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How to Pick a Good Trekking Camp? (Science begins to help)

By John Roberts
30 November 2015 09:43:00

It is a question we often get: How do we know you’re looking after your elephants properly? ….or, equally commonly & less easy to answer: I’m not staying with you and cannot visit your camp, can you recommend a place to visit that looks after their elephants well?

The answer to the first question is long and complex, involves our ethics and our determination to work to improve the situation for the species in general, wild and captive, our recognition of the need to work with ancient communities with hard-held beliefs, as well as all the other factors that, well, you need to be a guest to have time to hear.  Even then we generally need to point to the wealth of experience ourselves and our advisors (paid & otherwise) have as well as our track record to point out that we have a model here that might provide an answer for captive elephants while we struggle with the trickier questions of how to have fewer or no elephants in captivity at all.

But not everyone can come to us, that’s the downside of the business model, to pay for an expensive operation (& eles are expensive, by their very appetites and that of their mahouts) using low impact tourism you need to charge a lot and have few guests.

This cannot be the answer for all of Thailand’s elephants, those of us trying this sort of business model currently look after a maximum of 200 of Thailand’s officially registered 4,614 elephants.

We need some kind of mass tourism (or some other way of finding the staggering 1.1M tonnes of fodder a day these other elephants need (not to mention the 13,242 cans of Beer Leo the mahouts need - and, of course, the livelihood of 4,000 odd families, send kids to school etc.)).

The advocacy group, World Animal Protection recently stated that “3,000 elephants are suffering in captivity” after their survey of all the elephant facilities they could find across Asia & Africa. 

If we're going to say we need trekking camps it is up to us to help you avoid supporting those causing suffering and steer you towards the, by W.A.P.s estimates, 18 - 20,000 elephants that are not suffering (I’d probably be less generous than them & say there are more than that in less than ideal conditions, but I haven’t done a systematic survey, just visited a lot of camps).

Of course the easy answer would be “we’re the only people doing it right, come to us” - which would probably please my bosses - who, after all, pay for all of this - but would smack of a certain sort of narcism and, well, that’s just not me.  But, well, if in doubt, please visit us! (Good enough, you can go back to the story now. Ed)

Luckily science is beginning to show the way with two papers published over the past month or so that will help you answer the questions for yourselves, both by sets of people with no dog in the fight - though also both peer reviewed so that shouldn’t matter anyway, peer review being the process when your paper is looked at by people with varying sized dogs in varying fights and your methodology pulled apart in order to, among other things, guarantee that you didn’t just set things up to get the answers you wanted when you woke up and decided to do the study.

The first paper “Risk Factors for Saddle-Related Skin Lesions on Elephants used in the Tourism Industry in Thailand” published in Bio Med Central and I think it is important for two reasons.

Firstly because I’ve been banging on for years in these pages that there is no evidence that trekking in the saddle is inherently harmful, in this paper five actual international vets studied a lot of trekking elephants (though not as many as they would have wanted admittedly) and their conclusions were not:

“Oh my god, this is awful, this must stop now”

Which may not have got through a peer review in that form but would have been a valid and conscientious conclusion for a vet to come to if that was what they’d found.

Their conclusions were that trekking elephants needed:

  • Better monitoring of all elephants, especially older ones.
  • Less than six hours working a day.
  • Use appropriate padding - specifically avoid rice sacks.

So three actual scientific things to ask for when visiting a trekking camp to point to whether the elephants are being looked after - of course there are many other factors outside the scope of the paper but these seem to be the main ones relating to the activity itself.

A note from my sponsors: of course we here at Anantara don’t often ride in the saddle for reasons previously explained but even if we did we have a vet. and a vet. tech. permanently on site and an International Veterinary Consultant (monitoring - check), we work less than six hours a day and what we call work is walking in a natural area with either one person or no-one on their back (working hours - check) and we very rarely put the saddle on and, when we do that, we don’t use rice sacks (padding - check).  In the vast majority of cases we use trousers and someone’s bum (& so it would be impolite to discuss the padding).

The second paper, arguably the more exciting one for us, was published by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of Oxford University and published in the prestigious journal Plos One.  

It is called “The Customer Isn’t Always Right - Conservation and Animal Welfare Implications of the Increasing Demand for Wildlife Tourism” which, at first, I thought was just a symptom of the slightly annoying trend to give scientific papers a tabloid style headline and but, as it turns out, is a clever idea to pit TripAdvisor rating against measured conservation good and welfare considerations.

I had a look around and saw that the number one Elephant Activity on TripAdvisor is a zoo like facility giving elephants unfettered access to one another in numbers and with space that if it were proposed by any Zoo the outcry would be enormous.  The second is a trekking camp that actually does follow the guidelines above but not one of the positive comments mentioned this & not one of the negative comments mentioned anything that was, in my opinion, harmful to the elephant.

So I take their point - true of TripAdvisor as a concept: the reviewers aren’t experts you shouldn’t take a TripAdvisor impression of conservation or welfare excellence - just of the facility's ability to deliver the experience the guest expects.

A note from my sponsors and the reason it is exciting: Oxford University chose to split their ranking system equally between conservation efforts and welfare concerns then magnify the points by how endangered the wildlife in question is.  As we’re the ONLY elephant facility I know that not only has specific, in situ, wild elephant projects, has a policy not to buy elephants recognising that every elephant purchase is liable to cause conservation damage (as they are likely to cause another elephant to be sourced from the wild) and sponsors general conservation education that means we’re the only elephant camp that scores anything for this side of the work, putting us 50% ahead of all competition before we set foot in camp.

The welfare side they look at the improvement of the “5 Freedoms” as defined:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst.
  2. Freedom from discomfort.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
  4. Freedom to behave normally.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress.

 Perhaps somewhat cheekily, because we provide natural and imported fodder, because we have a large veterinary team on site & (so far, touch wood, no herd endemic, infectious diseases e.g. EEHV, TB), give as many elephants as much free roaming time as we can in an appropriately sized area but without exposing them to dominant and aggressive other elephants and, because they’re looking for an ‘improvement’ and because we take elephants from the streets and other stressful situations and apply scientific management techniques everything is an improvement from where they were, because of all of that I scored us 100% on that side too.

So, my self assessment makes us the only 6+ out of 6+ facility anywhere I know!

Anyway, enough beating of trumpets using someone else's stick!  Below I attach the Oxford University WildCRU’s assessment criteria so you can make your own minds up and, given that I’ve told you you have to support good trekking camps, please do use them to ask questions before you go for a trek.

Oxford University WildCRU's criteria for assessing Wildlife Tourism Facilities

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18th Floor, Berli Jucker House,
99 Soi Rubia, Sukhumvit 42 Rd.,
Bangkok 10110, Thailand
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