Elephant Tourism – a moral dilemma

There are thought to be fewer than 5000 Asian elephants remaining in Thailand, of which 4000 are held in captivity. This follows a rapid decrease from around 100,000 elephants in the 1900s, largely due to habitat decline and poaching. Elephas maximas is now a protected endangered species, however, until 1989 when the Thai government banned logging in all protected areas, a huge proportion of the population was being used for labour. The ban had the secondary effect of removing many elephants from this line of work, although the consequence of this was a boom in elephant tourism. Many were taken and trained to be ridden, or to perform tricks in circuses. Over the past decade or so, many studies have been conducted by organisations such as World Animal Protection and the WWF, which have highlighted issues with these practices and (thankfully) led to a slow move towards more ethical elephant tourism. When visiting Thailand, I was intrigued to see this for myself, though I held reservations about the morality of it all.

Maerim elephant sanctuary overall hosted a fun and educational experience, costing just over 1800 Baht for a full day (including lunch). Having done as much research as possible prior to booking an elephant experience, I had high expectations, and hoped that it really was as ethical as I had heard from other travellers who had visited. Though the handling of the animals was not as warm and fluffy as you would like to imagine, the love that the manager and elephant guardians have for their elephants transcends all doubt, and (as experts) they are eager to teach visitors as much as possible about the species. Our day began with an informative video about elephant cruelty, followed by an explanation of the individual histories of the 6 elephants owned by the sanctuary, bought from an array of different conditions ranging from Phuket’s circuses to logging farms on the Western border with Myanmar; there is no beating around the bush here, and the lead mahout describes graphically what he has seen when visiting such places. Captive elephants are tamed using fear-based methods. Phajaan describes the gruelling process of breaking a young elephant’s spirit, through intensive physical abuse. They then live for years in unnatural settings with humans that condition their behaviours, so I can understand that it would be difficult to release them into the wild directly following their rescue from inhumane logging camps or tourism centres. The optimist within me can see that the living conditions within the sanctuaries and conservation centres are far better than the places they were rescued from, and here they can be taught to love and be loved again.

But elephants never forget, and the mistreatment they have received in the past has damaged their relationships not just with humans, but with each other. Their brutal histories are evidenced by the lack of hair on their tails, their banded hind legs, and the scars and lumps covering their wrinkled skin. It was easy to see that the interaction between the 6 members of this dysfunctional family was strained, especially for the newest member, who had been rescued from a logging farm just 9 months prior to our visit, and remained on the outskirts of the herd. As one of the most emotionally complex animals, it is our understanding that elephants can actually die of loneliness and/or heartbreak; and yet, their wild herds typically spanning 8-100 individuals have been reduced to just a handful of elephants per sanctuary. Families and loved ones parted. Brothers separated from brothers. Babies taken from mothers. It is easy to understand why these social mammals have become so introverted and solitary.

Furthermore, it is hard to decipher whether or not the elephants are truly happy, and if these milder forms of elephant tourism are any better. As much as I enjoyed spending time with the elephants, the sceptic within me recognised that there was really no way of knowing what went on behind closed doors, when all of the excitable tourists go home and the elephant carers are left counting the money. How could we be sure that these elephants hadn’t received any inhumane training post-rescue, in order to ensure that they interact in a friendly and safe way? How much did I believe that the ropes (albeit loose) around their necks were an absolute necessity? How do I, an expert in neither animal behaviour nor their welfare, decide what a happy elephant looks like? 8 acres for the 6 elephants sounds like a lot but when I asked if they were allowed to roam freely, the answer was most certainly not. Though there was no particular pressure on the elephants to interact with us, there was something eerily uncomfortable about seeing the next group of tourists arrive and go through the same motions as we had earlier in the day, feeding and trekking with the elephants. When do the elephants get a day off? I suppose one simply has to trust that the mahouts have the elephants’ best interests at heart, and remember that being fed and bathed three times a day is a much nicer alternative to the horrifying mistreatment they have previously been exposed to. Learning about the exploitation of such creatures for human benefit, and spreading word of our own experiences, is the best way we can positively contribute to their lives. But, somehow, the unanswered questions maintain my internal conflict.

A chained elephant I saw in Laos, being ridden by a local who repeatedly hit the animal on the head with the wooden stick he is holding.

The elephant tourism problem spans across Asia, too, and though awareness of animal rights is increasing in Thailand, many elephants are still used for logging and tourism throughout Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and India. I, personally, can vouch for this, having seen chained elephants being prodded with sticks in Laos. Some tourists we encountered in the beautiful Angkor Wot temples even claimed the elephants they were about to ride weren’t necessarily unhappy. Many tours in Thailand still offer elephant rides, with no government regulation on such activities. It shocks me that tourists and backpackers would still consider partaking in this, despite so many reports stating the distress this can cause an elephant and how to find more ethical alternatives. Then again, am I any better? I chose to ignore my moral turmoil, and still technically contributed to elephant tourism, paying my money and taking photos, which I will most likely post on social media accounts – I am disappointed at my lack of restraint. I consider myself a relatively moral person, but retrospectively I can’t help but ponder on how much these elephant sanctuaries differ to the zoos and aquariums that make me feel so uncomfortable. I hope that 10 years in the future we won’t be feeling the same level of regret regarding elephants as we feel now about Seaworld etc.

Sure, we can all give ourselves a pat on the back for being ‘conscious’ travellers and visiting these so-called ‘sanctuaries’ where riding and hooks are prohibited, but our responsibility to these colossal creatures goes beyond that. Only by questioning the actions of even the most ‘ethical’ of elephant experiences, do we place pressure on the management to ensure that the elephants get the care that they truly deserve.

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