are many, starting with the abolishment of the illegal capture and trade of elephants for commercial purposes. Group members have also devoted years to developing a minimum standard of welfare for captive elephants working in Southeast Asia’s tourism industry.
The evolving criteria provide managers of trekking camps with science-based guidelines for humane elephant care. Importantly, it also outlines which activities are, and are not, acceptable for tourism and offers positive training and performance protocols for making those approved activities “behaviorally enriching” for the elephants. Any activity the group feels may cause pain or bring harm to the elephant—walking a tightrope, riding a bicycle, or doing headstands, for instance—has been prohibited.
As for elephant riding, the ACEWG notes that while veracious studies have not been conducted on elephants specifically, it is known that horses, dogs, and donkeys have a weight-carrying capacity of about 20-to-25 percent of their body weight. For a 6,600-pound elephant, that’s at least 1,320 pounds. “If the working hours are limited and the terrain is suitable, two people in a saddle (less than 10 percent of the elephant’s body weight) will not be an undue stressor for an elephant,” the organization reports. “The weight of one or two people without a saddle (less than 4 percent of body weight) would hardly be noticed.”
Despite the waning popularity of elephant riding among Western tourists, the demand for elephant rides in Thailand has surged in recent years, driven by an influx of Chinese tourists. “People are coming in on package tours, and they’re looking for the cheapest-possible experience,” says John Roberts, co-chair of the ACEWG and the director of Elephants and Conservation Activities for the GTAEF. “This is provided for them by exploitative camps that let people ride the elephants for 10-to-12 hours straight, with no rest during the day and no forest time at night.
The situation is horrific, and yet these camps are growing massively. At the same time, people who do care about animal welfare are avoiding elephant riding altogether because they’ve been told it’s a bad idea. So camps that were doing good things, like allowing elephants to give rides just three or four hours a day and spending the rest of the time up in a forest, are going out of business. They can’t make enough money to keep their elephants, so they send them to the bad trekking camps a kilometer away.”
The GTAEF, which is supported by Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, both in Chiang Rai, Thailand, strives to uphold the highest standard of care for its elephants.
Guests are invited to join mahouts and veterinary specialists on long walks in the jungle and are permitted to sit on the neck of an elephant, sans saddle, with their feet behind its ears—a vantage point that Roberts believes is more educational because it’s the same position assumed by a mahout. Only the most sociable elephants are used for these close encounters, while elephants that don’t like strangers can simply join the camp’s “free-roaming pack.” Roberts is also a realist; he recognizes that most camps are not backed by luxury hotel chains and therefore rely on quantity over quality to pay their bills.
According to Roberts, boycotting elephant tourism is not a viable solution because it undermines camps that behave responsibly. Instead, he advocates for enforcing a minimum standard of care. “If you look at the wider picture of trying to look after 3,800 elephants, we need some form of mass tourism, and that’s going to be riding in the saddle.
So the best thing [we can do] is try to help the camps that are offering that do it in a way that doesn’t harm the elephants.” The ACEWG is currently working with the independent not-for-profit sustainability auditors at Travelife to develop a welfare-minded certification system that will help travel agencies determine which tourism camps are operating the most humanely.
The bigger question then becomes, How do you convey better practices without insulting a millennia-old culture? “Mahouts have been looking after elephants longer than Christianity and Islam have existed,” Roberts notes. “And while it’s easier to control elephants through pain than it is through persuasion, there’s also a great deal of pride in the way mahouts do things. They learned skills from their fathers and grandfathers—and for many of them, this is the first time anyone is telling them, ‘Hey, some of what you learned from your grandfather is no longer applicable.’ It’s patronizing.”
Roberts has worked closely with Asian elephants and their mahouts since 1999; he is deeply sensitive to the cultural issues surrounding these long traditions. Nearly half of the captive Asian elephants in Thailand are registered to five or six villages in the Surin province, and this is where the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation has focused much of its attention: by “renting” its elephants instead of buying them, it provides jobs to both mammal and mahout; by bringing in full-time veterinary care; and by working to improve the education of the village youth.
Roberts believes good schooling is key to teaching the children of mahouts that there are other career options besides elephant training.
Roberts also has a theory that a lot of mahouts know their profession is coming to an end. “For thousands of years, we had captive elephants because there was a need for them,” Roberts says. “Tourism is not a need for captive elephants; it’s a thing to do with captive elephants to help them eat. These are the last cowboys.”
Give it a couple more generations and elephant tourism could phase itself out, but it’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s why the ACEWG was founded: to better the lives of the elephants currently working in trekking camps and to debate how to break what Roberts calls “this self-perpetuating cycle of purchasing, training, breeding, and keeping elephants in captivity.” To boil the issue down to a single question—To ride or not to ride?—misses the bigger picture; it’s like stamping out an ember when the whole house is on fire.
So what’s a conscientious traveler to do?
Start by choosing a camp that has been certified by the local government (in Thailand, that would be the Ministry of Tourism and Sports) and then drill deep on its policies and practices. Any camp worth its salt will be happy to answer questions.
Ask how the camp acquires its elephants and what its policy is on breeding. (The last thing the world needs right now is more elephants being born into captivity.)
Ask about the camp’s working conditions: Does it give the elephants ample forest time? Are they able to socialize in natural friendship groups and be away from humans?
Is the camp providing enough food, water, shade, and exercise? Does the camp employ its own veterinarian or have an alliance with local camps to employ a specialist vet, or does it rely on free government vet care despite making a profit on tourism?
And always inquire about the camp’s policies on training: Is it using positive reinforcement to control the elephants, and, if so, how does that work? If the camp claims it has a “no hooks, no chains” policy, ask how the mahouts control the elephants.
If they say it’s through verbal commands, or simply “love,” ask how the camp handles potential emergencies that may arise—like when the elephant gets spooked by a snake or a bee or a drone. If it doesn’t have a good answer, you may be putting both yourself and the elephant in danger.
“Asking a lot of questions creates more work for the casual traveler, but, in the end, it’s important to get answers,” Roberts says. “Look deeply at what you’re doing and ensure that you’re finding a place that is, to the best of their ability, looking after the elephants well.”