Are you planning a trip to Asia and thinking of visiting an elephant attraction? If so, here are some questions to consider in order to help you make an informed choice:

What is the price of admission to the elephant camp?

It costs roughly $80 per day to maintain a good quality of life for a single elephant.[1] With this in mind, travelers should be wary of elephant camps that have low entry fees, as this is likely an indication that the animals are not receiving sufficient care.[2],[3]

Oftentimes, camps host large tour buses or feature low entry fees to boost sales and increase foot traffic, however, these practices lead to an overwhelming amount of human interaction and put a great deal of stress on the elephants.[4] Instead, tourists should look for camps that charge a higher admission price and limit the number of visitors per day.

What types of activities does the camp offer for visitors? Are there elephant rides?

Activities at an elephant camp can range from little to no contact to more structured interactions between elephants and visitors. Any physical contact between people and elephants should be carefully monitored, and never allowed without a mahout present. Blowing in an elephant’s trunk and other close contact should be discouraged to prevent the possibility of spreading diseases, like tuberculosis.[5]

Some camps offer opportunities to feed or bathe elephants. Visitors should consider the type of food the elephants are being fed (should be mostly natural forage with limited high sugar treats, like bananas and sugar cane), as well as how often the elephants are bathed – wild elephants typically bathe daily and enjoy playing in the water.[6]

Elephant rides often serve as the main attraction for elephant camps. The profit generated from rides is frequently used to purchase supplies for the elephants’ care, so banning them from camps could ultimately be detrimental to their livelihood.[7],[8],[9] Prior to visiting a camp, travelers should conduct research to verify whether rides are safely performed.

If elephant rides are offered, how long are they? Where do they go? How are riders sitting on the elephant? Is there a weight limit?

Elephant rides should be short, and the total workday less than 5 hours.[13] Rides should preferably take place through a forest or other natural landscapes with shade, or limited in duration during the hottest times of the day if shade is not available.[10],[11] Elephants spend up to 19 hours per day eating, so they should be granted ample time to graze throughout the day, including during rides.[12] 

Riders can sit on the elephant’s neck or in a saddle. Elephant saddles should not apply pressure to the spine, and be adequately cushioned to prevent abrasions.[13] If working hours are limited and the terrain is suitable, two people in a saddle, weighing less than 10% of the elephant’s body weight, should not be an undue stressor for an elephant based on work in other animals.

Is the camp properly staffed?

Ideally, there should be one mahout (“elephant driver”) on site for every elephant.[14] Camps should also have enough staff to ensure visitors’ safety, as well as an on-site veterinarian or veterinary assistant, or agreement with a local on-call elephant veterinarian. Elephants in captivity should have regular veterinarian exams (at least yearly), inclusive of foot trims, vaccinations and deworming.[15]

How is the camp ensuring elephant welfare?

Visitors should be aware of whether or not the camp owners monitor the way mahouts treat elephants. For example, mahouts should be taught how to use a bullhook properly. When misused, a bullhook can be harmful weapon, but when used correctly it can serve as a valuable tool to help guide and control an elephant. Owners should take action to address any misuse of bullhooks or aggressive behavior by mahouts towards elephants. As a general rule, mahouts should never hit an elephant.[16]

How are visitors educated about elephants? How does the camp engage with the visitor?

Visitors should take note of any signage, guided tours or educational opportunities a camp offers. Other things to consider are whether tour guides have received formal training, as well as if the camp follows up with guests for feedback or suggestions after the conclusion of their visit.

What are the working conditions for mahouts?

Mahouts are responsible for taking care of the elephants, which can be a dangerous job. Today, in many elephant camps in Thailand, there is high turnover and an overall decrease in quality of mahouts – in part because of low wages and respect for the job.[17] Ideally, elephants in camps are owned by a community with properly trained mahouts. Regardless, mahouts should receive fair pay, suitable training, adequate accommodations, health insurance, and have limited working hours.[18]

What are the working conditions for elephants?

Like mahouts, elephants must have proper working conditions. Rides and other interactions with humans should be limited, and ideally, elephants should be able to return home to their communities in the evenings or be placed on long chains to forage in the forest at night. During the day, elephants should have set working hours, and should be given adequate time (up to 19 hours per day) to eat, drink and socialize.[19]

Do the elephants have enough space? Where do they play and where do they rest?

Ideally, captive elephants should live in an environment that closely resembles their natural habitat. Asian elephants are the largest land mammal in the region and thus require a lot of space for walking, playing, and eating.[20] They should be playing and resting in lush vegetation with lots of shade and easy access to water, and not limited to concrete under the sun all day where they may become heat stressed.[21] The space should be clean and free of pollutants. It is also important that elephants are able to socialize with one another. Many roadside attractions do not provide elephants with enough room for these necessities – a general rule of thumb is the larger and more natural the space, the better.

