By giving money to these "beggars" you are not only making elephant tourism a more lucrative industry but also promoting the wild capture of baby elephants. In Thailand alone, there is an estimated population of 3,000 to 4,000 elephants who are being used for tourism attractions - that's not including the other 12 countries these animals are native to.
And while their babies are being illegally caught and sold, the rest of the population is having to fight rapid habitat loss due to deforestation and male Asian elephants are being poached for their tusks. At this rate, Asian elephants could be extinct in the very near future - easily within our lifetime.
Now that you're probably thinking I ruined your plans to interact with elephants on your next trip to Southeast Asia, I must share that there are in fact humane ways to observe these breathtaking animals. As you can imagine, elephants are not the easiest animals to take care of so several reputable sanctuaries have been created where rescued and retired elephants are able to live out the rest of their lives in peace and without fear. One of the most important aspects of these facilities is that they only use positive reinforcement, such as food, when interacting with the animals. Instead of getting an elephant to walk by beating it, sanctuary staff can simply hold out a piece of fruit in the direction they want the elephant to go. Many elephants have free range of their new homes and don't need to be moved around.
Most of these places offer programs for tourists to come and visit the park for a day or to volunteer for an extended period of time. Day visits are extremely affordable and volunteer projects are customizable to your budget depending on how long you want to stay. Either way, it's a great opportunity to learn more about these majestic creatures while also donating to a great cause.
So let's review how you can be a responsible "ele-friend."
- Don't support any facility where the elephants perform tricks.
- Don't purchase elephant artwork (sometimes sanctuaries will allow their elephants to paint freely as enrichment but as always do your research before buying!!!)
- Don't give money to street beggars who own elephants.
- Don't buy any products made from ivory.
- Don't go on elephant treks.
- Don't assume an excursion is "humane" just because you don't see the staff carrying bullhooks. Other, less obvious, tools are used to hurt the elephants; of these the most popular seems to be a nail. With this, the mahout is able to pierce the elephant's ear and use that pain to control the animal. It's also very small and discreet which prevents people from questioning their handling techniques.
- Do support reputable projects and sanctuaries that don't use bullhooks or other cruel methods of controlling the animals
- Do your research! If you're considering visiting a facility that has elephants, go online and see what reviews it has (TripAdvisor is a great place to start). Look for any red flags, such as reports of the trainers holding "sticks" or of the animals being chained/tied up
- Do share this information. Many people still don't know that this goes on and still dream of being able to ride an elephant. If you know someone who is visiting this area soon, let them know what these animals have to go through and encourage them to visit an ethical sanctuary instead.
- Do continue to educate yourself on this issue; knowledge is your greatest weapon. An easy way to start is to read the rest of the TRAFFIC report here. This is a wonderful resource that provides a lot of information and all of it is current.
And most importantly:
- Do remember that you are the change. We are the ones fueling this inhumane industry so we are also the ones responsible for putting a stop to it.