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Elephant Tourism: The Harms of Received Wisdom

By John Roberts
23 September 2017 05:16:00

This article first appeared in a slightly edited form and with some lovely pictures on the Good Tourism Blog where it gathered quite some interest so I sought to reproduce it here.


The last decade or so has been a very confusing time for anyone watching captive elephants in South East Asia.  A tradition that has been a source of pride for the countries themselves and invoked a sense of awe in visitors for thousands of years has gone sour.

From the days when early explorers returned with incredible stories about these massive beasts and the people who could control them, when the armies of Alexander met them on the battlefield and the armies of Persia, Carthage & Rome, 500 years before Christ1, hired and revered ‘Indians’ to control the elephants of their armies, mahouts may never have been the pinnacle of society but their skills have been acknowledged & admired.  They have been accepted as people who are willing and able to do things and work with an animal that, in us laymen, inspires both fear and love.

But mahouts have fallen from this position of communal respect to a societal place where, to read some ‘news’ sites, internet pages and social media timelines, they are on a level with murderers, their deaths - particularly at the hand of their elephant - celebrated with the overall feeling that “they got what they deserved”.

In the space of a decade, about 0.3% of the time their tradition has existed, the received wisdom in the English speaking internet and European world has shifted from awe and respect to the automatic assumption that a mahout is a cold hearted torturer.

Working, as I do, with mahouts I think I can safely say that they are not confused by this in a large part because it manifests itself in a language other than those they speak and because, working everyday with elephants, they are still confident & proud in themselves and their skills and do not feel incentivised to change their ways.

But those who do operate in these languages: Destination Management Companies, Journalists, Travel Agents, Tourism Marketing bodies and, increasingly, Elephant Camp Owners can be forgiven for being confused.

A tour package that, ten years ago, would have been sold out to rave reviews is now shredded, a target for actual hatred, on the internet.  An advertising campaign that, ten years ago, would have attracted thousands now discourages visits merely by having a picture of an elephant.

So what has changed?  Not the tradition, the bare bones of which are the same and not the situation, there are still some 3,470 elephants in captivity in Thailand alone2, under the care of their mahouts.  

Foreign, specifically English & European speaking, public perception has changed.

How does this happen?  Well, first of all there is a kernel of truth: there are bad, aggressive, scared mahouts; traditional methods for training elephants caught from the wild can be horrific, resulting in deaths from wounds or, years later, from stress - data from Myanmar have shown that wild caught elephants do not live as long as captive born even after they get past training and live ‘full’ lives3.

Plus the modern world has no real place for captive elephants: kicked out of their forests and forced to find the 250kg of food each elephant requires everyday living cheek by jowl with humans means that they often end up in inappropriate places and doing inappropriate things.

But there is also a degree of misinformation.  Sometime prior to 2001 a concerned Thai citizen took a video of the training of a young elephant, whether or not the calf was wild caught the trainers were using an horrific technique that we know, again from Myanmar, caused the death of between 12.4%4 & 30.1%5 of elephants that went through it.  The video was released and immediately prompted the Thai Government to outlaw such training - or at least claim the outlawing of it, in practice there was little legal framework to do so.  

What they could do though was to ask the Government Department that had the most elephants, the Forest Industries Organisation to investigate and develop more elephant friendly training techniques, something they have been doing ever since.

That video that didn’t do anything to help that one elephant, though taken with the best interests of elephants at heart, coupled with the rise of the internet and a perhaps willful human nature to focus on worst cases while ignoring science and rational argument has the capacity to do elephants a great deal of harm.

Despite the fact that it is based on one video shot over 20 years ago it has become received wisdom that every elephant is trained in this fashion, something that has never been true and is less true nowadays. Despite there being zero evidence from the past 3,500 years it has become received wisdom that riding an elephant is inherently harmful.  This “received wisdom” effect is harmful not only because it is not true but because it is received wisdom only and precisely in the group of people who ten years ago would have visited an elephant camp with the education to spot abusive and harmful behaviour by mahouts or owners and encouraged the management to improve.

Because this demographic are now not coming to elephant camps at all they are not a market demographic that most elephant camp owners figure to deal with anymore.

It is harmful because there are at least 10,000 elephants in captivity across Myanmar and Thailand alone and the vast majority cannot be released back into the dwindling forests even if there were imperative to do so from within the country.

It is harmful because those elephants are still cripplingly expensive to keep and therefore must work or starve and it is harmful because the concerned tourists who have been persuaded to avoid elephants based on false accusations make up only a small percentage of number of visitors in this industry whose share of Thailand’s GDP grew 10.7%6 last year mainly on the back of inbound tourists from neighboring countries, in March 2017 over 100,000 more tourists arrived in Thailand from China alone than all of Europe put together7 (& a that’s a Europe figure that includes Russia, the third largest source market, and the UK).

It is harmful because elephant owners and mahouts who once enjoyed lighter work in the forest camps preferred by the visitors that have now been persuaded to boycott now have no choice but to work in camps whose ownership is largely entrepreneurial and business centred, whose business model is to be cheaper and work elephants and mahouts harder then their competitors and whose clientele is not yet concerned enough with animal welfare to enquire into the conditions that the elephants & mahouts are kept.

In short even good trekking camps, unless they have a special marketing strategy, are faced with little choice in a competitive market: they can either take shortcuts in the vastly expensive job of keeping elephants in order to get cheaper than the scurrilous competition or they can go out of business forcing their elephants to look for work elsewhere - an out of work elephant, like an out of work mahout, still needs to eat and, because the forests are gone, the option to ‘go home and live free’ is not there.  Staying at home under a valiant Government welfare scheme to help too often means 24hrs a day on a short chain, front legs shackled together

Either way it is the elephants that suffer now that the people with the power to do them good, based on false assumptions, decide to avoid them altogether.



1Elephants and Kings: An Environmental History, Thomas R Trautmann, University of Chicago Press, 2015

2Department of National Parks, Department of Livestock Development, Official Census, March 2017.

3Dr Khyne U Mar, Pers. Comm.

4Burmese Timber Elephant, U Toke Gale, Trade Corporation, 1974

5The Demography and Life History Strategies of Timber Elephants in Myanmar. PhD Thesis, Khyne U Mar, University College London, 2007

6Travel and Tourism: Global Impact and Issues, World Travel & Tourism Council, March 2017

7International Tourist Arrivals to Thailand March 2017, Ministry of Tourism & Sports

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