Elephant Tourism: Harmful and Un-harmful Tricks
by Lisa Barrett
In a previous blog post, I wrote about how Asian elephants are endangered and that there are only about 3,000 left in the wild. I discussed how, in reality, the best way to conserve them is through education about conserving (and mitigating the decline) of extant populations while giving current captive populations the best life possible.
In this short post, I will outline some of the most popular tourism activities that elephants (especially those in captivity in Thailand) are used for. Some of these common tricks for tourists are harmful for elephants, meaning they involve performing an unnatural behavior or one that the elephant must have been beaten to learn. Other tricks are relatively less harmful or low impact for elephants.
Ignorance is bliss for tourists willing to pay to see elephants do silly or cute tricks in order to get a good photograph. After all, behind those handstands or standing on hind legs was probably a painful period based in negative reinforcement training in which a young elephant is forced into a position and is hit if it does not perform the pose correctly. Responsible tourists know better than to support this type of elephant tourism.
Trekking is a tourist activity in which a chair is placed on an elephant’s back. While the exercise may be good for the elephant, chairs that are hard and heavy and ill-fitted to the elephant’s backbone are not. Chairs should be properly fitted and padded so as not to cause any damage to the elephants back.
Any activity that an elephant is made to do all day long is most likely harmful, simply because elephants need to consume so much food (several hundred pounds per day). If they are working without any snack breaks, then they may be malnourished.
There are a few really interesting activities elephants do that are rather low impact for them. For example, elephants can be given paintbrushes and paints to make “art,” or jumbo-sized instruments to form elephant orchestras and record “songs.” These paintings and CDs can then be sold to raise money for elephant conservation efforts. One may even argue that elephants might enjoy these activities. Such activities extend elephants’ natural trunk movements. These activities should be distinguished from painting in which elephants are trained to illustrate a certain picture (which can be harmful to the elephant).
Similarly, mahout training can be an un-harmful activity for elephants. Mahout training is a popular activity offered at elephant camps in which tourists can pay to learn how to say Thai elephant commands from mahouts (elephant caretakers), get on and off an elephant, and bathe an elephant. Like trekking, mahout training provides exercise for the captive elephants while following the elephant’s normal walking and bathing routine. Furthermore, a person on an elephant’s back is similar to the weight of a backpack for a human, making mahout training rather low impact as long as elephants are not made to work all day long.
If you are ever unsure whether an elephant’s trick is truly cool or not, just think about whether or not the behavior is based on natural behavior. Try to remember that although elephants are endangered and we all wish they did not have to work at all, elephants are very expensive to maintain in captivity, and un-harmful activities often represent a mahout’s sole source of income. It is through these activities that future generations can have a personal experience with animals and learn to love and appreciate the rapidly disappearing Asian elephant.
If you are planning a trip to Thailand and would like to see elephants in a safe and sustainable elephant camp, definitely visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang or the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Rai.