Tourism

We “couldn’t ignore” cruel elephant tourism: Intrepid

Intrepid Travel’s CEO James Thornton has come out in support of better treatment for elephants, saying his company just couldn’t ignore the way the animals were treated.

Despite changing tourist attitudes, countries in Asia continue to grow the captive elephant industry for elephant rides and shows according to new research from World Animal Protection.

The Taken for a Ride report recently presented the results of an 18-month investigation into 220 elephant tourism venues in Thailand, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia, housing 2,923 endangered Asian elephants.

Online polling conducted by TNS found 44 per cent of Australian tourists believe riding an elephant is acceptable. While this figure is high, it is down since 2014 – showing acceptability of elephant rides is trending downwards.

Giving a clear message to tour operators, more than four out of five people (81 per cent) feel that travel operators should avoid activities that cause suffering for wild animals, with more than half (56 per cent) of people saying they would avoid tour operators that promoted wild animal activities.

“Elephant riding was on every traveller’s bucket-list when Intrepid made the decision to remove rides from all our trips,” said CEO and chair of The Intrepid Foundation, James Thornton.

“South East Asia made-up around 40 per cent of our business, so we took a huge commercial risk when we decided to be the first global travel company to end elephant rides.”

“But we couldn’t ignore the research and we believed our travellers would support our decision once they had all the information.

“Three years later our blog post explaining our decision remains one of our most popular stories ever. That leap of faith paid off, people want to do the right thing. It’s up to the tourism industry to help spread the word.”

Thailand is a popular destination for Australian tourists and a hotspot for elephant cruelty with twice as many elephants as all other countries combined. Globally, tourism to Thailand doubled from 15.9 million to 32.6 million visitors between 2010 and 2016, contributing to a 30 per cent rise (1,688 to 2,198) in elephants held in captivity for tourist activities.

James Thornton
James Thornton

“The travel industry has the opportunity to change the lives of thousands of elephants by proving there is a strong demand for tourist experiences that allow elephants to be elephants,” Global Wildlife and Veterinary Advisor at World Animal Protection, Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach said.

“We hope that a shift in tourist demand will encourage lower-welfare elephant venues to stop exploiting their animals. These intelligent and social giants deserve a better quality of life.”

And demand does appear to be shifting, and an awareness of the cruelty to elephants is on the rise.

194 elephants in 13 venues investigated by World Animal Protection were found to be living in high welfare conditions. Generally these elephants can roam freely and socialise, and direct tourist interaction is prohibited or limited.

To date, World Animal Protection has convinced more than 160 global travel companies to stop offering travel packages that include cruel elephant entertainment like rides and shows. Among these are popular Australian brands such as Adventure World, Antipodean, Intrepid Travel and World Expeditions.

Most recently TUI Care Foundation and World Animal Protection joined forces to protect about 1500 Asian elephants in captivity by 2020. With this partnership, the development of welfare-friendly example venues will be supported so tourists can experience wildlife responsibly.

The two organisations hope to establish a benchmark for best practices in the region and enable expansion of those models to other venues. While focused mainly in Thailand, this initiative is aimed at five other key countries reaching the largest part of captive Asian elephants’ population: Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.

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