How much food/water are the elephants given per day? What type of food is it?

As previously mentioned, elephants can spend up to 19 hours a day eating and drinking.[22] On average, they consume 260-480 lbs of vegetation and 150L of water per day.[23] Elephants should primarily eat plant-derived food (forage), and be given a limited amount of high calorie treats, such as bananas and sugar cane to prevent obesity.[24]

Are the elephants being chained? If so, how long are the chains? What are they chained to/where are they standing? How many hours are they chained during the day?

Chaining is not necessarily a bad practice, but it is important to consider the length of the chains and how they are used. Keeping elephants on short chains for prolonged periods, especially away from other elephants, can be detrimental to their health, so the amount of hours spent on short chains should be reduced as much as possible.[25] Except for veterinary procedures where short chains are needed, the length of the chain for longer periods should allow the elephant to perform natural behaviors, like lying down, foraging, moving easily and socializing. Additionally, it is important to note where elephants are standing while chained – they should be stationed on a natural surface, such as wood chips or mud; concrete can become too hot and burn an elephants’ foot.[26]

    

Above: Examples of poor chaining practices

Photo credit: Nia Klatte, Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA)

 

Above: Example of good chaining practices

Photo credit: Nia Klatte, Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA)

Do the elephants look healthy? Do the elephants have marks on their faces or bodies?

Elephants should have dark, moist skin with a clearly visible backbone ridge, and not be too thin or too fat.[27] Part of a healthy lifestyle includes regular exercise – standing in the same place all day can result in injury to an elephant’s legs and joints.[28]

Purple marks on an elephant signify the use of a healing ointment on injuries to the skin, some of which may be caused by bullhooks, but not all. It is occasionally necessary for mahouts to use bullhooks, but they should never be misused or used purely for punishment.[29],[30],[31] Any instances of mahouts improperly using the bullhook should be reported to camp managers, including asking how such behavior is dealt with.

 

Above: An elephant with marks left by a bullhook

Photo credit: Nia Klatte, Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA)

Who owns the elephants at the camp? Where do they come from?

Elephants should never be taken directly from the wild.[32] Ideally, the elephants are owned by local villagers as this helps to ensure they are being treated respectfully and recognized as valuable members of the community.[33]

How many elephants are in the camp and what is the gender ratio?

Like humans, elephants require social interaction. They need to be able to socialize with other elephants, both of their own gender as well as the opposite gender. Many camps have a disproportionately greater number of female elephants due to their less aggressive nature.[34] Camps do not need to maintain an equal number of male and female elephants, or any males at all if they do not have the expertise or space to do so. However, those that have adequate space to house bulls, and are able to responsibly breed elephants, should house multiple bulls that can socialize with other elephants. Like cows, bulls are social and need to learn how to properly behave.

What types of behaviors are elephants exhibiting?

Elephants should appear to be naturally happy and playful. Visitors should be wary of behaviors such as swaying or head bobbing (called stereotypies), which develop in response to conditions that restrict normal behaviors.[35] Once a stereotypy becomes established, it can be difficult to stop. It becomes a habit, so an elephant may exhibit these behaviors even after the conditions that caused them have been eliminated.[35] Visitors should also be mindful of camps that train elephants to do activities like walking on hind legs, sitting upright, or riding a bicycle, which are not only unnatural, but can negatively affect the elephant’s physical health. It is important to ask how the training was conducted to ensure positive reinforcement methods are used.

How are babies cared for?

Visitors should have limited physical interaction with baby elephants, and only under strict monitoring by a mahout, so they (the elephants) do not develop bad manners.[36] Babies should never be taken from the wild, and ideally should remain with their mothers until puberty (bulls) or forever (females).[37]

*The views and expressed opinions in this article are those by Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), and are not necessarily those of TripAdvisor, Inc.  Any cited research is sourced by Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) and has not been necessarily verified or independently evaluated by TripAdvisor, Inc.    

Resources

[1] Dubrocard, Nicolas. Former Wild Asia Project Director, auditor for Travelife and Green Globe, and Director of Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism. Telephone interview. 6 Dec. 2016.

[2] Dubrocard, Nicolas. Former Wild Asia Project Director, auditor for Travelife and Green Globe, and Director of Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism. Telephone interview. 6 Dec. 2016.

[3] Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2009). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449. doi:10.1080/13683500903042873.

[4] Klatte, Nia. Sustainability Coordinator, EXO Travel, Thailand. Personal interview. 14 Dec 2016.

[5] Dubrocard, Nicolas. Former Wild Asia Project Director, auditor for Travelife and Green Globe, and Director of Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism. Telephone interview. 6 Dec. 2016.

