By Natalie Paris
Elephant rides are being dropped from holiday itineraries by tour operators concerned about the animals’ welfare
Tours that offer the chance to live out Mowgli-style fantasies have fallen from favour as the industry begins to react to pressure from animal-rights groups to promote more responsible activities.
Intrepid, the adventure travel company, this week became the second operator to announce it was removing elephant rides from its tours, following an earlier commitment from STA Travel to do so.
Intrepid came to the decision after considering research from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) into the welfare of captive elephants at entertainment venues in Asia.
A three-year study concluded that tourism demands had led to the creation of venues where elephants are forced into unnatural performances that cause them pain and suffering.
Travellers are keen to embrace more ethical forms of elephant tourism, said Geoff Manchester, Intrepid Travel’s co-founder.
“Intrepid Travellers want to know that their travel choices are not causing harm and appreciate learning how elephants are cared for without seeing them do unnatural performances,” he said. “The issues are complex around animals in captivity, which is why Intrepid has been partnered with WSPA for many years, and has been able to tap into their expertise on animal protection.
“While we once included elephant rides or entertainment venue visits, we’re now working with rehabilitation and sanctuary facilities.”
Last week, STA Travel was the first to declare it would no longer offer elephant rides, along with Seaworld visits and trips to Thailand’s Tiger Temple, where animal rights groups claim tigers are drugged to make them docile enough to be petted by tourists.
A spokeswoman said the decision to drop elephant rides was made following complaints from customers about the treatment of the animals.
"Our customers may still visit an elephant sanctuary or volunteer at one of our elephant conservation projects," she said. "These products will continue to be reviewed and audited to ensure the animals are treated well and ethically and the projects and camps have responsible practices in place."
An elephant park in South Africa was criticised on Tuesday after video footage emerged of young animals being chained, shocked with electric cattle prods and hit with bull hooks to break their spirit and to get them to obey their captors.
The animals at the Elephants of Eden camp in the Eastern Cape were being trained for elephant-back safaris but showed “signs of crippling injuries with severely swollen legs and feet, debilitating abscesses and wounds,” according to an inspector for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a South African animal rights group.
Elephant trekking is popular in South-East Asia but conservation efforts have been making inroads there too.
Joanna Cooke, PR manager for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, applauded the move away from elephant trekking and said: “We believe that tourists will enjoy a much more memorable and enriching experience by visiting one of the conservation-led centres or camps where they can interact with elephants on a much more personal level learning about them, feeding and bathing them."
Elephant-related activities do, however, form part of hundreds of thousands of visitors' holiday experiences in Thailand every year, and contribute to the livelihood of locals.
“We suggest that tourists should research elephant camps before they travel and visit those with excellent animal welfare standards and conservation objectives,” Ms Cooke said. “Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park and the Anantara Elephant Camp in Chiang Rai are two excellent examples of well-run elephant camps with a focus on education and conservation. The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) in Lampang is also an inspiring example.”