One Life: World Tourism Day

27 September 2021

One Life Banner

By Dave Neale, Animal Welfare Director, Animals Asia

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 that life can be and should be friendly and peaceful.

Yet it is this calm, good natured temperament which we have all too often chosen to exploit. To the elephants’, and to our detriment 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.

Elephants in tourism

Thousands of elephants in tourism camps across Asia are being used for close human contact interactions such as riding, bathing, feeding and selfies. 

While these activities may seem benign and elephant handlers might suggest their elephants participate voluntarily or they’ve been rescued from a life of hard labour or riding, this is not always the case. 

Throughout a tourists’ elephant experience they will be in the hands of an elephant handler, or “mahout”. This person understands their elephant like no other. Yet in many cases the mahout will be in possession of a tool such as a bullhook to ensure the elephant — ultimately a large, wild and potentially dangerous animal — remains under control and does what’s expected of it. 

Control through fear and pain

These tools are sometimes used for physical punishment. No matter how gently they may be used with an animal in your presence, at some point it had to be 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.

The use of these tools removes an elephant’s choice and control over its immediate environment and actions. It forces the elephant to comply with the handler’s wishes regardless of whether or not the action it is being asked to perform is in the best interest of the elephant. 

Performing elephants

Many elephants are forced to perform circus tricks for our entertainment. Elephants standing on their heads, spinning in circles whilst standing on one leg, and walking on top of rolling barrels confirms our place as the tricksters and manipulators of all things beautiful, whilst the animals endure their pain and indignity time after time to prevent them from receiving physical punishments.

When not performing, they are often chained to trees, forced to stand on hard surfaces and provided with little water or shade for long periods of time.

Elephants in poorly managed tourism camps often suffer physically and mentally as they are deprived of the ability to perform their wide range of natural behaviours. Most importantly, they are deprived of the freedom of choice: choice of social encounters, activity, cognitive engagement, foods and resting times and places. All of the things that a wild elephant occupies themselves with each day is denied and replaced by human-mandated activities. 

The life of a captive elephant

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, beaten into submission via a brutal “training” regime, and forced into a life of abject misery on a logging or a tourist camp. 

Others have the misfortune of being born into this life and are subjected to our ‘“abusive games” from birth.

If you truly love and respect elephants, do not ride them, do not bathe them, do not pose for your photograph with them, and do not watch them perform circus tricks. 

Thankfully, there are now many places which have genuinely 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

Ethical elephant tourism programmes ensure elephants are managed in a manner conducive to their psychological needs, allowing them to function where possible as elephants would in the wild and to spend as much time as possible free from direct human intervention.

Animals Asia partners with Yok Don National Park in Vietnam to provide such an ethical elephant experience. The four ex-working elephants who live there now spend their days roaming, foraging, resting, sleeping and interacting with each other while the tourists quietly follow and observe them from a safe and respectful distance.

Since the beginning of our ethical elephant programme in 2018 we have seen the lives of the four resident elephants improve. They can choose how to spend their time and how to express themselves and their natural behaviours in ways that were previously impossible, and this has improved their mental and physical health.

We are in the process of negotiating to bring more elephants into our programme and establishing a second ethical elephant programme to provide more elephants in Vietnam with a sense of freedom and choice.

Our hope for the future of elephants in Vietnam

I am pleased to say that we are not alone in this endeavour. More organisations and tour operators across South East Asia are transitioning from the ‘elephant interaction and riding’ model to the ‘ethical hands-off model’ allowing elephants to truly be themselves and for us to simply be the observers of these gentle giants in their natural environment.

As we begin to see opportunities for travel opening up again following the pandemic, these ethical tour operators need our support more than ever. 

Please support ethical elephant tourism and the livelihoods of those that rely upon it. But be sure that you are supporting a genuine ethical tourism experience, one in which the elephants are simply allowed to be elephants.

Read more:

National park stops elephant rides with new tourism model designed to end elephant exploitation in Vietnam

Rescue of H'Plo the elephant