We were stood outside the elephant dung factory in Kegalle, Sri Lanka having just watched their faeces being turned into paper and purchased the finished notebook as a souvenir.
From here we could see the creatures that had produced the dung. They had heavy chains around their neck, which connected to their ankles as people sat on their back. They looked dead behind the eyes as they walked backwards and forwards while tourists posed for the perfect Instagram snap.
It was heartbreaking to watch. Firstly because nine years ago I was that tourist while travelling around Thailand and secondly because we had spent the morning at the Elephant Freedom Project with Seetha, an elephant who had escaped a life of work after 27 years.
A two-year study by World Animal Protection investigated elephants used within the tourist industry across Asia including Thailand and Sri Lanka. In this corner of the world elephant rides are among one of the most popular tourists activities. However, the study found that 3 out of 4 are living in ‘poor’ and ‘unacceptable’ conditions and the scale of suffering is ‘severe’. Furthermore, there has been a 10% rise in the number of elephants at tourism venues in Thailand since 2010.
The trauma these elephants endure begins when they are separated from their mothers and continues during the horrific training process to ‘break their spirit’ right through to the conditions they are kept in. By night they are attached to a chain, often less than 3m in length - by day they must carry and interact with thousands of holidaymakers.
In the wild elephants live in herds, roaming for miles and eating up to 300lb of food a day. In this profit-driven industry they are isolated while their movement is restricted by chains and determined by humans with bull hooks.
If it wasn’t for the Elephant Freedom Project Seetha would still be ridden but unfortunately she can never go back to the wild. The cost of volunteering there, which starts at around £31 for half a day, ensures the project continue to win the bid to rent her - and other elephants like her - from the rich businessmen who own them. In contrasts to those just a few minutes down the road, these elephants are able to walk freely and are properly cared for.
Before you head to Asia make sure you check whether the ‘sanctuary’ you intend to visit really has elephant welfare at its heart - or just professes to. Tourists subsidise this unethical industry, allowing it to continue the inhumane treatment of these magnificent creatures. Trust me, as a lover of elephants, it is far more rewarding to volunteer with those that show the scars of a distressing past, than be the one helping to cause them.