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3 Out Of 4 Elephants In Asia Live In Poor Condition: Latest Report

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) group drinking from waterhole - wide angle perspective. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

A latest survey has shown 3 out of 4 elephants in Asia are living in poor and unacceptable conditions.  All of these are kept at venues offering elephant rides – one of the most popular tourist activities in the countries where the research `Taken for a Ride’ was done by the World Animal Protection.  

This report documents the conditions endured by nearly 3,000 elephants used in tourist venues across Asia. A total of 220 venues in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and India were surveyed between late 2014 and mid-2016. These included all venues that could be identified in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and a representative selection of venues in India.

Of the countries visited, Thailand is home to about three-quarters of all entertainment elephants assessed in this study. There has been a 30% rise in the number of elephants at tourism venues in Thailand since 2010. In the most recent study, 357 more elephants in Thailand were found living in poor welfare conditions than five years ago. This corresponds with a rise in the number of tourists to Thailand, and the rapidly developing elephant tourism entertainment industry which bears little resemblance to how elephants were traditionally kept. It sparks great concern about the rise in the exploitation of elephants, as well as people. Several venues receive more than 1,000 visitors a day with elephants continually required to give rides, perform and interact with tourists. These large venues are responsible for some of the poorest welfare conditions cited in this research. Additionally, they commonly also provide poor living standards for the elephant handlers (mahouts), the report says.

More than 2,000 of the elephants surveyed were being used for saddled rides or shows. The scale of suffering at most of these venues is severe. When not giving rides or performing, the elephants were typically chained day and night, most of the time to chains less than 3m long. They were also fed poor diets, given limited appropriate veterinary care and were frequently kept on concrete floors in stressful locations near loud music, roads or visitor groups. These conditions take no account of the elephants intelligence, behaviours and needs and follows the severe trauma endured by elephants in their early years. The trauma is caused by separation from their mothers and the harsh training process to break their spirits and make them submissive enough to give rides and perform, the report says.

On the other hand, the research also found a further 487 elephants across Asian tourist venues kept at venues with better conditions. Although still inadequate, these venues usually had more knowledgeable and caring staff, mostly no saddled riding, shorter working hours, and more possibilities for social interaction between elephants. In many cases they also provided better working conditions for the mahouts. Only 194 elephants at 13 venues were found to be living in high welfare captive conditions. At these venues there were no rides or performances. The elephants walked free during most of the day, were able to socialise with other elephants and were fed on natural vegetation at most of these venues. Tourists visiting these venues could observe elephants behaving naturally. Direct interaction between visitors and elephants was usually prohibited or limited. Mahouts at these venues were commonly well respected for their responsibility and fully involved with the daily management of elephants and interaction with tourists. Despite better conditions at some venues there are still clear safety risks involved with close contact between visitors and elephants. Between 2010 and 2016 in Thailand alone, 17 fatalities and 21 serious injuries to people by captive elephants were reported in the media. The growing number of elephants in a highly profit-driven industry and the increasing demand for elephant experiences also sparks conservation concerns.

According to Gajendra K.Sharma, India Country Director at World Animal Protection: “The cruel trend of elephants used for rides and shows is growing—we want tourists to know that many of these elephants are taken from their mothers as babies, forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions throughout their lives.’’

“There is an urgent need for tourist and regulation of wildlife tourist attractions worldwide. Venues that offer tourists a chance to watch elephants in genuine sanctuaries are beacons for hope that can encourage the urgently-needed shift in the captive elephant tourism,’’ Mr Sharma added.


To enable such wider and sustainable change to end the suffering of elephants this report suggest enabling and encouraging replication of high-welfare, elephant-friendly venues, and channeling tourist demand away from the worst activities, such as elephant shows and rides, to more humane alternatives.

The report also recommends devising a set of elephant-friendly tourism standards and improving the living conditions for captive elephants while protecting elephants from being poached. Respecting local cultures and addressing the needs of the mahouts and other elephant-dependent people by developing alternative livelihoods with them has also been recommended in the report.

Asian elephants are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which heavily restricts international trade of elephants and elephant parts. Constant human encroachment into the elephant’s habitat and poaching for ivory or wild animals has been causing the Asian elephant population’s rapid decline over recent decades. 

Estimates of the total population range between 38,000 and 52,000 elephants. There are three commonly recognised sub-species: the Indian elephant (Elephas maximus indicus) on the Asian mainland; the Ceylon elephant (E. m. maximus) on Sri Lanka; and the Sumatran elephant (E. m. sumatranus) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Populations of wild elephants vary across 13 countries (or range states). There are estimates of fewer than 200 in each of Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Nepal and Vietnam and fewer than 1,000 for Cambodia and Laos. The population of elephants in the wild in Thailand is estimated to be between 2,500 –3,200. India has the largest population of elephants in the wild with an estimated 23,900–32,000 elephants and elephant rides are extremely popular among tourists in Rajasthan. 

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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