[6] Mckay, G. M. (1973). Behavior and ecology of the Asiatic elephant in southeastern Ceylon. Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology, (125), 1-113. doi:10.5479/si.00810282.125

[7] Dubrocard, Nicolas. Former Wild Asia Project Director, auditor for Travelife and Green Globe, and Director of Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism. Telephone interview. 6 Dec. 2016.

[8] Duffy, R., & Moore, L. (2010). Neoliberalising Nature? Elephant-Back Tourism in Thailand and Botswana. Antipode, 42(3), 742-766. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00771.x

[9] Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2009). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449. doi:10.1080/13683500903042873.

[10] Dubrocard, Nicolas. Former Wild Asia Project Director, auditor for Travelife and Green Globe, and Director of Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism. Telephone interview. 6 Dec. 2016.

[11] Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2009). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449. doi:10.1080/13683500903042873.

[12] Mohapatra, K. K., Patra, A., & Paramanik, D. (2013). Food and feeding behaviour of Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus Linn.) in Kuldiha Wild Life Sanctuary, Odisha, India. Journal of Environmental Biology, 34, 87-92. doi:10.3106/041.041.0306.

[13] Magda, S., Spohn, O., Angkawanish, T., Smith, D. A., & Pearl, D. L. (2015). Risk factors for saddle-related skin lesions on elephants used in the tourism industry in Thailand. BMC Veterinary Research, 11(1). doi:10.1186/s12917-015-0438-1

[14] Duffy, R., & Moore, L. (2010). Neoliberalising Nature? Elephant-Back Tourism in Thailand and Botswana. Antipode, 42(3), 742-766. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00771.x

[15] Brown, Dr. Janine. Research Physiologist/Endocrinology Laboratory Head, Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Email interview. 27 Dec 2016.

[16] Brown, Dr. Janine. Research Physiologist/Endocrinology Laboratory Head, Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Email interview. 27 Dec 2016.

[17] Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2009). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449. doi:10.1080/13683500903042873.

[18] Klatte, Nia. Sustainability Coordinator, EXO Travel, Thailand. Personal interview. 14 Dec 2016.

[19] Mohapatra, K. K., Patra, A., & Paramanik, D. (2013). Food and feeding behaviour of Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus Linn.) in Kuldiha Wild Life Sanctuary, Odisha, India. Journal of Environmental Biology, 34, 87-92. doi:10.3106/041.041.0306.

[20] Shoshani, J., & Eisenberg, J. F. (1982). Elephas maximus. Mammalian Species, (182), 1. doi:10.2307/3504045

[21] Brown, Janine. Email interview. 27 Dec 2016.

[22] Mohapatra, K. K., Patra, A., & Paramanik, D. (2013). Food and feeding behaviour of Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus Linn.) in Kuldiha Wild Life Sanctuary, Odisha, India. Journal of Environmental Biology, 34, 87-92. doi:10.3106/041.041.0306

[23] Duffy, R., & Moore, L. (2010). Neoliberalising Nature? Elephant-Back Tourism in Thailand and Botswana. Antipode, 42(3), 742-766. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00771.x

[24] Brown, Dr. Janine. Research Physiologist/Endocrinology Laboratory Head, Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Email interview. 27 Dec 2016.

[25] Brown, Dr. Janine. Research Physiologist/Endocrinology Laboratory Head, Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Email interview. 27 Dec 2016.

[26] Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2009). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449. doi:10.1080/13683500903042873.

[27] Thitaram, Dr. Chatchote. Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Thailand. Email interview. 29 Nov 2016

[28] Thitaram, Dr. Chatchote. Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Thailand. Email interview. 29 Nov 2016.

[29] Klatte, Nia. Sustainability Coordinator, EXO Travel, Thailand. Personal interview. 14 Dec 2016.

[30] Kontogeorgopoulos, N. (2009). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449. doi:10.1080/13683500903042873.

[31] Brown, Dr. Janine. Research Physiologist/Endocrinology Laboratory Head, Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Email interview. 27 Dec 2016.

[32] Harper, Graham. Director of Educational and Responsible Travel, Buffalo Tours. Telephone interview. 15 Dec 2016.

[33] Dubrocard, Nicolas. Former Wild Asia Project Director, auditor for Travelife and Green Globe, and Director of Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism. Telephone interview. 6 Dec. 2016.

[34] Dubrocard, Nicolas. Former Wild Asia Project Director, auditor for Travelife and Green Globe, and Director of Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism. Telephone interview. 6 Dec. 2016.

[35] Brown, Dr. Janine. Research Physiologist/Endocrinology Laboratory Head, Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Email interview. 27 Dec 2016.

[36] Klatte, Nia. Sustainability Coordinator, EXO Travel, Thailand. Personal interview. 14 Dec 2016.

[37] Harper, Graham. Director of Educational and Responsible Travel, Buffalo Tours. Telephone interview. 15 Dec 2016.

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