Elephant Tourism Is Way More Complex Than You’d Imagine: The Thailand Example

You’ve probably seen ads for saving-the-wildlife donations, showing a close-up of a tear running down an elephant’s wrinkly cheek. You may have heard horror stories about “crushing the spirit” of baby elephants, or seen elephant tourism signs advertising “no chains, no hooks, no riding.” But this is an inaccurate picture of elephant tourism.

Dr. Ingrid Suter, who holds a doctorate in captive elephant conservation says, “There remains a continued resistance to facts [with respect to elephant tourism, where we prefer] to focus on click-bait headlines and ‘altruistic’ corporate social responsibility over expert findings.” Nicolas Dubrocard works with Suter at Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES), an organization that creates elephant standards and assesses camps against them. Dubrocard says “I believe also that the camps should stop lying to the tourists to please [people] influenced by activist groups.”

Are there improvements to be made in how captive elephants are treated? Absolutely. But banning tourist-elephant interactions and boycotting elephant camps can result in worse, not better, welfare conditions for elephants. Dubrocard says, “It’s not the activity itself that should be criticized, but the way it’s managed and handled.”

So, let’s tackle the complexities of elephant tourism, using the example of Thailand, the Southeast Asian country with the largest number of captive elephants and more than half of the region’s elephant camps.

Elephants Are Expensive but Few Can Be Returned to the Wild

Thailand has about 4,300 captive elephants, almost all privately owned, and about 3,000 wild elephants. Neighboring Laos has about 500 captive elephants and Cambodia fewer than 100. Together they have between 900 and 1,400 wild elephants. About half of Thailand’s captive elephants work in tourism–many formerly worked in teak logging which was banned in 1989.

The average Asian elephant eats 18 hours a day, consuming 550 pounds of food and drinking 50 gallons of water daily. John Roberts, the head of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, says it costs about $12,000 U.S. dollars per year to care for a captive elephant in Thailand. Here, elephants receive free hospital care, but non-hospital costs, including the expense of getting the elephant to the hospital, are all paid by the owner.

On top of the $12,000 is $6,000/year for wages, room, and board for each elephant’s mahout. “Mahout”, a Hindi word meaning “elephant keeper,” is commonly used in Thailand. The proper Thai term is “kwan chang,” meaning, “one who drives or walks with the elephant.” Traditionally, each elephant has a mahout who cares for it and the two are often paired for life. The job was esteemed (though not well-paid) and often passed from father to son in Southeast Asia’s Indigenous communities. A mahout spends most of his waking hours with his elephant, ensuring the animal is safe and content. However, at some camps, traditional mahouts are sometimes being replaced with inexperienced workers who lack the necessary training.

“It’s not the activity itself that should be criticized, but the way it’s managed and handled.”

The sudden halt in tourism from the 2020 COVID-19 crisis shows us exactly what happens when tourists and their money stop coming to elephant camps. Roberts’ Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation was created after tourism dropped due to the 2002-04 SARS epidemic. He reports grave concern amongst veterinarians that animals will die of malnutrition. Tourism is essential for paying for the welfare of captive elephants.

Whether from a tourism-ending virus or from tourists misunderstanding ethical elephant tourism, elephants that can no longer earn their keep in tourism are at risk. In order to feed them, their owners may have to move them and their mahouts elsewhere in the region to work in the legal and illegal logging industry or to beg in the streets.

While returning animals to the wild is possible for some elephants, it’s unrealistic for most. Suter describes rewilding as “an expensive and uncertain task” that “takes many years to achieve.” Elephants in the wild need to have enough space where they won’t forage in farmland and are not at risk of human-elephant conflict, traffic accidents, or getting hurt by electrical wires. They need to be able to find food and water, be in a social group they’re comfortable with, and, at least initially, be away from wild elephants.

Michelle Szydlowski, an anthrozoology instructor and doctoral student at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, is writing her Ph.D. thesis about captive elephants in Nepal. She says, “Attempts to place numbers of individuals together has often resulted in loss of elephant lives,” as elephants don’t always get along with each other. She adds, “large scale sanctuaries take years to build, and require separate enclosures for small herds and a dedication to discovering which individuals can be housed together.”

Greenwashing Means Poorer Elephant Welfare

There isn’t enough wild land left in Thailand for all of Thailand’s captive elephants, even if they could be brought there with the confidence they’d instantly adapt and be safe. Elephant tourism is necessary to ensure captive elephants are properly cared for.

