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What is an elephant camp audit?

Seeing an elephant in southeast Asia is one of life’s greatest pleasures. But a major concern with elephant camps is not knowing what goes on behind the scenes. Elephants may appear happy enough, but as a passing visitor it’s impossible to know what back-of-house care and facilities are offered to each elephant. Camps that advertise themselves as 100% elephant-friendly may in actuality keep their elephants in poor living conditions…just out of the public’s eye.

While each country has their own national laws and policies regarding captive elephants, it can be challenging to interpret what this means in practical terms. Additionally, some laws can be too lenient or generalist in nature. It was clear that a standardised, transparent and transboundary approach to elephant camp standards and welfare was needed for captive Asian elephants in southeast Asia.

Along with a team of experts, Asian Captive Elephant Standards has developed and trialled over 190 strict elephant camp criteria. Camps must meet at least 116 of these criteria to be considered eligible for ACES accreditation. Criteria can be generally allocated into eight sections: – the eight pillars of elephant camp assessment.

Camp assessment cannot occur without the complete willingness of each camp owner/manager. Camp managers must guarantee transparency, be open to constructive feedback and be willing to make recommended changes. It is highly unlikely that a camp will pass the assessment phase without needing to make at least several modifications to their current camp practices. These may be small changes such as improving bookkeeping and annual reporting, to more serious concerns of excessive chaining, poor socialisation or difficult work expectations. Camp staff must allow ACES auditors complete access to all areas of the camp, including day and night shelters, feed lots, veterinary clinics, staff quarters, employment records and legal permits.

The most important criteria focus on elephant welfare. Indeed five out of the eight pillars are directly related to elephant care, linking with the five freedoms of animal welfare. Elephant welfare facets that are examined and are essential to pass include:

  • Body score condition and specific dietary needs for each elephant. This will vary depending on each elephants’ age, sex, pregnancy/lactation.

  • Socialisation and ability to have contact with other elephants.

  • Number of working hours each day and the time of day expected to work.

  • Continual access to fresh and clean drinking water.

  • Access to daily mud and dirt bathing, and daily time bathing away from the public.

  • Quality of living shelters.

  • Substrate and foot care.

  • Regularity of veterinary checks and the standard of medical record keeping.

These are just a few examples of the scrutiny camps face when undertaking ACES camp accreditation.

Human resources are not overlooked either. Afterall, a happy worker is more likely to have greater job satisfaction and provide better elephant care. ACES believe that elephant camps must provide staff with secure employment, a living wage, health insurance for staff and family members, sick days, national holidays and retirement pensions (in keeping with national legislation). ACES auditors check all employment records, contracts and training qualifications, to ensure staff are receiving the correct entitlements.

Once an assessment has occurred, ACES provides each camp with a report containing a list of the changes they need to make. Camp managers then have three months to implement all necessary changes. Once approved, elephant camps will receive their ACES accreditation but must reapply for accreditation annually, including yearly onsite assessments. This way ACES can continue to monitor each elephant camp and ensure they are continually meeting all current accreditation expectations.

At ACES we are proud of the strict criteria elephant camps are expected to pass. We have unrestricted access to every corner of the elephant camp, and we can observe how elephants are treated when not in the public’s vision. Visiting an ACES-approved elephant camp means you are visiting a camp that has passed international scrutiny and has achieved the highest level of assessment available. We want you to enjoy your elephant experience, knowing that each and every elephant is being cared for to the highest standards possible. Trunks up to that!

Dr Ingrid Suter BEnvMan(Hons), PhD.

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