On attending the Elephant Wellbeing and Thai Community event, hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) at WTM London (November), it occurred to me how important it is to consider an issue from its cultural perspective. Noting that perceived cultural divides between traditional practices, ‘foreign’ opposing views and industry standards can been a significant obstacle when seeking meaningful change.
Take elephants in tourism as an example. This is a hotly debated issue with a range of impassioned views on how elephants should be involved in tourism. Many are based on emotive sentiment, animal welfare science or sustainability ideals, none of which I condemn, but I do feel that more could be achieved, and opportunities realised if thought was given to the local culture, livelihoods and economic relevance. Listening to the owners of the Asian elephant attractions attending the TAT event, it was evident that they feel threatened and confused by the various standards imposed on them by foreign entities. I can understand that point of view, particularly when those ideals rarely consider the status quo or consult such attractions.
As I have come to realise as a Director for ANIMONDIAL, it is of vital importance to engage all stakeholders, understand the many points of view and if you can, see the activity and resulting implications for yourself. Only then can a complete picture be formed, and if required, viable solutions be identified. At ANIMONDIAL, this approach gives us the ability to provide our clients with complete and accurate information that aids their informed decision-making.
By example, during my recent investigations into the trade in dog and cat meat in SE Asia, it has been important to engage with the local communities to understand their motivations for the trade. This has helped to formulate an awareness-raising campaign as a viable option, both regionally and internationally, by focusing on the associated animal cruelty and public health concerns. Incorporating constructive engagement with the authorities, animal rescue and alternative livelihood options. This will likely be the approach taken by our clients, Four Paws International, during their awareness-raising campaign in 2020.
Perceived cultural divides between nations and geographical regions should never been considered an obstacle or a challenge but instead a need to engage, understand and find common ground. From experience, taking this time is likely to deliver opportunity. Particularly, when the realisation is that there are often common goals between stakeholders that then help to deliver tangible solutions to those recurring challenges.
The TAT’s Elephant Wellbeing & Thai Community discussion concluded that there is a need for a collaborative approach, whereby stakeholders need to work together, and be willing to compromise their position, in order to deliver meaningful change. In my humble opinion, this approach should be tried and tested in all eventualities where cultural divides are perceived. Otherwise the recurring challenges for the travel industry in relation to animal involvement in tourism (as well as with other issues) are unlikely to be resolved.
If you would like to find out more about ANIMONDIAL’s collaborative work to improve the welfare of captive Asian elephants or address the associated risks of the dog and cat meat trade, please contact us or, if you haven’t already, sign up to our monthly newsletter.
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.
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.