All over Southeast Asia, elephant “sanctuaries” try to convince tourists that their camp is ethical and deserving of their money. But a lack of understanding by tourists and by some animal rights organizations of what is and is not ethical is making elephants’ lives worse, not better.

Many working with elephants in Asia are reluctant to call out the animal rights business. But, as one anonymous source quoted by Skift describes, “An organization like World Animal Protection must raise some $60 million a year, and you don’t get that kind of money with a step-by-step approach—you need to be radically critical and expose whatever cruelty you can find or even claim.”

Greenwashing: No Chains 

A popular “ethical” claim is that an elephant camp doesn’t use chains. When the mahout is not with the elephant, such as at night, there are three choices to ensure the animal is safe. It can be kept behind bars in a cage, fenced, or tethered in different locations nightly and allowed to roam in a defined area and sleep, forage, and socialize as it wishes.

Fences are expensive, rarely elephant-proof, and make moving animals to locations with freshly-growing food difficult. While a rope may sound better than a chain, it isn’t. This elephant care manual for mahouts explains that ropes “are capable of causing horrendous injuries,” such as skin abrasions, tightening or loosening with heat and humidity, and can easily get twisted and caught. The best nighttime conditions for most captive elephants is a long chain attached to their ankle so they won’t wander outside of the safe zone and can stay within hearing distance of their mahout, who can attend to any issues as needed.

Greenwashing: No Hooks

Another popular claim is that an ethical camp doesn’t use hooks. To the untrained eye, the metal bullhook does look intimidating. But in reality, the bullhook is an essential tool to ensure the safety of the elephant, the rest of the herd, tourists, and the mahout in case of an emergency. If the elephant gets spooked or is about to do something dangerous, the mahout needs an immediate way to get the animal’s attention. The mahout can rest the hook on a pressure point behind the elephant’s ear to prevent an elephant or person from getting hurt. “The tool is not the issue, only the way it’s used,” says Dubrocard.

Suter describes it this way: “Everyone deserves to be safe at work. A ranger on an African safari will possess a gun—that does not make him a killer. Similarly, an Asian mahout can carry a hook without making him a cruel monster.” She adds, “It sometimes feels like a mahout’s life is expendable, just so Westerners can feel good about what they see. This is grossly unfair to all elephant keepers.” Roberts explains that proper training with the bullhook is essential and that when bullhooks are banned by a camp, they’re replaced with other tools, like nails, that are less safe for both humans and animals.

Dr. Janine Brown, a researcher at the Smithsonian and one of the world’s experts in elephant endocrinology, says “hooks and chains are not stress factors, but if misused, they can lead to injury and be sources of physical and psychological stress.”

The Real Deal With Elephant Training

Good mahouts who have been well-trained themselves rarely need to use a bullhook, either for emergencies or for training. Elephant training is still one of the biggest areas of misinformation. Stories about crushing the spirit of baby elephants are the most controversial. But they’re stories about practices that are increasingly rare.

All elephants that interact with humans—tourists, mahouts, or veterinarians—need to be trained. An elephant needs to respond to commands to lift a foot or lie down, to open its mouth to have teeth looked at, and to tolerate blood tests and having a rectal thermometer inserted. If any of these health checks cause stress to the animal or danger to humans, the elephant needs to be physically or chemically restrained. Elephants need to be trained to take a rider so they can be moved safely over roads and near farmers’ fields. An elephant trained to take a rider can even avoid a hospital stay: the mahout can monitor I.V. needles which are placed through the thin skin behind an elephant’s ears.

Animal abuse is illegal in Thailand, though in the past, elephants taken from the wild did sometimes receive cruel training. Similarly, Suter says, “Westerners used to flog their dogs.” Times change. People who work with elephants know it’s unethical and socially unacceptable to use fear, starvation, and violence to get an elephant to submit. They know there’s no longer a need for it given the effectiveness of positive reinforcement training. It also doesn’t make economic sense to injure an animal that costs $20,000 to $40,000 in countries like Thailand where the average annual wage is $5,200.

People who work with elephants know it’s unethical and socially unacceptable to use fear, starvation, and violence to get an elephant to submit. They know there’s no longer a need for it given the effectiveness of positive reinforcement training.

