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A call to arms: Why wildlife NGOs need to support captive Asian elephant populations.

Almost clairvoyantly, Lair’s 2019 commentary highlighted the consequences a global recession or similar disaster may have on Thailand’s Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) living under human care (Lair 2019). The ongoing COVID-19 emergency demonstrates the urgent need for new approaches and collaborations for captive elephant management. Within the month of March there has been mass closures of elephant camps throughout Chiang Mai, one of the leading destinations for elephant-based tourism in Southeast Asia. The swift drop in tourist numbers may have long-lasting impacts on elephant camps, mahouts and of course elephant care that is so reliant on the international tourism dollar. With the exception of Indonesia, the vast majority of captive elephants in Southeast Asia are privately owned. This is unlikely to change so arguing for their release is wasting time. Instead, new approaches to species protection need to be explored and experienced stakeholders need to enter the discourse.


There has long been a desire for mainstream wildlife NGOs to assist with captive elephant management and conservation. Large NGOs such as WWF and IFAW continue to provide scant attention or assistance towards captive elephant populations, preferring to focus all conservation efforts on wild elephants. This has led to the bizarre situation in which inexperienced camps and tourism stakeholders are held entirely responsible for endangered species welfare, management and protection. Some camps succeed in providing excellent levels of welfare, while others continue to work unencumbered by any expectations of endangered species responsibility or accountability.


Certainly, the historical controversies surrounding captive elephants were reason enough to downplay the merits of this core population. But it’s important to acknowledge that what happened in the 1990s is not commonplace anymore. Elephant experts and governments have worked hard to correct the mistakes of the past. The tightening of legislative loopholes, microchipping and DNA “passports” have all had positive impacts on the once blurred lines between wild and captive elephants. Smuggling elephants from the wild has markedly reduced, as calves are now born into captivity with celebrated regularity. This has erased the need for any largescale form of ‘breaking in’ ceremonial practices. Calves are habituated to humans from the moment they are born. Receiving verbal training every day, calves grow up knowing exactly what is expected of them. This is critical for the provision of ongoing healthcare such as blood sampling, dental, rectal and foot checks. Elephants can undertake all of these tasks without physical or chemical restraint, all because of their excellent verbal training. There are so many positive training methods now applied at camps, there is simply no need for fear, pain or cruel training methodologies to exist.


So why do large wildlife NGOs continue to ignore captive elephants, when captive elephants provide so many positives for the entire Asian elephant population? Traditional forms of wild elephant conservation are having limited amounts of success. Attempting to safeguard wild elephant populations is of course essential. But conservationists are continually fighting the battle against human-elephant conflict, snares, poaching, deforestation, encroachment and many other seemingly impenetrable barriers to success.


While the elephant-based tourism industry has made great progress in improving standards and services, the tourism sector alone cannot provide all the solutions to the complex task of endangered species management. Prominent Western organisations such as the Association of British Travel Agents and Intrepid Travel refuse to recognise improved industry standards. These businesses prefer to play it reputationally-safe by arbitrarily endorsing passive viewing camps, despite these camps not undergoing any independent accreditation process. The Western appeal for passive viewing camps has elephant experts scratching their heads, as no contact does not automatically mean no cruelty. But again, it’s an example of where the tourism industry attempts to enact and fulfil the role of conservationists and camp managers without any experience in the field.



The captive elephant population may not be the main priority for species conservation, but with over 5,000 captive elephants in Southeast Asia, this population does play a valuable role in elephant conservation. Acting as genetic reservoirs, captive elephants are safeguarded from all the problems currently faced by wild populations. The gender and age distributions of wild elephants are all unknown, whereas captive elephant managers retain an incredible amount of detailed information about each and every individual elephant. This can provide researchers and conservationists with invaluable information for breeding, population viability and other future essentials.


Yet the onus of endangered species conservation is expected to be almost entirely performed by stakeholders who have very little experience in wildlife conservation. There are exceptions, such as the work performed by the Lao Elephant Conservation Center, the Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation and Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES). But essentially elephant camps are left to fend for themselves without support, while receiving all the criticism and condemnation from animal rights groups.


It’s time that large wildlife NGOs reconsider their position on captive elephant conservation. Wildlife NGOs could partner with smaller camps and provide them with essential elephant welfare services and training. This may include ongoing training for mahouts and local communities; improved elephant socialisation and enrichment activities, breeding management and welfare assessments by ACES. At the very least NGOs could appreciate the current financial struggle faced by elephant managers and assist camps in caring for their elephants. Now is the perfect time to reassess what is working in elephant conservation; what can be improved, and how the captive population of elephants can be better supported for the guaranteed future of all Asian elephants.


Dr Ingrid Suter. BEnvMan(Hons), PhD.



Reference

Lair, R (2019), A looming crisis for Thailand’s domesticated elephants? Journal of the Elephant Managers Association, Vol 30. No 2 (95 – 97).

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