Elephants are among the most intelligent of the creatures with whom we share the planet, with complex consciousnesses that are capable of strong emotions.
Across Africa, they have inspired respect from the people that share the landscape with them, giving them a strong cultural significance. As icons of the continent elephants are tourism magnets, attracting funding that helps protect wilderness areas. They are also keystone species, playing an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of the ecosystems in which they live.
Love for elephants brings countless tourists to elephant attractions, allowing them the opportunity to interact with the species firsthand. Although the attractions may look idyllic to visitors, they are often darker than they seem. Two recent cases of elephant injuries at wildlife attractions provide a small glimpse into an industry rife with concerns over animal welfare.
In April, a footage of young skeletal elephant performing tricks at a Thai zoo went viral. According to a campaign group named Moving Animals, that elephant is just a calf, which was taken away from his mother and being forced to perform for tourists daily at the zoo. He broke both his back legs after becoming stuck in the mud while performing. But the zoo did not even realise for three whole days. Although animal activists worked to have the elephant moved to a sanctuary, a vet found him had an infection that resulted in constant diarrhoea for months before he could be relocated, it made him so weak and died after that.
Another video taken in May shows an one-year-old elephant, strapped to his mother by ropes, collapse from exhaustion while his mother gives rides to humans. The young elephant struggles to get up while laying on the concrete ground before finally getting to his feet and continuing the elephant ride.
Both the incidents occurred in Thailand, a country that has emerged as a hub for elephant tourism. This country has a complicated relationship with domestic elephants. Elephant tourism in Thailand has developed into an important socioeconomic factor after a logging ban initiated in 1989 resulted in thousands of out-of-work elephants. However, the welfare of captive elephants has been a topic of intense debate among tourists, scientists and stakeholders because of the range of working conditions and management practices to which they are exposed.
Elephant attractions routinely subject animals to cruel conditions such as abusive training practices, the use of chains and isolation from conspecifics. The attractions may also push the elephants to work long hours, interacting with up to 1,000 tourists a day.
It may be difficult for unknowing tourists to spot an inhumane elephant attraction because attraction operators may allow the elephants to roam while tourists are visiting, keeping the chains and small enclosures hidden from the public. They also tell tourists about how they rescue and rehabilitate injured and orphaned elephants. This deception allows tourists to both have their up-close encounter with elephants and leave feeling that they had a fulfilling and meaningful experience.
If any good can come from the recent incidents of elephant injuries, tourists can see a snapshot into the consequences of elephant exploitation in the tourism industry. Tourists should conduct thorough research before visiting any animal attraction to ensure they are not supporting animal cruelty, and avoid any companies calling themselves “sanctuaries” that are using bullhooks or chains, or lacking basic provisions of water, food, and shade.
“Any parks advertise themselves as sanctuaries, but they are not,” says Maria Mossman, founder of non-profit group Action for Elephants UK. “Never go to a park that advertises shows, unnatural behaviour, tricks or painting – and please, never ride an elephant.”
The issue is not as simple as casting all elephant attractions as cruel because the line between ethical and exploitative is difficult to decipher.