Elephants caught from the wild
It's unclear how frequently the "crush" or pit-trap process occurs, but the market for baby elephants in the captive industry is robust. According to the Traffic report, the market value for a healthy baby elephant is $33,000. The ramifications of seizing elephants from the wild and thrusting them into the captive industry are very significant, according to Simon Hedges, co-chair of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group. Hedges told The Dodo that "one of the main threats to elephants in their main remaining habitat blocks in Thailand is ... the illegal captures for the trade in live elephants."
One of the reasons that the proliferation of captive elephants in Thailand is able to thrive is a technical difference in how wild and captive elephants are legally identified in the country. Wild elephants fall under the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act of 1992 (WARPA), which affords particular protections and penalties if someone is caught killing a wild elephant. But once the animal enters the captive system, it's different: Captive elephants are covered by the Draught Animal Act of 1939. According to the Traffic report, captive elephants in Thailand are basically categorized as livestock.
The tourism divide
Given the potentially brutal training process, combined with well-documented science and observations about elephants' emotional depth, cooperative nature, familial bonds and intelligence, why, then, do tourists who travel to Asia still want to ride elephants?
World Animal Protection conducted another survey in 2014. That survey found nearly 50 percent of travelers "pay for an animal experience because they love animals," said Schmidt-Burbach. Those tourists might be shocked to know that in some cases, the animals are indeed being treated very poorly.
"When you see a captive wild animal on your holiday, you often can't see the cruelty," Schmidt-Burbach says. "It's hidden from view. And it's important to remember that a captive wild animal in the entertainment industry can never truly experience a life free from suffering and cruelty."
For some tourists, sitting atop the world's largest terrestrial mammal is supremely positioned on the travel bucket list. For others, only ignorant jerks would even consider such a reprehensible joy ride. But for those straddling the proverbial fence, the messages can be confusing: Some travel magazines pen the praises of elephant camps and their mahouts, like this article about Laos in Travel & Leisure.
On the other hand, some travel companies have omitted elephant treks from their itineraries altogether. Intrepid Travel, which it says handles some 250,000 travelers annually, cut elephant treks from all 30 itineraries in January 2013. Christian Wolters, deputy general manager of Intrepid Travel, told The Dodo that the decision has had enthusiastic support and as a result, "2,500 people per year no longer participate in elephant rides."
But on the ground in countries like Thailand, there is often a more nuanced perspective on tourism, elephant rides and ethics - that only those who are actually working with the elephants can provide.
From the field
John Roberts is the director of elephants and conservation activities for Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort Thailand. Roberts and his team manage a camp of 19 elephants, which he says prioritizes the welfare of the animals.