Suter, comparing it to a dog going to puppy school, says, “training an elephant calf for 10 minutes a day using verbal commands is commonplace at many camps.” Mahouts, assigned to baby elephants even before birth, use positive reinforcement, touch on specific parts of their body (pressure near an elephant’s “armpit” is particularly soothing), verbal commands, and treats like bananas and sugarcane. Suter adds, “The calves grow up knowing exactly what is expected of them, making them relaxed and not at all stressed when undertaking commands. A lot has changed and Westerners need to acknowledge this.”

While organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare believe elephants shouldn’t be kept in captivity, they do, “welcome approaches and methods that enable a more humane species-appropriate handling of [captive] elephants: without the use of violence and coercion, based on mutual trust, through verbal encouragement and praise as well as reward through food.” Dr. Thittaya Janymethakul, a veterinarian at a Chiang Mai elephant hospital, describes these exact positive reinforcement methods that are now the norm to train elephants.

Where Do Baby Elephants Come From?

Many believe that baby elephants are still taken from the wild. This, like cruel training, is also rare. It’s difficult (though not impossible) for a Southeast Asian elephant to be taken from the wild into captivity in the region. Roberts says capturing wild elephants from Burma/Myanmar for the Chinese market remains a problem. But in Thailand, there’s a regime involving microchips, DNA testing, government visits, registration documentation, and a number of laws to prevent the capture of wild elephants. Roberts describes it as “pretty much foolproof.” He’s even more encouraged by a new Thailand Elephant Act under discussion.

Most older elephants in the Thai tourism industry used to work in forestry and young elephants are almost exclusively born in captivity.

Most older elephants in the Thai tourism industry used to work in forestry and young elephants are almost exclusively born in captivity. Animals that breed naturally and successfully in captivity are evidence they’re in good physical and mental health. Some experts say that breeding in captivity is necessary to ensure genetic diversity and is a vital part of managing an endangered species.

Theerapat​ Trungprakan​, owner of Patara Elephant Farm and president of the Thai Elephant​ Alliance​ Association, says 50% of Thailand’s elephant population has died within the last 45 years, less than the average lifetime of an elephant. Suter explains that, “captive elephants act as genetic reservoirs to safeguard the entire Asian elephant population from future catastrophic losses such as disease or disaster.” Other experts say a government strategy at the national level is needed to ensure varied genetics and to determine the ideal number of elephants, wild and captive, that can be sustained.

Greenwashing: No Riding

Elephant riding is another controversial issue. Many animal welfare organizations are particularly critical of it, citing, for example, instances of injury to elephants’ backs. But veterinarians say that the weight of riders is about 4% of an elephant’s body weight—10% with a howdah chair—and is nothing compared to the weight of a bull elephant mounting a female for sex. Veterinarians don’t have a problem with riding under specific conditions, such as rides of no more than 20 minutes.

New studies show that elephants that provide rides are in better physical condition and have lower levels of stress hormones than elephants at observation-only camps. Skift describes a year-long 2019 study conducted by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Unit, the National Elephant Institute of Thailand, and Chiang Mai University. The study measured elephants’ stress hormones and showed that animals getting daily exercise by providing tourist rides had lower stress levels, better body scores, and were less likely to be obese than elephants in passive viewing camps. Brown, one of the researchers in the study, says that elephants that didn’t participate in activities had higher stress indicators than those that did.

Brown was also one of the first researchers to show that captive elephants can easily have weight problems and provides advice on captive elephant care. She says walking is important for elephant foot, joint, and skeletal health, as well as for weight management. For camps that don’t allow riding, Roberts explains that, “camps either have to allow their elephants to get unhealthily fat or mahouts have to exercise them outside tourist hours,” adding, “which might defeat the object if you truly believe ‘hands-off’ is better.”

The importance of exercise even holds true for pregnant elephants. Many camps used to prevent pregnant elephants from participating in activities like riding. However, veterinarians found that those elephants had pregnancy problems resulting in the need for surgery and sometimes the death of the fetus, and now encourage more exercise.

It’s Not the Activity That’s the Problem

Many experts say it’s wrong to judge a camp as unethical by the activities it hosts. It’s not riding, bathing, feeding, or touching per se that’s a problem, but the overall management of the elephants and whether their individual needs and preferences are taken into account. It’s problematic to have too many people walking near or bathing an elephant, for elephants to not get enough rest or shade, for them to not have a balanced diet or enough exercise, to have strangers touch an elephant that doesn’t like being touched, or for tourists who aren’t well briefed about proper behavior to interact with the elephants. A more important question than whether a camp allows bathing or riding for a minor part of the elephant’s day, says Roberts, is about their overall management approach and purchasing and breeding policies.

