Be careful what you wish for: elephant-ride boycott ‘caused more harm than good’

Having worked for an international animal protection organisation for almost 20 years, I thought I knew all there was to know about captive Asian elephant facilities, but I was wrong. I also thought the boycott opposing elephant riding was a means to an end of the publicised exploitation, but instead it only appears to have influenced a dramatic shift in elephant-based activities that has caused more harm than good. In fact, my recent findings indicate that activities offered by the so-called elephant ‘sanctuary’ facilities are placing animals and people at greater risk; requiring immediate attention to change the status quo.

Driven by the ban on timber extraction in Thailand and a devised programme to monetise the thousands of displaced elephants, tourist facilities sprung up across the country in the late 1990s. These offered elephant riding, performances and hands-on interactions, and tourism demand rocketed, attracting private business to the highly lucrative industry. Today, reports indicate that there are over 4000 captive Asian elephants in Thailand, many kept in substandard conditions, housed in hundreds of ‘elephant camps’, and visited by tens of millions of tourists each year. This includes quite a diversity of different models: from the traditional elephant camp, to the so-called ‘hook-free’ and ‘chain-free’ elephant ‘sanctuary’, to observation-only experiences.

ANIMONDIAL: Daniel Turner visiting Elephant Camps in Thailand

ANIMONDIAL’s Daniel Turner at an elephant camp in Thailand

This March, I visited 10 elephant camps in Thailand as part of my new role at ANIMONDIAL, the animal welfare in tourism specialist consultancy. The small, but representative selection included traditional camps, offering elephant riding and performance, as well as facilities that are heavily marketed as an ‘elephant sanctuary’. These so-called sanctuary camps appear to have been recently established in response to the elephant-ride boycott and, whilst riding is not offered, tourists can engage in other interactions like elephant bathing, unsupervised contact and uncontrolled feeding.

Whilst my specific findings relating to animal welfare have already been relayed to our client for follow-up, I did want to raise concerns about some of the activities offered by these facilities:

  • Importantly a true animal sanctuary should operate a non-breeding and not-for-profit approach. Therefore, a facility that is proactively breeding, commercially trading in elephants, or encourages direct contact interactions, should not be considered a sanctuary or rescue centre.
  • A large, wild animal, an elephant can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Therefore, any activity where tourists are in close proximity to, or in direct contact with elephants, there must be constant supervision by a competent mahout. Pregnant or infant elephants should not be involved with tourist activity.
  • Elephants require sufficient space to move about freely and comfortably, and to exercise choice, to maintain a healthy condition (Asian elephants can walk between 25km to 200km a day in the wild). Whilst the chaining of captive elephants overnight is commonplace in Thailand, longer chains (up to 20 meters) will permit elephants to interact with their environment.
  • Elephant diets should be high fibre and low nutrients and provided in sufficient quantities to permit 16 hours of feeding a day. Food for captive elephants should ideally comprise of 70% browse (freshly-cut branches, grasses, hay) and 30% high-fibre animal pellets. Whilst high calorific foods, like bananas and sugar cane, vegetables and bread, should be kept to a minimum, as large quantities are likely to lead to obesity and related health problems.

These are important factors for travel businesses to consider if selecting captive elephant experiences for your itineraries.

Boycotts may have had good intentions, but they can often result in wider issues of concern that require a greater effort to tackle. The good news is that efforts are underway to standardise the captive Asian elephant industry, improve elephant welfare and safeguard the safety of the tourist. It is an initiative devised by the travel industry, for the travel industry.

For decades tourism has been the primary driver proliferating the numbers of elephant camps and captive Asian elephants, it would be irresponsible to now walk away from the problem and should do all it can to influence and deliver meaningful change.


ANIMONDIAL is collaborating with Travelife for Tour Operators and other key stakeholders to bring compassion to elephant tourism.