Two years ago, our team in Asia started a ground-breaking investigation of the conditions endured by elephants across tourist entertainment venues in Asia. The team visited just under 3000 elephants at 220 venues across Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Laos and Cambodia. What we found was heart-breaking.
Many of these majestic animals spent their entire day with chains around their ankles and are not able to interact with other elephants. They endure primitive shelters, poor food and stressful interactions with tourists, where coachload after coachload of people ride on their backs day in day out. It was soul-destroying to see, but our team knew it was vital to document these conditions so that we can improve the lives of these poor elephants. Our research revealed a staggering 77% of elephants used in tourist venues in Asia are living in shocking conditions. All of these elephants are kept at venues offering elephant rides.
I've seen the suffering with my own eyes in Thailand, home to about three-quarters of all elephants kept in captivity for entertainment in Asia. I watched elephants perform bizarre routines day after day. Elephants have to be broken to perform such unnatural behaviour. At a young age, they would have been restrained, painfully punished and mistreated in order to break their spirits. Bull hooks are used to beat them into submission to make them compliant. Only after this horrendous process will an elephant ride on a giant scooter or paint with its trunk.
Almost all the tourists both the team and I spoke to were unaware that many of the elephants they were watching or riding were taken from their mothers as babies, forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions throughout their lives. It's very unnatural and I don't doubt that if they knew what really went on behind the scenes they would be appalled.
Thailand is a beautiful country but there has been a 30% rise in the number of elephants at tourism venues there since 2010. The commercialisation of elephant tourism is clearly visible. Some venues in Thailand receive over 1,000 visitors a day where the elephants are continually required to give rides, perform and interact with tourists. These large venues are responsible for some of the poorest conditions we came across.
During the course of our investigation we found a few venues that strive to provide excellent welfare for their elephants. One vital aspect of these venues is that they have moved away from the riding or washing experiences and replaced them with opportunities to observe these magnificent animals in more natural settings.
These venues are beacons of hope that can encourage the urgently-needed shift in the cruel elephant tourism industry. Elephant friendly sanctuaries not only let people admire elephants in a more natural environment, but can help the local economy and provide a better quality of life for the keepers, known as mahouts, who often also live in very poor conditions. If these genuine sanctuaries become more popular then everyone wins.
It has been a long heart-breaking project but the team in Asia has produced one of the most comprehensive studies on the welfare conditions for captive elephants in the tourism industry. The results will help the biggest companies in the travel industry, law-makers in government as well as regular travellers to make informed decisions to protect elephants.
Our research shows most tourists sign up for experiences with animals because they love animals or think it will be fun and don't know about the cruelty behind things like elephant rides, tricks and photo opportunities. We hope that now you know the facts, you will choose not to contribute to this cruelty. The best and most rewarding way to see an elephant is in the wild or a genuine elephant sanctuary, that allows one to observe elephants being elephants - without rides or performances.