Elephant Festival in India

ELEPHANT ISSUES

The problems facing Asia's captive elephants

There are many issues facing Asia's elephants. 

It is morally wrong to remove elephants from the wild and confine them in captivity, and it is morally wrong to expect such a wide ranging, social and intelligent animal to be able to experience a good quality of life confined within a restricted environment where it’s physical, social, behavioural and psychological needs are not being met. 

 

Whether the individual is wild-caught or captive born, the evidence shows that elephants do not thrive at elephant camps: they are often physically harmed, and in many cases they suffer psychologically.

“elephants do not thrive at elephant camps: they are often physically harmed, and in many cases they suffer psychologically.”

 

In the immediate future we hope to see all tourist facilities with elephants  

End ‘elephant performances in circus style shows’.

End elephant riding and other close contact experiences

Provide elephants with a safe environment where they can be chain free and in social groups.

End the breeding and/or acquisition of more elephants and allow those living at the facility to live out their natural lives.

 

These transitions can be made with the assistance of the respective governments, captive elephant husbandry specialists to advice on the individual elephant’s welfare needs, and the tourism industry to switch from promoting close contact ‘elephant experiences’ to promoting facilities which truly provide elephants with conditions aimed at meeting their complex physical and psychological needs. 

 

Elephant tourism

Elephants are used in tourism all across Asia in a variety of activities.

Elephant camps

The use of elephants in tourist camps for entertainment inflicts severe suffering on many thousands of animals. 

  • Elephants are brutally captured from the wild, pushing the Asian elephant populations ever closer to extinction.

  • Wild caught elephants are subjected to a brutal ‘spirit-breaking’ regime to force them into obeying the wishes of their caretakers. 

  • Elephants in tourism camps are often subjected to a life of misery and abuse, forced to provide rides and ‘experiences’ and in many cases perform circus tricks for the public.

Way Kambas Elephant Training Centre circ
Wild capture
 

Live capture of Asian elephants is a major contributing factor in the decline of wild populations over the past century. A 2014 TRAFFIC report shows that up to 81 wild elephants entered the Thai tourist industry between April 2011 and March 2013, 60% of which originated in Myanmar. 


It is estimated that for every calf smuggled across Myanmar’s border into Thailand, up to five adult elephants, including the calf’s mother and other protective family members, are killed. The forests of Myanmar are one of the last strongholds for the endangered Asian elephant, second only to India. But this trade in baby elephants is decimating the Myanmar population, estimated at around 2,000 individuals which, at a capture rate of 100 elephants a year would lead to the extinction of Myanmar’s wild elephant population in less than 30 years.

YANCHENG SAFARI PARK AFRICAN ELE IMPORT
Illegal trade
 

This trade is in contravention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) which regulates cross border wildlife trade between Parties, and of which both Thailand and Myanmar are Parties. In addition, under CITES all elephant range countries are required to “have in place legislative, regulatory, enforcement, or other measures to prevent illegal trade in live elephants”. Furthermore, in July 2014 the CITES Standing Committee recommended a review of progress made in implementing these measures, with any recommendations for further action made to the next Standing Committee meeting. (SC65 Sum. 5 (Rev. 1)

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Brutal treatment
 

Of equally great concern is the treatment of the elephant calves once captured - they are forced to endure the profoundly cruel and brutal ritual, “phajaan”. During this long process, the calves are deprived of food and water, tied up and beaten relentlessly, often using primitive instruments such as bamboo sticks with metal nails embedded in the ends. 

 

Reports have revealed that many calves die from their injuries, stress or starvation. Those which survive are often smuggled across the Burmese border into Thailand, and taken to tourist elephant parks and camps. Many of them will be chained to a surrogate mother in an attempt to suggest they have been bred in captivity.

Way Kambas Elephant Training Centre elep

Elephants are large and potentially dangerous animals and in order for tourists to have their ‘experience’ with an elephant, the mahout must keep the elephants under control. In most cases this is achieved via a bullhook or a sharpen tool used to ‘guide’ elephants into the places and positions that the mahout desires. The bullhook or other tool is used in some situations to mete out physical punishment. No matter how gently the bullhook may be used with an animal in the presence of visitors, 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 with the instructions from the mahout.

 

The use of these instruments remove an elephant’s choice and control over its immediate environment and actions, forcing it to comply with the wishes of the trainer regardless of whether or not the action it is being asked to perform is in the best interest of the elephant. 

 

Many elephants at tourism camps are also forced to endure the indignity and in many cases physical pain of being made to perform circus tricks, such as standing on their heads, spinning in circles whilst standing on one leg and walking on top of rolling barrels. Forcing animals to perform unnatural tricks also portrays them to the public in a humiliating manner, instead of showing their natural grace and beauty and thereby promoting empathy and respect

Neglect and suffering
 

Captive elephants used to provide tourists with rides are fitted with a saddle known as a ‘Howdah’ this is often left on the elephants throughout the day even when they are not providing rides. This can be very uncomfortable for the elephant and in many cases the straps holding the saddle in place rub against the elephant’s skin, leading to the development of pressure sours.

 

Elephants have not evolved to carry the weight of three or four people on their backs, and they do not have the strength in their spines to do this for long periods of time, thus the use of elephants for riding can lead to the development of spinal problems for the elephants.

