Get Off My Back – Issues with Elephant Trekking

This post was originally written for and published on Elephant & Co. 

From Logging to Tourism

Elephants have been used in the logging industry for hundreds of years, but with a decline in the forest landscape and a flood in Thailand in the late 1980s, the Thai government placed a complete ban on commercial logging in 1989. Out of work elephant owners had to find a new livelihood, and the tourism and elephant trekking industries began to flourish across the country. WIldlife attractions make up between 20% and 40% of tourist activities worldwide.

Today, for many travellers, a trip to Asia isn’t complete without a ride on top of what seems to be a calm, gentle giant, slowly lumbering through the jungle. However, despite what seems like a harmless photo-op moment, what the elephant has gone through to learn to bear the presence of humans and carry the excess weight on its weak spine is anything but harmless – for the elephant, as well as for the livelihood of the species. Although practiced throughout Southeast Asia, according to World Animal Protection, Thailand is known as “the global hotspot” for elephant trekking.

Wild elephant numbers are dwindling throughout both Africa and Asia. In Laos, what used to be referred to as the Land of A Million Elephants, only 2 elephants are born for every 10 that die. Today, it’s estimated Laos has roughly 1,000 wild elephants and 1,200 captive elephants.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, only 50,000 Asian Elephants exist today, making them an endangered species. It is estimated that 100,000 lived at the beginning of the 20th century, however, numbers have fallen by at least 50% over the past three generations and continue to fall. The top 3 causes of this decline in Asia are Habitat Loss, Human-Wildlife Conflict, and Poaching and Capture. While in Africa elephants are most commonly poached for the illegal ivory trade, in Asian countries such as Thailand elephants are also captured for use in the tourism industry.

Approximately 15,000 elephants in Asia are living in captivity today,many used for elephant trekking. World Animal Protection’s February 2016 report named the practice as the cruelest tourist activity.

Elephant Harmed in Captivity

The damage done to an elephant used for tourism and elephant trekking begins long before someone climbs up onto its weak spine. In order to catch wild elephants, poachers may use already trained elephants to herd wild groups into a corridor where a pit has been dug, causing the elephants to fall and become trapped. This method causes injury and death to the elephants, so another approach is to use automatic weapons to kill the protective members of the herd, allowing easier access to the calves. According to a 2014 TRAFFIC report, a healthy calf can be sold for more than USD $33,000.

Once in captivity, owners begin to break an elephant’s spirit. This long-standing tradition is called the Phajaan, or the crush, in Thailand. Elephants are placed in a small cage, and struck with bamboo sticks and bullhooks, and deprived of food and sleep (and sometimes worse) to make them submissive to humans and prepare them for work in the tourism industry. Every elephant in a zoo or used for trekking has experienced the crush.

An adult elephant can safely carry 150kg, and the safest place for an animal to carry a rider is the back of their neck; their jagged spines making it painful for them to carry weight on their backs. However, the wooden or metal chair placed on their backs for trekking (called the howdah) weighs about 100kgs on its own. The howdah is secured using a thick rope around their bellies and under their tails, often causing painful sores, and the elephants often suffer from dehydration and exhaustion. Elephants as young as four years old have been seen carrying tourists. Even when they are not being forced to carry the heavy weight themselves, calves may be chained to their mothers during treks, and are forced to walk at their mother’s pace without the opportunity to rest or nurse. When not trekking, elephants are often kept on short chains, causing visible signs of psychological distress.

It’s not just the elephants who face danger. Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) says 49 people have been killed by captive elephants in the past 10 years. In February 2016, a 36 year-old British man died after the elephant he was riding turned on his handler and threw the tourist off his back. In November 2014, an elephant in west Thailand threw his handler off and stampeded into the jungle with a Russian woman and her nine year-old daughter still on his back.

While it’s easy to blame this aggressive behaviour on the elephants, we have to remember what they had endured before having a violent outburst. Years of abuse will inevitably rise to the surface, and with an animal as large and powerful as the elephant, those who stand in it’s way may quickly find themselves in a dangerous situation. At WFFT, some of the rescued elephants have been so mistreated by humans that even the handlers steer clear of them.

The Future is in Sanctuaries

Change is beginning to take place.  In 2014, Intrepid Travel banned elephant rides from its tours, and since then more than 100 other travel companies and tour operators have done the same, including Trip Advisor, Asian Oasis, STA Travel, Thomas Cook, and more. In an effort to preserve their wild herds, some countries in Southeast Asia, such as India, Myanmar, and Vietnam, have banned elephant capture.

It is possible to get close to elephants and other wildlife without causing additional harm. Although research is required to determine if self-proclaimed ‘conservation’ centers are really focused on animal welfare and rehab, there are some that are working hard to let elephants be elephants. At WFFT, tourists are taken on tours of the elephant camp where they can see the animals as they begin to return to a sense of normalcy. In one instance, visitors who saw an elephant make erratic movements at first thought it was dancing – their guide was quick to explain the movements were a reaction to distress from being kept in enclosed spaces during it’s previous life in  the tourism industry. Educating visitors is important in preventing the growth of elephant trekking. The only kind of tour offered here is an escorted one, where visitors can view and walk alongside the elephants.

Friends of the Asian Elephant is also located in Northern Thailand. It is a conservation project aimed at rehabbing elephants after they have been rescued from the tourism industry. Other ethical conservation projects include Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, The Surin Project, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), and Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES), all located in Thailand. In Cambodia, visit Wildlife Alliance, The Mondulkiri Project, or Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.

When demand for elephant trekking decreases and the practice is no longer financially lucrative for owners, more elephants will be left in peace in their wild habitats, free from the abuses the practice involves.



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