The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room

Lack of legal oversight leaves tourist camps to their own devices

Elephants are a national symbol, source of pride and one of the biggest draws for tourists to Thailand.

Tourists roam the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai sporting elephant pants and T-shirts, looking through brochures to find their chance to get that signature Instagram photo with one of the so-called gentle giants.

But since a spike in the number of camps in Thailand, their treatment has become the subject of fierce debate.

The lack of firm regulation or compulsory checks and audits combined with big money-making opportunities, not just from the use of elephants in tourist camps, but also from the sale of the elephants themselves, makes the industry ripe for abuse, cost-cutting measures and shortcuts.

With over 38 million foreign tourists visiting Thailand in 2018, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand website, tourism is no small business for the country, accounting for roughly 10% of the economy.

Throughout most of the 20th century, captive elephants were used in logging. But a 1989 ban on logging in Thailand left the elephants -- and their mahouts, or caretakers --without jobs. This forced them to start using the elephants for tourism purposes -- the next best option, and one of the only ways to make the cash to support themselves and their elephants.

"In 1995, there were just 22 camps. Now, there are 223," says Ms Soraida Salwala, the secretary-general of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampang, and a well-known advocate for elephant welfare.

As the number of visitors to Thailand continues to rise, so does the demand for elephants. According to World Animal Protection's 2017 "Taken for a Ride" report, 40% of tourists surveyed said that they intended to engage in elephant tourism on their trips to Thailand.

And while there are some animal welfare laws that broadly protect captive elephants, of which there are roughly 4,400, there is nothing on the books that specifically outlines standards for working elephants. Even with vague protections, enforcement is rare to be seen.

This leaves an extremely profitable industry heavily unchecked, and creates a culture of near-impunity when it comes to animal welfare.

A request for comment from the Tourism Authority of Thailand was declined.

Misinformation and hazy standards

Camps, rescues and sanctuaries are free to label themselves however they want to, without any oversight or firm definition of a sanctuary. This means that even camps that tout themselves as being sanctuaries and voices for elephant welfare have been spotted cruelly and neglectfully treating their elephants. Despite brochures and rhetoric promoting humane and ethical treatment, what happens behind the scenes (and sometimes in plain view), can not always be verified.

Big greetings: Boonmee, an elephant who Soraida Salwala says is recovering from a landmine injury to her right foot, greets visitors to her enclosure.

"We had a patient in our hospital that was very sick and had white spots on its skin. The owner of the elephant came to get the elephant back, saying that they need to perform a ceremony with it. Of course, we were not the owners so we had to give it back."

Ms Soraida says she later found out a sanctuary had paid the owner of the sick elephant to remove it from the hospital while it was in treatment. The sanctuary, she says, planned to use photographs of the sick elephant to promote itself, by saying that they were "saving" the jumbo, when, in fact, the camp had removed it from the hospital to tout it as a "rescued" elephant.

These stories are not unheard of in the elephant industry, much of which thrives on tourist cash in the name of conservation or healing. "The sanctuaries give them [the elephants] stories. Sometimes they are true and sometimes they are not true. But they are discrediting Thailand," she says.

Other hazy aspects of the trade include whether an elephant is rented or owned. A rented elephant might not have a dedicated mahout or caretaker, and could be routinely passed between different handlers. Even if it's roaming a sanctuary and getting river baths from tourists one day, it could be forced to provide rides for 12 consecutive hours or perform tricks the next day.

Unchecked management

The use of the hook, which is typically a short pole with a sharp end and is the most common tool for mahouts, has drawn ire from animal rights advocates who say that it's a form of cruelty. However, elephant experts like Dr Chatchote Thitaram, the co-chair of the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group, say that its use is necessary in order to maintain control of the elephant.

"This is an animal that can kill you with a swing of its trunk," says Dr Chatchote, who is also an assistant professor at Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

Losing control, he says, could mean injury, and even death. Now, fearing backlash from tourists who find the hooks unsightly, some camps have started using smaller objects, such as nails and knives, which are out of the direct line of sight of tourists, but cause greater damage to the animal and pierce the skin.

