By Chiara Vitali, Campaigns Manager at World Animal Protection
Elephants are beloved the world over, and as many of us head off on our summer holidays, the chance to see them up close will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But the latest research from World Animal Protection exposes the dark side of an industry that’s profiting from this demand.
The torment starts at birth
There is no humane way to ‘tame’ an elephant so that it will give tourists rides or perform in shows. As babies, these elephants are taken from their mothers and subjected to a brutal process known as ‘the crush’. It involves physical restraints, inflicting severe pain and withholding food and water, to instil a lifelong fear of humans.
They suffer a lifetime of abuse
Once their spirits are broken, the elephants face a bleak future. Horrific tools such as bullhooks – a stick with a sharp hook on the end – are used to control their behaviour. Forced to perform in shows or give rides all day without a break, the exhausted elephants are punished if they dare to step out of line.
It’s not just fear and pain they endure
But this is just part of the cruelty. Our research found that most of the elephants used for entertainment are chained day and night to very short chains. These highly intelligent and naturally social animals long to be with their herd, but have no room to move or interact with one another. On top of this, we found they were being fed poor diets and given limited veterinary care if they fell ill.
The cruelty may not always be visible
These elephants may not look distressed when they give rides or perform in shows, but this industry depends on the worst of its horrors being hidden from public view. As a general rule of thumb, if you can touch, ride, hug, or take a selfie with a wild animal, chances are that some sort of cruelty will have taken place.
The abuse is on the rise
The growing numbers of tourists pouring into hotspots like Thailand have contributed to a 30% rise in captive elephants in the last five years. We visited nearly 3,000 elephants in tourist venues across Asia and discovered that more than three quarters of them live in appalling conditions.
People are suffering too
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the venues that treat their animals badly were found to treat their staff badly too. By paying to visit these places, tourists are not only unwittingly funding animal cruelty, but human rights abuses too.
The biggest challenge is ignorance
Our study found that 85% of people think that tourism companies should avoid activities that cause suffering for wild animals. But most tourists sign up for experiences with elephants because they love them, and don’t know about the cruelty behind the rides, tricks and photo opportunities. If people knew the facts, then they wouldn’t do it.
Wild animals belong in the wild
No matter how well they are looked after, only in their natural wild environment can all of an elephant’s needs be fully met.
There are alternatives
The best place to see an elephant is in the wild or, in the next best place, a genuine elephant sanctuary. Fortunately, there are a small but growing number of these places across Asia. Our advice is to choose sanctuaries that offer observational experiences for visitors – never rides or shows – where the elephants are allowed to be elephants.
Most importantly, you can make a difference
While the demand remains for elephant rides and shows, so will the cruelty. Be aware of the impact your decisions can have as you plan your next trip. Help spread the word to bring this dark secret out into the light. Only then will we end the cruel exploitation of elephants for entertainment.
Visit www.worldanimalprotection.org.uk/wildlife-not-entertainers to join the movement for elephant-friendly tourism.