Advocates sound alarm over tourism toll on Thai elephants | Best countries

PHUKET, Thailand — On Phuket, a mountainous island in Thailand’s far south, a popular tourist attraction called Elephant Swims draws visitors who can sip mango smoothies while watching the waves crash around baby elephants near shore. Tourists can pay as much as $70 for a one-off photo with an elephant, where the camera captures them perched on the animal’s head or trunk.

Tourism is returning to Thailand after two years of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and elephants are a popular tourist attraction. There are just over 3,000 wild elephants in Thailand and up to 3,800 in captivity – but experts say many of the latter are suffering.

Before the pandemic, the elephant tourism industry was generating between $581 million and $770 million a year, according to a 2020 report by World Animal Protection, an international animal rights organization based in the United Kingdom. While countries like Sri Lanka and India have come under fire for the treatment of captive elephants, experts say the situation is particularly dire in Thailand, where nearly three-quarters of Asia’s elephants live in the tourism industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made conditions for captive elephants worse, according to animal experts, who say as tourist funds dried up, elephants were left without food. It costs several hundred dollars a month to feed just one elephant.

“Before COVID, elephant tourism brought huge sums of money to Thai people,” says Nitipon Piwmow, a member of the Thai Parliament who works to raise awareness of elephant abuse in Thailand. “Then everything stopped: no tourists, no income. But elephants need to eat, and with no income, they were stuck in this situation for almost two years. I have seen many elephants die.”

Visitors are seen at the Elephant Swims tourist attraction in Phuket, Thailand, on May 29, 2022. (Paul Isidort/IWMF)

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of elephants living in the worst conditions in Thailand increased by 135%, according to the World Animal Protection Report. A 2015 study found that 86% of the country’s captive elephants were living in substandard conditions.

In Thailand, captive elephants are often forced to paint on canvas with their trunks, perform show tricks such as balancing on two legs with a hat, swim with tourists and carry them on their backs. But the tasks have consequences for the animals: for example, putting weight on an elephant’s back is harmful because its skin sits directly on the bone. Over time, this deforms their spine, says Best Atthakorn, who works with Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a non-governmental organization that works to rescue and rehabilitate abused animals.

At Elephant Swims, after the eight female elephants are done for the day, they climb a spiral staircase to their cages, where they are chained at the ankles. (Men are too aggressive for the job, staff explains.)

Elephant Swims did not respond to requests to comment on this article after repeated attempts to contact them regarding the welfare of their elephants.

Thailand’s Animal Welfare Act 2014 protects wild elephants in the country, but captive elephants can be traded, bred and used in tourism. In fact, they have a long history of working in captivity as a national symbol of wealth and royalty. Now that tourists are returning with the easing of pandemic restrictions, elephant attractions are keen to reopen. One of the first to resume operations was Elephant Swims on Lucky Beach in southwest Phuket.

“If the elephants want to go swimming alone and the people just come with them, that’s good,” says Atthakorn. “But if the tourists want to come shower with the elephants every time and the mahout (elephant handler) has to pull them by the ear with a hook and take them to the lake or pool, I don’t think that’s a good thing at all.”

To familiarize elephants with humans, trainers often use what is known as the “crush method,” in which the baby is separated from its mother, placed in a cage, and the elephant tied in a way that is docile enough to walk with to interact with people.

“How can an elephant do these tricks? They have to train really hard, and that’s not natural for the elephant,” says Piwmow. “This is abuse.”

The release of captive elephants into the wild is illegal under Thai law and even elephants rescued from abuse must remain in captivity. Captive elephants have also learned to rely on humans and lack the skills to survive in the wild, said Atthakorn, who noted that training an elephant often comes with abuse.

“People use the hook to control the elephant, and that’s pretty bad,” says Atthakorn. “Sometimes they chain the elephants in the elephant camps and when we rescue them here it’s been a few years but they still feel used to the chain.”

Asian elephants, which live in remote areas of South Asia and Southeast Asia, are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. To protect them, elephant sanctuaries have sprung up and are becoming increasingly popular with international volunteers. These sanctuaries also welcome tourists who are the main source of income.

One of the first animal rescue centers, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand was founded in 2001 by Edwin Wiek, a Dutchman.

“Because Thailand treats wild animals in captivity, there was no way to bring animals to sanctuaries,” says Wiek. “So I decided to start one.”

WFFT is based in Phetchaburi, a province a few hours south of Bangkok. The center saves hundreds of animals from abuse, including gibbons (part of the great ape family), tigers, cougars, otters and even a chimpanzee that lived in a small cage in a schoolyard for 30 years. The WFFT also houses an elephant sanctuary. With 13 mahouts caring for them daily, the WFFT lets elephants roam free in a 44-acre enclosure. The sanctuary allows tourists to admire elephants close enough for a photo but behind a high fence.

“Ten years ago nobody questioned whether feeding an elephant or touching its trunk was okay or not, but now it’s an issue,” says Wiek.

Green Elephant Sanctuary is located on Phuket Island, about 24 km from Elephant Swims. Like WFFT, the Green Elephant Sanctuary works to save elephants from abuse but has a more relaxed attitude towards interacting with tourists. The elephant keepers, known as mahouts, let tourists hand-feed the elephants, rub mud on their backs, and wash them with buckets and long scrubbing brushes. Guides take groups of tourists to see where the elephants sleep, which is conveniently across from each elephant mahout’s hut. A female elephant in the sanctuary was used to transport timber in the logging industry and now has a mahout who takes care of her every day.

“We check how the elephants are feeling every day,” says Montara Pomseranee, a tour guide for the Green Elephant Sanctuary. “If they’re happy and normal they can do the tour, but if they’re sick the vet can examine them. We don’t force elephants to do anything they don’t want to do.”

The Green Elephant Sanctuary and WFFT have managed to weather the tourist dry spell even as donations have dwindled. WFFT had money from big donors like “Tiger King” Carole Baskin and contacts Wiek retained from his previous work in women’s fashion. In fact, the WFFT managed to take in three new elephants from mahouts on Phuket’s Rawai Beach during the pandemic, says Wiek. (One of these elephants is Thung Ngern, which means “sack full of money.”) At Green Elephant, Swiss founder Urs Fehr was able to provide funds for workers and elephants to eat.

With little support from government funds, support from interested tourists keeps the elephant sanctuaries running and provides the elephants with a relatively natural environment.

According to Piwmow, the goal is simple: “Let the elephants be elephants.”

This coverage was supported by the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation. Anna Lawatanatrakul contributed to the reporting.

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