There has been much recent speculation and discussion about elephant welfare in tourist elephant camps. With ill-informed media coverage in the West showing the apparent mistreatment of elephants many camps are out of business – leaving a great number of elephants, mahouts, and communities without a source of income.
Media and lobby groups have placed considerable focus upon the welfare of the animals without giving due consideration to other factors. These tips will help you to be better informed.
Make sure you are well-informed before visiting the elephant camp
Elephants are wild animals and can therefore be dangerous. Read the information provided on the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of interacting with elephants and listen closely to the mahouts’ advice.
Sometimes it is obvious to see if an elephant has been mistreated. Look for marks on their skin and check that the skin is dark. Look at the condition of their feet and nails? Are the elephants too fat or too skinny? Sometimes using a hook is necessary for a safe handling of the elephant but this should not be abused.
Signs of a purple ointment used for healing wounds may give a hint as to whether an animal has been abused. If you see any abuse or mistreatment, report this to the camp management. View more examples of other things to look at are the price of an elephant camp, appropriate use of chains, and water and food supply.
Despite all the activism against this topic, it is important to respect different positions regarding riding or not riding. However, all riding should only be performed responsibly under strict guidance and rules. If elephant rides are offered, for how long? Where do they go? How are riders sitting on the elephant? Is there a weight limit? Read about responsible elephant riding here.
Keep in mind that working and living with elephants has been part of Asian cultures for thousands of years. They are effective working animals because of their intelligence and ability to build special relationships with humans.
Elephants are generally admired in these cultures and are a valued part of Asian civilisation and it is, therefore, in a community’s best interest that elephant attractions are well managed – taking in account the welfare of the elephants and the communities in which they operate. If presented well, these attractions may be very educational and informative. Read more about the elephant’s role in Asian culture and communities.
‘Be a mahout for a day’
Tourism experiences with elephants have made a general shift from old-fashioned circus activities to a more interactive experience that brings you closer to the elephant. Try being ‘a mahout for a day,’ an experience where the tourist spends a day with the mahout and his elephant to learn more about their day-to-day life at the camps.
Be wary of media reports
Western perspective on elephant welfare has been highly influenced by stakeholder groups such as media channels and animal welfare organisations but one very important stakeholder group – the Mahouts – rarely have an opportunity to express their views. Mahouts develop a very special relationship with their elephants as they usually stay together for a lifetime. Unfortunately there are some camps that hire mahouts without any experience and they all too frequently resort to force to control their elephants.
Control of the elephant
For safety reasons, hooks and chains are sometimes needed to control the elephant. Read about the dangers of free-roaming here. Read the article about the ‘human cost of elephant camps’ to get more information on the sometimes necessary use of chains and hooks.
By: PATA Associate Intern Michelle Groothedde