By Hannah Pugh

Many now say that taking a photo with an elephant overseas is immoral. More than half of Thailand’s 7,000 elephants live in captivity. These elephants support tourism in Thailand. Western people are quick to empathize with the animals. What are experts saying about the condition of elephants?

We are all familiar with the popular travel photo of American tourists on the back of an elephant. This is elephant tourism. Many animal rights groups consider elephant tourism to be immoral. In Thailand, camps take in and breed elephants. Camps force them to perform shows for their first ten years or so. Camps then utilize them as riding elephants. They strap a bench to their backs. Tourists pay to ride them. This is legal in Thailand. For centuries, Thai people have held captive elephants for work.

What Goes on Behind Closed Doors at These Elephant Camps?

An article on PETA explains that elephant camps market themselves as sanctuaries. Owners say they are good to the animals. But in reality, these camps take baby elephants from their mothers. They torture and chain them for a life of bondage. The organization claims: “Elephant rides are archaic and cruel, and they offer no benefit whatsoever to the ever-shrinking population of these endangered animals… You can help elephants, too, by refusing to take rides on them when traveling.”
Elephants are repeatedly beaten with bullhooks. Bullhooks are a heavy weapon with a sharp steel hook on the end. This is how instructors instruct them and control them. Videos on the internet of this abuse abound. Outraged American tourists speak out. All over the web, people explain that camps trick them with deceptive marketing into supporting this cruel industry. Meanwhile, many organizations such as PETA are attempting to shut down the industry.

In Defense of Elephant Sanctuaries

Many local experts affirm the necessity of elephant tourism. It preserves the Asian elephant populace. Elephants have always been integrated into Thai culture. An in-depth look at elephant sanctuaries reveals that elephants have contributed greatly to the culture of Thailand for generations. Additionally, they have worked alongside human workers in transportation, war, and religion. Modern transportation and the banning of the logging industry have put elephants out of work. The only modern, legal work for elephants is tourism.

Additionally, radical deforestation spread into the wild areas where elephants previously occupied. This moves Asian elephants into endangerment. It leaves few other protected wild spaces for elephants to occupy. Joshua Plotnik, Thailand based psychologist and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, explains: “At this point, given the high number of elephants currently in captivity, tourism is by far the best option for raising funds to take care of these animals.” As a result, telling tourists to boycott elephant riding provides no alternative for elephants or their owners. These aims misguide tourists.

The Role of the Mahout

In this debate, there is a third voice to consider. Not only the elephants and the tourists involved but the workers at these camps should be heard. The title for this work is a mahout. Richard Lair, an Asian elephant specialist explains: “Mahoutship was once a highly honorable position in traditional Asian societies, but modernization has brought drastic change… Economically, nearly all mahouts are disadvantaged and many are genuinely downtrodden. Socially, Asian societies accord great theoretical respect to the elephant but very little to the mahout, who remains a sort of invisible man.” Many mahouts are refugees and are low-skilled, low-paid, and low-status. Western tourists think that their boycott is ethical, but this trend could hurt many workers. 

An article from the Atlantic shares the perspective of the mahout. “One mahout recounted the time an American tourist told him he deserved to die for using a bullhook to control his elephant. Then the tourist pulled out a smartphone and demanded a picture of himself, sitting on that very same elephant’s trunk.”

Clearly, many are more considered with the protection of animals than with people. When looking at this topic, it is good to notice the difference between tourism operations and individual mahouts.

What We Can Do

Though often a marketing tool, the term sanctuary has been coined for elephant captivity. Do any of these sanctuaries claim to do as they boast? Look at this list to find sanctuaries that care for the mahouts and elephants which fill them. This controversy is a great example of uninformed travel. No matter where you travel, it is important to learn about unethical tourist attractions, but also the way these local attractions provide jobs and habitats for wildlife.

Photo by Wikipedia