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Captive elephants used to provide tourists with rides are fitted with a saddle known as a ‘Howdah’ this is often left on the elephants throughout the day even when they are not providing rides. This can be very uncomfortable for the elephant and in many cases the straps holding the saddle in place rub against the elephant’s skin, leading to the development of pressure sours.

 

Elephants have not evolved to carry the weight of three or four people on their backs, and they do not have the strength in their spines to do this for long periods of time, thus the use of elephants for riding can lead to the development of spinal problems for the elephants. 

 

Captive elephants at tourism camps are deprived of the ability to perform most natural behaviours. They are either confined, tethered, or under the ankus of the mahout. Most important, they are deprived of choice: choice of behavior, social encounters, activity, cognitive engagement, foraging, foods, resting times and places – in short, everything with which a free animal occupies him or herself all day is denied and replaced by human-mandated activities. The combination of boredom, frustration and fear can cause severe pathology.

 

Elephants may not show overt signs of distress. Chronic stress is internalized to engender physiological and psychological changes that make the animal ill over time. Chronically high levels of cortisol, immune suppression, structural changes in the brain, cognitive dysfunction, heart disease, kidney disease, weakening of the muscle structures, and endocrine disturbances are but some of the problems which chronically stressed animals may suffer from. Poor veterinary care and compromised immune function from stress can result in high parasite burdens, nutritional disturbances, viral infections, and wounds that do not heal.6

 

Tourist elephants are often badly overworked, and are forced to work in environmentally taxing conditions – direct sun, in the heat of the day, often with little access to food and water and with few opportunities to rest. 

 

During the times when the elephants are not being used to provide rides or perform tricks, elephants are often chained for extensive periods. In many cases they are provided with little access to shade and little or no access to water. Elephants are highly social animals and normally live in close, stable groups of an extended family of females. Chaining often provides them with limited or no social interaction, and is likely to cause them a significant amount of stress, which can result in the manifestation of behavioural abnormalities. 

 

Stereotypies tend to increase in frequency with increasing restraint of movement and with more barren environments. For instance, circus elephants kept shackled or picketed, weave and head-nod more than in paddocks 

 

The development of lameness is also common in elephants which are forced into performing circus tricks. These joint problems as well as hernias are thought to result from circus elephants repeatedly assuming unnatural positions during performances.

 

Many facilities chain elephants on hard surfaces, such as concrete and tarmac, this is likely to lead to the development and/or aggravation of foot and joint problems. Nail splitting and arthritis, are some of the most common health issues seen in Asian elephants in captivity.  

 

Nail splitting is also aggravated by poor diet, and elephants displaying stereotypic weaving behaviours where the weight on individual feet is being continually transferred.  Performing stereotypic behaviour may cause uneven and excess wear  and/or abnormal pressure on the lateral toes of the front feet where most foot pathologies are situated. The trauma from performing repetitive actions could contribute to the development of osteoarthritis.

 

Malnutrition has also been reported in captive elephants and can lead to deficiencies in vitamin E, calcium, iron and other nutrients. Intestinal problems such as enteritis, colic and impaction of the colon are believed to be more common in captive than in wild elephants.

 

In a number of cases, elephants may be chained in the forest during the evenings. This can provide them with an opportunity to eat but it also brings with it a number of threats if the forest is also home to wild elephant populations. This is a common practice of elephant owners in Vietnam and it has led to a number of elephants being severly injured due them to attacks by wild elephants.


Due to such severe conditions, elephants have died from exhaustion, hunger, dehydration. Between 2013 and 2015, Vietnam reported the death of five elephants due to such neglect.

Perpetuating the trade
 

Elephant riding has long been championed by tour operators within SE Asian destinations. The Tourism Authority of Thailand claims elephant riding is an “integral part of all tourists’ visits”, that “there are few experiences in Thailand more iconic”, and that “riding atop one of these intelligent yet gigantic creatures is often the highlight of one’s trip to Thailand”. The activity is presented as an exhilarating, not-to-be-missed experience of a lifetime.

Yet a visit to an elephant camp simply perpetuates the trade. As tourist numbers increase so does the desire for the camps, which often market themselves as sanctuaries, to get more elephants, and therefore the cycle of abuse and suffering continues.

POD CHOCOLATE FACTORY 20180900 elephant
Public safety
 

Elephant riding has long been championed by tour operators within SE Asian destinations. The Tourism Authority of Thailand claims elephant riding is an “integral part of all tourists’ visits”, that “there are few experiences in Thailand more iconic”, and that “riding atop one of these intelligent yet gigantic creatures is often the highlight of one’s trip to Thailand”. The activity is presented as an exhilarating, not-to-be-missed experience of a lifetime.

Yet a visit to an elephant camp simply perpetuates the trade. As tourist numbers increase so does the desire for the camps, which often market themselves as sanctuaries, to get more elephants, and therefore the cycle of abuse and suffering continues.

YDNP ELE 20180110 tourism elephant ridin
Credible 'sanctuary'
 

Many elephant camps claim to be ‘sanctuaries’ in some cases this may be because they have ‘rescued’ elephants from government logging camps where they are often subjected to brutal treatment and hard labour. Yet a facility only offers true sanctuary if the following conditions are met;

  • elephants live in groups, and are not subjected to isolated confinement

  • elephants are not chained

  • violence is not used in interactions with the elephants

  • no breeding takes place at the facility

  • there is no physical contact between tourists and the elephants

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Types of elephant tourism:

 

Please explore other areas of our site:

 

Please use this map or the table below to explore the ethical elephant models across Asia.