As a zookeeper, eco-traveller, and lifelong lover of animals, I have had amazing experiences throughout the world that have instilled in me the need to conserve wildlife. From snorkeling with sea lions in Baja, searching for quetzals in Costa Rica, to going on game drives observing cheetahs in Kenya, I have witnessed some spectacular conservation programs around the globe.
Unfortunately, throughout these travels, I have also witnessed inhumane wildlife tourism experiences that contribute very little to conservation initiatives, and promote poor animal welfare standards. I then quickly discovered that my Facebook and Instagram feeds included pictures of friends and family with chained up adult tigers and lions, having monkeys climb on their heads, holding baby sloths, and feeding whales so that they could get the ‘perfect’ photo to represent their holiday.
People in my life were contributing to an industry that goes against everything I battle as a conservationist. I mourned for these animals. I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of this industry, convinced that there wasn’t anything I could do to help.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Bell
I was completely discouraged, but as I tried to drag myself out of this slump, I started to investigate. I found countless researchers, websites, and committed people who were fighting for positive change in the wildlife tourism industry. I was inspired to get involved but wasn’t exactly sure where to start. Thankfully, my final inspiration came while I was in Kenya in 2017 on a field course through my graduate program at Miami University.
One of my classmates, Antoinette Van de Water, described her devotion to improving the conditions of Asian Elephants in Thailand through founding ‘Bring the Elephant Home.’ She had been working in Thailand since 2004, campaigning for the elephants suffering inadequate and cruel care, largely due to the tourism industry which has become crucial to Thailand’s economy. As I discovered more about her organization, I found myself wanting to know more about elephants’ role in tourism, and how tourist education enhances elephant conservation as well as the protection of their ecosystems. I desired to learn more about human-elephant co-existence, hoping that I could contribute to improving this relationship. I was hooked – I had found my next project.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Bell
While there are many species used in wildlife tourism, the Asian elephant is likely one of the most iconic, and controversial. Tourist interactions with these elephants typically include feeding, bathing, walking, riding, watching shows, or observing them in a more natural setting, with the majority of these experiences occurring in captive environments. Unfortunately, many of these elephants are subject to inadequate conditions with reduced mobility, limited space, lack of social interactions, and an inability to perform species-species behaviour; some even experience physical and psychological abuse (Schmidt-Burbach, 2017.; Kontogeorgorgopoulos, 2011).
Many elephants used in tourism are illegally taken from the wild, separated from their mothers at a young age, and forced to cooperate in various handling situations as they are prepared for a life surrounded by tourists (Nijman, 2014). If they are not compliant, elephants are often physically punished for negative responses including being burned, hit, stabbed and chained up. This portion of their training is commonly known as the ‘crushing’ phase, which is designed to break the spirits of the elephant until they submit to their captive caretakers called ‘mahouts’ (Chatkupt, Sollod, & Sarobol, 1999; Hile, 2002; King, 2005; Kontogeorgorgopoulos, 2009).
Photo Credit: Lindsey Bell
Living on the other side of the world, I sought a creative approach to my research. I investigated online reviews obtained from TripAdvisor on the various venues offering elephant experiences in Thailand and focused on if tourist satisfaction was related to animal welfare. I broke elephant venues down into one of four categories based on the tourist experience offered on each venues’ website. By categorizing venues, I planned to determine if tourists perceive elephant tourism venues with higher animal welfare more positively than those with lower animal welfare. Higher welfare venues were classified as ones where elephants have limited interaction with tourists, and instead, the animals can participate in natural behaviour, usually at a distance from observing tourists.
Alternatively, venues with lower welfare were those that allow for the saddled riding of the elephants and offer shows where elephants are playing sports or are forced to paint for an audience. Unfortunately, saddled rides and shows for tourists are commonplace in many elephant tourism venues. These saddled rides have been linked with back issues with one study finding that 64% of these elephants being plagued by these injuries (Magda et al. 2015).
Photo Credit: Antoinette van de Water
As more attention is drawn to the treatment of these elephants, companies are responding. In October 2016, TripAdvisor announced that they would no longer be selling tickets to wildlife attractions deemed cruel (Sachs, 2016). Not surprisingly, elephant rides were among the first attractions to be eliminated from their ticket sales. However, even with this highly publicized campaign, tourists still find ways of obtaining tickets to these low welfare attractions and they continue to post reviews and ratings on TripAdvisor’s website based on their experiences.
