Tourism

Giants in need: How the dependency on tourism endangers the wellbeing of captive elephants

Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach

Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach

Captive elephants are deeply ingrained in the tourism industry.

Despite the fundamental ethical concerns of using elephants in tourism, it can be very profitable and in normal times pays for their upkeep. But what if tourists stop coming altogether?

While the world is faced with a new pandemic – struggling with the repercussions of COVID-19 – each day, bit by bit, the restrictions on human movement are tightened, severely impacting the travel industry.

International flights are being cut down by over 50 per cent, hotels and service industries are struggling, and holiday destinations no longer see any tourists.

Thailand has been hit especially hard, with many tourist attractions empty. In turn, the tourism camps where elephants are kept have shut down, laid off thousands of staff and are struggling to care for their over 2,000 elephants.

There is an urgent need to help right now, but many are wondering how it came to this in the first place.

Over 30 years ago, the elephant tourism industry was promoted as an alternative use for logging elephants. However, as revealed by World Animal Protection, today we see more of these captive goliaths than ever before due to rampant breeding for commercial tourism.

Unfortunately, elephants are ill-suited for a life in the tourism industry. Their size, strength and intelligence results in inhumane management practices such as chaining, cruel training and harsh punishment so they can entertain the flock of worldwide visitors who used to come and see them.

But there are risks for visitors, too. Elephants can contract tuberculosis from humans and can spread the disease to uninfected people through close contact.

Just two years ago, 10 tourism elephants at Amer Fort in India tested positive for tuberculosis.

Reliable screening for tuberculosis is rare or inaccurate, so the actual health risks is hard to predict but the results can have grave consequences.

And there may be other diseases too. It’s believed that about 70 per cent of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases originate from wild animals and being in close proximity with humans elevates the risk of infection.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has proven one thing, it is that we all should steer clear of handling wild animals – especially travelling abroad.

Placing complex, intelligent and endangered animals such as elephants at the whim of a commercial industry vulnerable to economic fluctuations is unacceptable, inhumane and affects people too.

Mahouts, the caretakers of elephants, are often disadvantaged through low-pay and high-risk employment.

A recent unreleased study by World Animal Protection has shown that over one-third of mahouts have minimal financial savings and receive minimum wage, while bearing significant risks of serious, sometimes fatal, injuries through elephants.

For years, World Animal Protection and many others have been advocating for a phase-out of elephant tourism.

By preventing captive breeding, reducing the tourism demand, and strict prevention of poaching, this generation of animals should be the last one suffering in captivity.

A gradual phase-out will enable their owners and others to shift to other livelihoods, to preserve traditions in more acceptable ways and to focus all efforts on protecting these beautiful creatures where they belong – in the wild.

But, right now, the support needed is immediate – elephants should not suffer because of an industry that prioritised financial gain over regard for the animals.

World Animal Protection will step in to help, as we have in the past, but we need to see the development of robust policies to reduce the number of captive elephants, enabling better care for the ones remaining in captivity and focusing on their protection in the wild.

Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach is the head of wildlife research and animal welfare at World Animal Protection.


Featured image: iStock/MaZiKab

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