Dubrocard, of ACES, says, “There are camps with riding activity taking very good care of the elephants and sanctuaries that don’t meet the standards.” It’s next to impossible for a tourist to know whether a camp is run ethically or not. Oversimplified and inaccurate messaging from animal rights organizations makes it even more difficult. Plus, responsible tourism is about long-lasting reform, not boycotts. Greenwashing is making captive elephants less safe and diverting funds and energy away from actions that can improve their welfare.

The best camps know their individual elephants and the activities they like and dislike, and respond when the elephant indicates displeasure. Roberts, who is also the Director of Sustainability and Conservation for Minor Hotels, explains, “In our experience, perhaps the biggest problem when managing elephants is to dogmatically assume they all like or want the same things—some elephants are happy to be ridden by strangers but perhaps those same elephants don’t like strangers moving randomly beside them; some don’t like strangers on top but are happy with them at eye level; some elephants like being in a manufactured herd situation with other elephants, but it makes some elephants incredibly nervous. The trick is to spot the elephant’s character and work with that.” Camps with well-trained mahouts and management do just that.

Beyond stress hormone levels, science isn’t yet capable of telling us very much about elephants’ mental health or about whether the promise of bananas incents them to tolerate an otherwise unwanted bath by a tourist. Animal rights charities encourage anthropomorphizing and making human (and Western) assumptions about what an ideal elephant life is like, contrary to what many experts say is true.

All captive elephants have humans making decisions for them in some capacity, says Roberts, whether tourists are there or not. Done well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Roberts reminds that wild elephants don’t have complete freedom of choice either, having to spend their energy finding food and staying safe. For captive elephants, he says, “The trick is finding a management regimen that finds the balance between allowing an elephant to express its natural behavior and providing the interventions to ensure it gets what it needs for a healthy life.”

Solutions Aren’t Simple and Need to Keep Mahouts in Mind

In the short- to medium-term, having all elephant camps (not just those that cater to western tourists, who are a small part of the market) follow standards, such as those set by ACES, would ensure greater welfare of captive elephants. Accreditation would help too, though many of ACES’ 191 standards can’t be implemented overnight and just because a camp isn’t certified doesn’t mean it’s unethical.

Camps need encouragement to improve their practices—and that’s difficult without tourists’ entrance fees and when tourists support camps that greenwash less-than-ideal practices. Mechanisms encouraging mahouts, owners, and camp managers to share good practices and learn from each other are beneficial, as are enhanced training programs. As with responsible tourism to protect most animals (as explained here about mountain gorillas), ensuring that people who live near endangered species have secure incomes and can provide for their families is essential for protecting animals. In the case of captive elephants, that particularly means supporting mahouts and their traditional role.

“In animal welfare, the situation is not white or black, it’s mostly the same color as the elephants: gray.”

Szydlowski, writing about Nepalese captive elephants, says, “the push by PETA and other organizations to completely and all at once eliminate elephant rides and baths would likely result in a plunge into worse poverty for these elephant workers.” And that means worse conditions for elephants. Roberts wants tourists to stop their fixation on activities like riding or bathing and instead encourage holistic 24-hour welfare.

Westerners need to approach other countries’ cultural practices with care. Skift quotes an anonymous source who says, “We may be approaching reason from the aggressive and arrogant approach of Western animal rights organizations, which in my opinion do not always see the elephant situation in the same way as people working with the animals.”

Supporting Camps Doing the Right Thing Helps All Camps Do the Right Thing

By all means, choose your elephant activities with care and make donations to help save elephants. But don’t be fooled by oversimplified and outdated info, or even photos of “crying” elephants. Trungprakan​, of Patara and the Thai Elephant​ Alliance​ Association, explains that elephants don’t have tear ducts and that “tear” tracks are actually a sign their sinuses are being cleared properly.

Experts like Suter remind that, “elephant welfare does not exist in a vacuum and no bottomless pit of money currently exists for elephant conservation.” She believes that money designated for rewilding elephants is, “better off invested and managed to improve the welfare services for captive elephants.” If you’d like to donate, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is a good charity and has a specific $20,000 fundraising campaign in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

As Dubrocard, of Asian Captive Elephant Standards, says, “In animal welfare, the situation is not white or black, it’s mostly the same color as the elephants: gray.”

Update: Dr. Janine Brown has reached out to Fodor’s to clarify her quote on the use of hooks and chains. We’ve updated her quote accordingly.  

See more at Fodor's Travel