Many elephants in South-East Asia live in "poorly managed tourism camps" and are deprived of any happiness or freedom.
David Neale is the Animal Welfare Director for Animals Asia, leading a variety of welfare campaigns working towards improving the welfare of animals across Asia. He has a degree in Environmental Science and a Masters in Conservation Biology. Here he explains why you should never ride an elephant on holiday.
To be in the presence of an elephant is an amazing experience. Their sheer size overwhelms you, and their gentle social nature leaves you with a sense of calm and fulfilment.
Yet it is this calm, good-natured temperament which we have all too often exploited. To both our detriments, we have learnt that if we physically and psychologically abuse these gentle giants we can force them into situations which we convince ourselves are amusing and entertaining.
A prime example of this, is the myriad of elephant tourism opportunities which exist for travellers visiting many South-East Asian destinations. What could be more ‘natural’ than spending a few hours in the company of an elephant, while exercising and washing them. After all, in many cases these elephants have been ‘rescued’ from a life of hard labour in logging camps.
But often all is not as it seems.
The problem with negative reinforcement
Many thousands of elephants in tourism camps across Asia are being used for close contact interactions including riding, bathing, and hands-on feeding for photo opportunities. While these activities may appear to be fun, and elephant handlers may suggest their elephants participate voluntarily, there is nothing amusing for these elephants.
Throughout your experience, you will be in the caring hands of an elephant handler, a person that understands their elephant like no other. Yet in many cases this person will be in possession of an instrument to ensure the elephant remains under control.
Providing close contact experiences with large animals brings with it the inevitable issue of safety. Therefore, your handler may use a sharpened tool or a hook to ‘guide’ your elephant into the places and positions that you desire.
These tools are used in some situations to mete out physical punishment. No matter how gently they may be used with an animal in your presence, at some point it would have been established as a negative reinforcer in order to be effective.
That means causing enough pain and discomfort that the animal remembers and seeks to avoid that experience by complying with the instruction being given. A smaller handheld ‘jab-stick’ may also be used to jab the elephant in sensitive places such as behind the ears, to ensure it complies with ‘your wishes’.
The use of these tools removes an elephant’s choice and control over its immediate environment and actions. It is forced to comply with the wishes of the handler regardless of whether or not the action it is being asked to perform is in its best interests.
Performing circus tricks for entertainment
To make matters worse, many elephants are also forced to endure the indignity, and in many cases, physical pain of being made to perform circus tricks for our entertainment. Elephants standing on their heads, spinning in circles while standing on one leg, and walking on top of rolling barrels confirms our place as the tricksters and manipulators of all things beautiful.
While the animals themselves endure their pain and indignity time after time to prevent them from receiving further physical punishments.
Many may also spend long periods of time chained to trees, often forced to stand on hard surfaces and provided with little access to water or shade during their hot working hours.
Elephants in such poorly managed tourism camps are often suffering physically and mentally as they are deprived of the ability to perform their wide repertoire of natural behaviours.
More importantly, they are deprived of choice: choice of social encounters, activity, cognitive engagement, food, resting times and places. All the things that a wild elephant occupies themselves with each day are denied and replaced by human-mandated activities.
Now when you consider this from the elephant’s point of view, suddenly it does not seem quite so attractive. For many of these elephants, they started their lives in the wild with their family herds, only to be ripped away by human hands. Then beaten into submission via a brutal ‘training’ regime, and forced into a life of abject misery on a logging or tourist camp. Others have had the misfortune to be born into this life, subjected to our ‘abusive games’ from an early age.
If you truly love and respect elephants, do not ride them, do not pose for photographs with them, and do not pay to see them perform circus tricks.
What about ethical elephant tourism?
Thankfully, there are now many places which have truly ‘rescued’ elephants from their lives of misery, places that allow elephants to be elephants in the company of each other and do not force them to do tricks or provide us with rides and ‘close contact experiences’.
These are the places that provide true sanctuary.
Ethical elephant tourism programmes ensure elephants are managed in a manner conducive to their psychological needs. They allow them to function where possible as elephants would do in the wild, and to spend as much time as practically possible free from direct human intervention.
Animals Asia partners with Yok Don National Park in Vietnam to provide such an ethical elephant experience. Our four elephants spend their days roaming in the national park, foraging, resting, sleeping, and interacting with each other while the tourists quietly follow and observe them from a safe and respectful distance.
Improving the lives of elephants
Since the beginning of our ethical elephant programme in 2018 we have seen the lives of our four elephants improve.
Our elephants are presented with choice as to how they wish to spend their day, and this is resulting in healthier elephants that are allowed to express themselves and their natural behaviours in ways that were previously not possible. We are in the process of negotiating to bring more elephants into this programme and establishing a second ethical elephant programme to provide more elephants in Vietnam with a sense of freedom and choice.
I am pleased to say that we are not alone in this endeavour, with organisations and tour operators across SE Asia transitioning elephant tourism from the ‘elephant interaction and riding model’ to the ‘ethical hands-off model’.
Thus allowing elephants to truly be themselves and for us to simply be the observers of these truly gentle giants in their natural environment.
As we begin to see opportunities for travel opening up again following the pandemic, these tour operators need our support more than ever before. Please do support elephant tourism and the livelihoods of those that rely upon it, but be sure that you are supporting a truly ethical tourism experience, one in which elephants are truly allowed to be elephants.