"The mahouts are ashamed to use their tools," says Nicolas Dubrocard, the director of Asian Captive Elephant Standards Co Ltd, a Chiang Mai-based for-profit company that offers elephant camp auditing services and is also affiliated with the working group.

The use of chains is another contentious issue. While it can be cruel to keep an elephant on a short chain that prevents them from walking around, Dr Chatchote says the chain is, in fact, necessary in many cases but should be used in a humane way. The elephants should have enough room to roam and move around, he says.

Referring to Western rights advocates who campaign against the use of the hook and chains, Mr Dubrocard says, "It's easy to promote this from behind our desks, but it's a matter of what's safe."

"If we hit or shout or use strong words, it doesn't mean you don't love your kids, but you love them in your own way," says Dr Chatchote.

Additionally, while many camps tout feeding elephants bananas and sweets as a kind way to interact with the creatures, they are often overfed these foods, which are unhealthy in large quantities.

"There are now many obese elephants," says Mr Dubrocard.

Riding is also a controversial issue. While Mr Dubrocard says that riding can be interesting for the elephants as long as they are not overworked, Ms Soraida says the mahouts should be the only ones riding the elephants.

"Why in the world do they have to ride the elephants? Just to get a photo?" she says.

Finding a unified voice, even among coalitions of camp owners and other experts in the industry is another challenge; there are several conflicting voices, and even the status of treatment in the industry is up for debate.

Jumbo commodities

It's not just tourist cash that operators are after, says Ms Soraida. Elephant purchases make big money, too. A female elephant might cost 1.5 million baht, while a tusker, or male elephant, could cost over 10 million baht, she says.

Jumbo crossing: A road sign in Lampang province warns motorists of elephants crossing.

"Some of the camp owners are also the elephant merchants," she says. "They trade and they know the middleman. The middleman will talk to the poachers and say 'We want a male elephant, we want a female elephant, or an elephant a few months old we'll find because people would love to see young babies at the camp.'"

While elephants are bred and sold between camps within Thailand, Ms Soraida says there's a market for poachers to get elephants from the wild in Myanmar and traffic them into Thailand, particularly through Kanchanaburi and Tak provinces.

She claims that two people have tried to kill her for exposing some of the market. "People don't like you if you know too much and you talk about it," she says.

The WAP report voices the same concerns. "The existence of this legal, high-value captive population risks opening up a market for wild animals by incentivising the laundering of wild animals into the legal captive population," it says.

However, Mr Dubrocard believes that the market for poaching elephants from Myanmar and trafficking them to Thailand is a thing of the past, citing a prevalence in domestic breeding. "You cannot just fit an elephant into your suitcase," he says. "People want to believe these morbid things."

But even breeding within Thailand can create a market that turns these large, endangered animals into trade commodities.

"Thailand's captive elephants also play an indirect role in the international illegal ivory trade," says the report. "While encouragingly, Thailand introduced regulations for their ivory market by requesting traders register their stocks, and prohibiting the sale of African ivory, there are still concerns around the domestic market providing opportunities for ivory laundering."

In search of a solution

Some organisations, such as Mr Dubrocard's Asian Captive Elephant Standards Co, are seeking to develop other ways to incentivise camp owners to deploy humane and ethical treatment of elephants through an overall ratings system. The company charges camps anywhere from 900 to 2,000 euro to audit and assign them ratings based on a variety of standards, including the elephants' working hours, diets, and camp safety. He says they are currently looking for a formal method of oversight to monitor their own organisation.

Ms Soraida says that making mahouts recognised and certified professionals and mandating a training programme is a part of the solution. Dr Chatchote also touts paying mahouts higher wages as a way to incentivise them to handle their elephants in an ethical way.

"They just come to take the tourist elephant for money. And that is one of the problems. If you are a professional mahout then this elephant will be lucky because you get along together with the right person. But some camps can do that and some camps cannot. Right now, it is more and more difficult to find a good mahout."


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