Elephants have been a part of Asian culture for millennia and with the recent rise in tourism, issues have been raised about poor conditions, cruelty and lack of regulation in many Asian elephant camps.
The problem is unlikely to go away if we simply ignore it and efforts to boycott the practice entirely have thus far proven ineffective, sometimes even exacerbating the situation.
So what is the best way to prevent cruelty and improve conditions for the thousands of captive elephants that cannot be returned to the wild? This guide will outline the dilemma and offer suggestions for how to support elephant welfare as a traveller.
The Social Dilemma of Elephants in Captivity
Since ancient times, elephants have played an integral part in the religious practices, regional cultural identities and traditional way of life in many Asian countries. These gentle and sensitive animals have been used for transport and labour, becoming a significant economic asset for those communities which have traditionally relied on elephants as a source of income and a way to feed their families. However, with the recent rise in tourism, issues of animal cruelty, poor conditions and poaching of wild elephants have reached such a level that a sustainable and practical solution must be found.
Although there is a multitude of issues involved and the interrelationships between economic, social and cultural factors are extremely complicated, the dilemma can be broken down as follows:
- Thousands of elephants are held in captivity and cannot be returned to the wild
- Providing captive elephants with humane conditions, medical care and food is extremely costly
- The most viable source of funding for improving elephant welfare comes from tourism
Playing the “Blame Game” and Boycotting Camps
In May 2016, a mahout (elephant carer) death caused uproar online with hundreds arguing that the young man, brutally killed in an attack that could have been avoided, deserved to die for his part in the industry. Among all the issues surrounding elephant tourism, the social issue is probably the least communicated or understood. It is very easy to put all the blame of elephant suffering on the mahouts who ‘trained’ them, with little knowledge of the part they really play. Most mahouts are young men, from smaller ethnic communities. They are lowly-paid, with no job security and with minimal access to education, leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous camp owners who have little understanding or respect for the elephants under their responsibility and only care about the bottom line.
Efforts to boycott elephant based tourism have resulted in some camps lowering their financial losses by cutting expenditure towards the well-being of elephants, the safety and training of mahouts, as well as leading some camps to cruelly slaughter unneeded elephants or sell them to animal traffickers. Mahouts who are no longer able to work at a registered elephant camp, and who have no other means of making an income other than their ancestral trade, may resort to parading a lone elephant around the streets, working it to exhaustion in the hopes of scraping by a measly income.
Regulating Camps to Improve Conditions
Local authorities do not usually have the funding nor the political will to properly regulate camps, the conditions at the camps are therefore regulated by the market and only the bare minimum is done to keep up standards. Since 2014, Buffalo Tours has implemented a comprehensive audit system that monitors camps and measures the conditions of elephants and their well-being. The audit ensures that only camps which can document the provenance of elephants and their genealogies (to discourage poaching of wild elephants) and show that they maintain humane and safe conditions are approved. Only camps that pass the audit are chosen as suppliers and receive economic benefits, while camps who fail are encouraged to improve standards and will lose income as cooperation is discontinued.
One of the best ways to improve conditions for elephants is to discourage practices which are harmful, such as having elephants performing unnatural tricks. By encouraging travellers to only seek out elephant interactions which are not harmful, such as watching elephants in their natural environment, feeding them, limited touching, and not forcing the elephants to pose for pictures, camps will come to see that treating elephants humanely can still be profitable enough to support the living costs of the elephant. This is where travellers have the power to make a significant and tangible difference with almost immediate impact.
How to Support Animal Welfare as a Traveller
Through our auditing process, Buffalo Tours has had great success in pressuring elephant camps to change their practices, by providing economic incentive to offer interactions which are natural and not harmful towards the wellbeing of elephants. This all hinges on the will of travellers to only support these kinds of camps by insisting on the following conditions:
- Insist that you only want to see elephants in “natural surroundings”, meaning wide open spaces, bathing in rivers, with lots of vegetation (not small and barren enclosures).
- Make it clear that you do not want to participate in harmful activities such as poorly managed elephant riding or see any unnatural elephant “tricks”. You only want to observe the elephants, feed them, and take pictures of them.
- Communicate that the well-being of the elephant is the most important factor in your enjoyment of the elephant camp. You only want to see happy, well-fed and well-cared for elephants doing what comes naturally to them.
Providing a Sustainable Future for Asian Elephants
If we can create a positive change in the industry, where the well-being of captive elephants become a source of pride for local communities, camps become more like sanctuaries, and mahouts can be retrained as educators and carers for elephants (rather than just trainers and riders), then we can gradually move towards a sustainable future for Asian elephants. By creating demand for elephant camps which do not provide harmful riding activities, do not force elephants to do “tricks”, and only keep elephants in good conditions and with the proper care, it is possible to make an impact. Ideally the future of Asian elephants will be one where they can live in their natural habitats, while still receiving veterinary care and protection from poachers, while local communities can sustain themselves by caring for elephants rather than mistreating them.
If you would like to find out more about how you can experience Asian wildlife in a responsible way, contact us today to learn about our broad range of wildlife tours, rainforest discoveries and eco-friendly trips. Buffalo Tours is a pioneer of responsible travel in Asia and we are always developing new ways in which we can have a positive impact socially, economically and environmentally in the destinations in which we operate.