A staple of Tinder profiles and Facebook posts alike, many people who travel to Southeast Asia want to return with a picture of themselves riding or washing an elephant. What many don’t realize is that this a horribly exploitative and often brutal practice that causes great suffering to the elephants involved.
A new report, carried out by World Animal Protection, has detailed how the elephant industry in Southeast Asia has rocketed as tourism has increased – three-quarters of the elephants involved are living in “severely cruel” conditions.
The organization assessed almost 3,000 elephants that spend their lives in captivity and entertain tourists. Many are forced to live on concrete floors, bound with chains less than 3 meters (10 feet) long, starved of interaction with other elephants, and physically abused by their keepers, all to satisfy tourists so that they can get a selfie with the animals, ride on their backs, or watch them perform in shows.
“The cruel trend of elephants used for rides and shows is growing," explains Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach, global wildlife and veterinary advisor at World Animal Protection, in a statement. "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 life."
What is particularly concerning is that the Asian elephant is listed as an endangered species. There are only around 50,000 of them left globally, with somewhere in the region of 12,000 in captivity. In many cases, the elephants used in the tourism industry are not captive bred but taken from the wild.
While some countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar have officially banned the practice of capturing elephants from the wild, in reality this has not stopped it from occurring. It is thought that most of the thousands of elephants used in the tourism industry in Thailand originated over the border in Myanmar, where they were hunted down and caught, before being shipped over the porous border and sold into the industry.
Wild elephants do not naturally let people ride on them, so those taken from the forests need to be “broken” or “crushed”. This is a brutal process that involves chaining the animals up, beating them with spiked bull hooks, and effectively breaking the intelligent animal’s spirits until they are biddable and pliant. If baby elephants are caught or born, they are frequently removed from their mother and subjected to a similarly harsh treatment.
The organization wants to encourage people to not pay for these experiences, but instead direct their tourist dollars to places that offer experiences to watch the animals in more natural settings and do not allow contact between people and elephants.