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Activism or paternalism? The case of elephant-based tourism in Southeast Asia.

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

Dr Ingrid Suter, Asian Captive Elephant Standards

Elephant-based tourism is nothing new. The older backpackers among us will remember the streetwalking elephants of Bangkok, a common sight in the 1990s and early 2000s. Even then it felt uncomfortable, seeing this majestic animal amidst the backdrop of tuktuks, taxis and tarmac. The Thai government banned streetwalking elephants decades ago, just one of the many major improvements that has been made in captive elephant welfare and management over the years. But do people in the West know about these improvements? Barely. I used to believe that it was a genuine lack of exposure to the reforms that kept us Westerners in the dark. But after years of working in the elephant-based tourism sector, I now concede that Westerners are simply not interested in listening to Southeast Asian voices.

Most Westerners show absolutely no interest in acknowledging the gains made in elephant welfare research and science. Western-run NGOs would rather dominate and talk over local communities, deny poor people a legitimate income stream, and continue to dehumanise all Southeast Asian elephant workers as uneducated, ignorant, and inherently cruel. Even the most educated academics and veterinarians in Southeast Asia are dismissed, their scientific research into elephant welfare entirely snubbed by Western decision-makers. Southeast Asian veterinarians and head of university faculties are routinely abused online by Western ‘elephant lovers’. Are Westerners interested in learning about elephant welfare or tourism from an educated, local stakeholder? The answer is a resounding no.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the current UK Animals Abroad Bill that is attempting to be passed in the UK Parliament. In brief, a small group of Western animal rights activist groups are trying to have all advertising of elephant-based tourism banned in the UK. This paternalistic attempt to dictate law impacting an entirely separate continent will not change a single elephants’ life. The Bill will not invest money into sustainable tourism, nor will it improve the welfare of any animal or person anywhere. If anything, a lack of tourism advertising will decrease elephant welfare, as elephant owners will have less income to invest into elephant care. To be clear, the Bill is not banning elephant tourism, just the UK advertising of elephant tourism. A Brit can still buy a ticket to an elephant venue when holidaying in Southeast Asia (and many do). They just won’t be able to buy the exact same ticket while still in the UK. Confused? Well, just follow the money trail.

Western animal rights groups are completely reliant on donations from outraged benefactors. Showcasing the many excellent elephant venues that exist in Southeast Asia or working with the experts in elephant welfare isn’t exactly going to get donations pouring in. Animal rights groups rely on images of crying elephants for that (side note, Asian elephants physiologically cannot cry. Their eyes ooze liquid to repel dust and foreign bodies, not because they are sad or are being abused).

It’s in the Western animal rights’ groups financial interest to perpetuate the myth of sustained suffering, ongoing abuse, and zero positive change. They call this effective marketing, but it’s a thinly veiled a white saviour complex. Southeast Asian people can’t possibly care for elephants without complete instruction from white groups in the West. Even more alarmingly, these Western groups are withholding science and silencing experts to perpetuate stereotypes for their own financial gain.

For years there has been evidence-based, peer-reviewed science available regarding best practice in captive Asian elephant welfare and management. Much of this research dismisses the most common rhetoric Western NGOS rely on for public donations. This includes evidence regarding elephant riding, training, enrichment, and stress levels of elephants at tourism camps in Southeast Asia. These activities can all be considered safe for an elephant if performed under correct parameters. If this evidence is readily available, then why do Westerners choose to ignore it? Surely, the point of research is to improve elephant welfare and management practices through implementation. Shouldn’t Western animal rights groups distribute this welfare research throughout their networks as readily as possible? Instead, they do the total opposite and stubbornly choose to ignore its existence. When you ignore science to pick your own version of the truth, you stop being one of the good guys.

Travel associations such as the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) are equally at fault of ignoring the science and expert advice regarding elephant welfare. More interested in their own public liability and reputational risk, travel associations would rather dictate to Southeast Asian communities what is right and wrong, extending far beyond their reach or any Asian elephant expert’s advice. Indeed, ABTA have strategically ignored Asian elephant expert advice for years, choosing to selectively pick what science they incorporate into their policy, and what they won’t. Cherry-picking scientific outcomes and withholding evidence-based information may seem innocuous to decision-makers in the West. But it has real-life ramifications for the voiceless communities that are impacted by the scientifically baseless anti-elephant tourism sentiments established by the West.