Since reviews continue to be added, the 5-star rating system from TripAdvisor allowed for a comparison of the different venue types, and not surprisingly, animal welfare and tourist satisfaction were not found to be correlated. The majority of tourists ranked all of the elephant tourism venues as positive (4 or 5 stars), likely meaning that the average tourist would recommend each attraction despite variances in animal welfare. Given this lack of public awareness of elephant welfare, it is essential that tourist education become a priority, as the elephant tourism industry continues to grow in Thailand.
Photo Credit: Lindsey Bell
Owning an elephant can provide a substantial economic advantage for people living in Thailand, so it is unlikely that this industry will disappear entirely. With such a high number of tourists visiting captive elephant venues every year, the tourism industry holds enormous power to advocate for the proper education of people, and improvements in the care of elephants. Unfortunately, elephants living in captivity for tourism purposes are found to be kept in venues with an average welfare score of 4.6 out of 10 (Schmidt-Burbach, 2017). These elephants consume an enormous amount of food, which is very costly to their owners, as such, many elephants lack proper nutrition and/or veterinary care.
While it is not guaranteed, mahouts who make more money from their elephants are more likely to use funds to provide better food and healthcare for their charges (Kontogeorgorgopoulos, 2009). By refusing to participate in activities that worsen elephant welfare, and paying a higher price for experiences where elephant welfare is a priority, tourists send a message that demands better care. In doing so, organizations who are fighting for better elephant welfare have the support to continue their campaigns, making higher welfare resources not only more available but also encouraged for local mahouts.
Photo Credit: Liesbeth Sluiter
Unfortunately, Asian elephants are not the only animals who experience low standards of welfare in wildlife tourism venues. Once again, education is key here. Tourists can drive improvements in welfare by refusing to participate in negative forms of tourism, helping to reduce the physical and psychological suffering of animals around the world. So next time you are looking into an experience with an elephant (or any other animal), consider how your choices may impact animal welfare and conservation.
Book with companies that have you observing the elephants participating in natural behaviors, watch them forage in the forests and bathe in ponds, help prepare their diets, and assist staff in enriching the lives of the elephants to ensure you are investing in responsible care and conservation goals! Supporting responsible tourism, not only fosters an environment where an understanding and appreciation for conservation is encouraged, but it increases our ability to connect with wildlife and nature in our daily lives.
Use your power as a tourist to fight for positive change for animals within the wildlife tourism industry!
- Chatkupt, T.T., Sollod, A.E., and Sarobol, S. (2010). Elephants in Thailand: determinants of health and welfare in working populations. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 2(3), 187-203.
- Hile, J. (2002). Activists denounce Thailand elephant ‘crushing’ ritual. National Geographic News. Retrieved from www.nationalgeogrpahic.com on October 24, 2017.
- King, R. (2005). The elephant whisperer. Ecologist, 35(9), 48-54.
- Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2011). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in Northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449.
- Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2009). The role of tourism in elephant welfare in Northern Thailand. Journal of Tourism, 10(2), 1-19
- Magda, S., Spohn, O., Angkawnish, T., Smith, D.A., and Pearl, D.L. (2015). Risk factors for saddle-related skin lesions on elephants used in the tourism industry in Thailand. BMC Veterinary Research. 11:1, doi:10.1186/s12917-015-0438-1
- Nijman, V. (2014). An assessment of the live elephant trade in Thailand. Cambridge, UK: TRAFFIC International
- Sachs, A. (2016). With a wildlife-attractions ban, TripAdvisor takes an animal-welfare stand. Obtained from https://www.washingtonpost.com/ on April 2, 2018.
- Schmidt-Burbach, (2017). Taken for a ride: the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia. World Animal Protection. Obtained from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/ on September 27, 2017.
Lianne Thompson lives in Cranbrook, British Columbia where she enjoys hiking and wildlife photography.
She is a graduate student with the Global Field Program at Miami University where she studies human-wildlife coexistence, focusing on wildlife tourism.
If you wish to learn more about her projects revolving ethical wildlife tourism or you wish to contact her, please visit her website www.wildlifetourismguide.com