Elephants are sentient, cognitive emotional beings with a brain that works at a similar level of cognitive ability to humans, primates, and dolphins. As a result they are susceptible to the same psychological disorders as humans such as stress. To keep elephants safe around tourists all tourist elephants go through a breaking process and thereafter are constantly controlled using hooks and nails. All elephants including the elderly, sick and babies are restrained at all times on short chains.
In the wild, elephants live in family groups with various social roles, including rearing young. Females remain with their family for life, living with their mothers, sisters, aunties etc. In the tourist sites the elephants are not allowed to interact or touch each other for fear of fighting and punished if they try. Elephants communicate vocally like humans, but also through touch, so without this they become socially isolated, even within close proximity to one another. These conditions inhibit the elephants’ ability to process cognitively, making it dangerous for them to be around people.
Domestication is a breeding process whereby animals are chosen with selected characteristics and bred over many generations. Although elephants have been kept by humans for around 3,000 years they have never been domesticated and have on the whole been poached directly from the wild. Asian elephants are endangered (IUCN Red List) and protected under The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Captive elephants in tourism have doubled since the 1990s after the creation of animal tourism. By paying for rides and performances, tourists’ actions directly affect the lives of the elephants because as the demand for elephants increases, so more baby elephants are poached from the wild for the tourist industry.
Responsibilites of the Mahout
The elephant keeper or mahout profession traditionally required a lifelong interest in and dedication to elephants resulting in the mahout’s deep commitment to the elephant in their care. Sadly, the occupation of mahout or elephant handler, no longer commands the respect it once did. Today many mahouts are poor, uneducated young men prone to abandon their elephant when better paid work comes along because they never intended to commit to their elephants long-term. An elephant typically eats about 200 kgs of food a day so it is not an easy task to keep an elephant in captivity and some mahouts are reduced to begging in the streets where their elephants suffer respiratory infections, damage property and are frequently hit by cars.
The elephants that have been trained to live with humans can not be returned to the wild. Even if they could be returned to the wild, there is insufficient space to accommodate all of the captive elephants in the existing national forest lands.
However, one of the biggest problems facing captive elephants is unemployment. Some argue that simply banning elephant tourism fails to constructively engage with the everyday realities of Asian elephant conservation and further argue that with the current absence of viable alternatives, elephant tourism contributes to the welfare of working elephants albeit in an imperfect way. The number of captive elephants in Asia far outweighs the number of wild elephants and it is further argued that captive working elephants are important to the conservation of elephants because without them the long-term survival of the entire species could be at risk.
Kinder Elephant Experiences for all
There are some solutions on the horizon for the tourist industry. Some eco tourism projects are emerging and in addition to offering protection to some wild herds so that tourists can observe the elephants in their natural habitat, these projects have given many captive elephants and their mahouts better work opportunities with better working conditions and a “kinder” elephant trekking experience. Regrettably these projects are few and far between situated in locations that we do not visit. For these reasons we have taken the decision not to include elephant riding in our itineraries at the moment, however, we welcome your feedback on this topic.