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The Elephant Tourism Industry is Changing, and It Needs Our Support

Keeping the Asian elephants alive

On 8 June 2019, Metro reported that elephant rides at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, will cease operations and that the elephants will be transported to a nearby conservation centre by early 2020. The move was long overdue - with only 14 elephants working around the clock to ferry tourists around the temple that hosts 2.5 million visitors a year, the ethicality of the practice was questionable to say the least.

We know that elephant rides are unethical

Elephants aren't, and never will be, subservient animals by instinct. For them to obey human commands and handle large volumes of human interaction, it takes a great deal of uncomfortable, abusive conditioning otherwise known as the phajaan or "crushing of spirits". What tourists may think are docile and gentle giants, are in fact traumatised animals which fear the consequences of disobedience.

In phajaan, baby elephants are forcefully taken from their parents for conditioning. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even for Asian elephants that have been "domesticated" since colonial years, it's almost impossible that the elephants you see are truly born without their wild instincts. The World Animal Protection explains that domestication of elephants is a myth and would only possible through "selective breeding of 12 generations, with offspring from each generation chosen for further breeding based on their desired traits".

There's a lot of debate about the riding itself. Some say that elephants can hold up to 25% of their weight, so carrying shouldn't be that big of an issue. But sitting on an elephant's back instead of its neck (like most elephant rides involve) can cause spinal damage, stunted growth and even affect its internal organs, because it simply isn't bred to be ridden.

Fortunately, the increase of awareness regarding phajaan and the impacts of riding has led to many local and international organisations removing tour activities involving elephant interactions in unnatural settings. More than 100 companies including TripAdvisor, Intrepid Travel and STA Travel have removed elephant rides from their list of programmes; Instagram directs users away from posts with hashtags such as #elephantride or #elephantselfie, and instead encourages them to learn about wildlife exploitation.

The overlooked welfare of mahouts in elephant tourism

Angkor Wat's mahouts. Photo Credit: Living ASEAN

When we found out that the Angkor Wat ban was to be implemented, we were very supportive of it and shared the news on our Facebook page. Not long after, a concerned follower asked us: What's replacing the locals' source of income once the ban is implemented?

This was a question that got us thinking if we were short-sighted in this victory. Indeed, what would happen to local mahouts (elephant caretakers) who relied on elephant rides to fend for themselves? It was a different side of the same coin; this move could possibly displace several mahouts from their jobs, and without proper follow-up actions, who knew what would happen to them and what would sustain them?

As we looked for an answer, we found out there was a severely overlooked problem surrounding mahouts of the trade.

A mahout with a young elephant. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

According to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), the human-mahout relationship is a 4000-year-old tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. 

While there have been many unfortunate cases of mistreatment, to strictly consider all mahouts as abusive owners or trainers would be to undermine those who truly care for the welfare of their elephants. Dismissing their culture as an onlooker, would be severely patronizing to an age-old tradition that fostered a deep human-elephant bond for some.

Mahouts and elephants at the Mahouts Elephant Foundation. Photo Credit: World Animal Protection

In 2016, the Atlantic published an article about the human cost of elephant tourism, revealing the overlooked side of the industry that severely compromises the welfare of mahouts and their ability to care for their elephants. 

Besides risking their lives to allow tourists to interact with elephants, mahouts also face discrimination from society as low-pay, low-status professions. Richard Lair, an experienced Asian elephant specialist based in Thailand, wrote in his report for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, "Economically, all mahouts are disadvantaged and many are genuinely downtrodden."

With regards to Angkor Wat's elephant ride ban, we contacted Angkor Exploring Tour, a local tour agency that works with the operator of Angkor Wat's elephant tours. In our call, a representative from the agency told us that the 14 elephants at Angkor Wat are privately owned by a company, which would ensure that their respective mahouts are hired at the planned conservation centre to continue working with them at their new home. Relieving news!

As of now, tourism is the only way to sustain mahouts and captive elephants

Elephants are massive eaters; an average elephant eats about 500 pounds (250 kg) of food a day, and costs $18,000 a year to support. Lair describes tourism to be the "only viable, legal source of work for elephants" at the moment, and elephants need jobs for their mahouts to be able to support them. 

A mahout and his elephant. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Before elephants were employed in tourism, they were mostly used for logging and transport, both of which are unfeasible in modern days due to government regulations and deforestation. The death of these industries for elephants forced many owners to beg on the streets, engage in illegal logging, or in worst case scenarios, sell elephants away for their meat.

Mahouts were, and some still are, held captive by a fatalistic belief that elephant riding is the only way for them to survive - because of this we cannot demonise them for offering it in the first place. Tourism is their saviour, but we need to let them earn the money without them having to sacrifice their elephants' well-being. 

So how do we continue supporting both elephants and their mahouts?

A feeding session at MandaLao's trekking tour. Photo Credit: MandaLao Tours

At the moment, what we can do is to support ethical sanctuaries and conservation centres that truly respect the distance required between humans and elephants, and do so actively. Without our support, conservation centres and sanctuaries will lose the ability to care for their elephants, whether it's nutrition, veterinary care or training in the form of positive reinforcement. 

An important point to note: some sanctuaries use chains on their elephants, but it doesn't mean that they are strictly unethical. You can read our article on the ethicality of elephant chains to learn more, and also find out other useful guidelines to follow when determining the integrity of the sanctuaries you are visiting.

A non-riding elephant trekking experience at MandaLao. Photo Credit: MandaLao Tours

As for alternative activities with elephants for tourists, a good example to follow would be Nepal's Chitwan National Park, which allows travellers to walk alongside elephants and their herds in the jungle as an "honorary member". The only compromise is that the mahouts have to ride the elephants sans saddle for safety and guidance reasons. Sanctuaries that also offer similar activities are Tiger Tops Elephant Camp in Nepal, MandaLao in Cambodia and Elephant Hills in Khaosok.

To truly change the industry, we must shift the focus of elephant tourism from interaction to appreciation. Support the right kind of elephant tourism, one that you know will help the elephants transition back into their natural elements and instincts. When elephant rides become an obsolete activity of the past, the best way to keep these gentle giants alive would be our undying interest and appreciation for them. 

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