There is a total fear of standing up to the multi-million-dollar animal rights activist industry and their dedicated brood of online trolls. Western travel groups are so frightened of being called animal abusers that it’s now easier to quietly bow down and let the activists override all science. Virtue signalling has also become a popular practice. “Stop elephant abuse” is a much catchier slogan than “We support evidence-based Asian elephant management on a case-by-case basis”. Southeast Asian tourism authorities are too afraid to even place an image of an elephant in their marketing, knowing that trolls in the UK, US and Australia will howl with outrage at the mere thought of elephant abuse. The demands of the animal rights activists are being treated as gospel while the scientists and elephant expert voices are drowned out. Sadly, none of this is improving elephant welfare.

Staff care deeply for Asian elephants At Kulen Elephant Forest, Cambodia. Photo credit N. Dubrocard.

The professional Asian elephant network is relatively small. Most elephant camp managers, vets, zookeepers, and academics from around the world are an amenable bunch. They are more than happy to share information, learn from one another and support the science. The raging argument surrounding elephant tourism does not occur by the experts in elephant welfare. Rather, it’s the uneducated Western animal rights groups or travel agents that spread online mistruths, condone propaganda, and encourage stereotypes against all elephant workers. One old photo of a mistreated elephant is not indicative of an entire sector, but science whispers while emotions rage.

Most Westerners have no conservation management qualifications or elephant camp experience. Yet they feel so righteous about elephants that they truly believe their opinions qualify them above those of academics, veterinarians, and other highly regarded elephant camp managers throughout Southeast Asia. It’s not even an unconscious bias, it’s blatant racism.

The ongoing abuse directed at elephant-based tourism stakeholders affects some of the most financially vulnerable communities in Southeast Asia. The benefits of elephant-based tourism extend far beyond a camp’s boundaries. Local farmers have a steady income from continued contracts for grass and fodder. Women are employed at camps, and girls receive enough money to enter schooling. Bridges have been built and expensive medical procedures paid for by elephant tourism community chests. But Westerners don’t want to hear about the poor people. They are only interested in, and deeply angered by, a photo of an elephant in chains. They know that the elephant faces a lifetime of misery and suffering. They know this because the sponsored animal rights activist advertisement tells them so. It’s right there, next to the big ‘donate now’ button.

The human-elephant relationship in many Southeast Asian communities has existed for thousands of years. Modern-day improvements to legislation and regulation means this tradition is no longer the undesirable practise it once was. Passive verbal training occurs, many camps meet levels of elephant welfare higher than that found in Western zoos, and endangered species conservation management practices are applied in the correct contexts. There are so many highly skilled and qualified elephant managers in Southeast Asia, with so many elephants receiving excellent levels of welfare. But you would never know it, because Westerners have trouble acknowledging that locals can effectively care for elephants. Racism and prejudice are so deeply entrenched in the Western charge against elephant-based tourism that most Westerners have no understanding of the significant human-elephant relationship at all. Everything they have learned about elephants and elephant workers comes directly from an animal rights website. And that’s terrifying.

Tourism can lead positive social and environmental change in so many ways. There is not a single government on earth that invests adequately into conservation - private funds are desperately needed to drive environmental management forward. Private revenue from sustainable elephant tourism ventures can reshape communities and improve outcomes for endangered species. Yet least developed and developing nations are pressured by the West to forgo tourism opportunities that do no harm at the expense of chosen Western ignorance. Of course, there will be poor performers in elephant-based tourism. This is an ongoing concern in any industry and is certainly not restricted to Southeast Asia. If there is a society for the protection of animals in your country, then there is an animal cruelty problem in your country. But the question remains; why does camel riding in Australia receive so many positive accolades, while quality elephant tourism in Southeast Asia is branded by the same people as abhorrent? If all the science points to elephant tourism being possible without compromising elephant welfare, then what’s the problem? Perhaps, the problem is you.

If you would like to learn more about elephant-based tourism, register for the free Atingi “Regenerative travel: Responsible Elephant-based Tourism in Southeast Asia” course. Or Download our Regional Elephant-Based Tourism Strategy.

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Jul 30, 2023

A very "eye-opening" piece. Thank you. I was surprised and disappointed at the same time. I know I will be sharing this information as much as I can to help disseminate it to as many readers as possible. I ask they do the same. There should be no obstacles to any endeavour to better the world for anybody or anything. The common ground is already there.


Mar 27, 2023

Great piece. I love elephants and personally would never ride on one but I've seen the care taken and the love and respect show to both Asian and African elephants (orphaned babies). Money is desperately needed to house and rehabilitate elephants so I would always support reputable, legitimate rescue centres. It breaks my heart seeing them in chains but fully understand the need for them.


Vanessa Gagne
Vanessa Gagne
Feb 21, 2023

Brilliant and articulate. Thank you!!

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