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Taking back the reins: The need for science in elephant-based tourism policy.

The human-elephant relationship has been established for thousands of years. Elephants are as ubiquitous in southeast Asian cultures as horses are in Western cultures. But an argument surrounding the present-day acceptance of elephants in captivity is reaching a boiling point. The increased fervour surrounding elephant-based tourism appears driven by concerned Westerners and Western organisations that have never studied, worked with, or spent any significant amount of time gaining an understanding of Asian elephants beyond “I love them”. Many Westerners are convinced that elephants have no place associating with humans and all captive elephants have experienced torture and pain, possibly on a continued basis. In fairness, some organisations freely peddle this misinformation, as outcry is essential for their exposure and financial support. It is difficult for the average person to receive impartial information about elephants, when the internet is full of opinions and non-scientific ‘studies’ that have zero academic credibility.


But a recent academic study published by researchers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Unit, the Chiang Mai University and the National Elephant Institute (Thailand) studied the fecal glucocorticoid metabolite (stress indicator) levels in captive elephants. This 12-month study demonstrated that captive elephants interacting with mahouts and performing daily exercise through riding had lower stress levels than elephants in free-ranging camps. Elephants in the study that undertook riding had better body score conditions and were less likely to be obese compared with the elephants that did not undertake riding activities. The elephants engaged in riding received both physical and mental stimulation; positive welfare attributes that the elephants at the passive viewing camp did not receive. Indeed, the same study showed that elephants living in the free-roaming camps did not necessarily form the social bonds or matriarchal hierarchies required of elephant herds. This in turn may have led to less structure, less enrichment and ultimately more stressors placed on the free roaming elephants.


The elephants at the better managed camps had better welfare scores and lower stress levels. The elephants at the no riding/no ankus camp did not produce the lowest stress levels in study. Elephant shows, riding and ankus use were not significantly associated with high fecal glucocorticoid metabolite levels. It is reasonable to state that the ultimate goal in elephant welfare is not necessarily passive viewing, but rather a camp that exceeds in all areas of elephant welfare, husbandry and enrichment.


This study follows-on from a further captive elephant welfare study that analysed 122 tourism elephants over a 12 month period. Assessing body condition scores and wounds, the study indicated that only 5% of all elephants showed wounds that may be associated with riding. That’s 6 elephants out of 122. Nearly three quarters of all elephants had absolutely no signs of ankus misuse and that overall, elephants working in tourism had better body score conditions than elephants found in North American zoos. Management recommendations were provided and focussed on providing sandy substrates for elephants and improving visitor interactions. Essentially, the welfare of an elephant can be greatly enhanced by improved camp management practices.


While this information may be easily disregarded by people that deeply ‘love’ elephants, it’s important for both decision makers and visitors to pay attention to these findings. Studies like these offer realistic and practical ways of lowering the stress levels and improving the welfare for elephants that work in tourism. Maintaining that elephants should not interact with humans may actually be counterproductive to an elephant’s intelligence and may deprive the elephant of important enrichment opportunities. Please read the studies for detailed information.


Feeding an elephant at a well-managed camp shouldn't be considered cruel. Photo credit: I.Suter.

Despite the empirical evidence, scientific studies that measure the welfare variables of elephants in tourism are routinely glossed over or ignored entirely. Decision-makers seem more persuaded by trends and popularism than evidence. Ignoring experts and their findings comes partially from the historical nature of academia and scientific publication. Scientific journals are notorious for being hidden behind paywalls; making them challenging to access unless you have academic contacts, a large disposable income and a tenacious thirst for unbiased knowledge. The complex language and statistical terminology used in academia is another barrier people find when trying to interpret results. Academics are also not necessary the best public speakers or the most media-savvy members of society. This regularly means a secondary source such as a news carrier or general website will provide a summary of findings, usually with its own bias or motive heavily applied. Thankfully this is changing with the advent of Open Access journals, and it is vital that these studies are applied as they were intended.


Environmental Managers, politicians and other decisions-makers have long been aware that scientific studies only go so far. Gaining social license and public acceptance has very little to do with academic findings. But as the studies above have shown, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and inadvertently cause more harm than good. Banning the majority of elephant tourism does not help the majority of elephants. It may do more damage than anticipated for elephant populations and associated communities.


Decision-makers including prominent tourism associations need to engage with elephant experts, respond to their recommendations and improve welfare standards for all elephants in tourism. This may not necessarily mean supporting only the no ride/no ankus camps, as the studies above have demonstrated. Travel associations need to trust the elephant experts, veterinarians and academics, rather than the angry mobs and squeaky wheels, as the latter groups will never be satiated.


Poor performing elephant camps need to improve their management techniques. No elephant should be overworked, forced to work in strong heat or stand on poor substrate for great lengths of time. But with high camp standards, communication and commitment to Responsible Travel, these obstacles can all be overcome. ACES works with camps to improve all areas of elephant welfare and doesn’t place elephant welfare issues in the too-hard basket. Applying the content of these positive academic findings, it’s time individuals and organisations rethink what effective elephant welfare means and the best way to move forward.


Dr Ingrid Suter, BEnvMan, PhD.

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