The hidden face of wildlife tourism: thousands of Asian elephants held in cruel conditions

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Bangkok: Thousands of elephants used for entertainment across Asia are kept in cruel and abusive conditions fueled by the growing tourism industry, a new report from World Animal Protection revealed Thursday.

Three in four elephants recorded in popular Southeast Asian tourist destinations live in harsh conditions where they are used for walks, with mostly steel or wooden saddles, and tied with chains less than three meters long.

The extent of the suffering suffered by elephants is “serious”, according to the animal rights NGO which has assessed nearly 3,000 elephants living in 220 sites in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and India between mid-2014 and the end of 2016.

The majority of captive elephants are collected from the wild, where only 50,000 remain in Asia.

Animal rights groups say elephants are forced to submit to humans through a process known as “crushing” – where baby elephants are taken from their mothers and forced into a training process that , at worst, can include being held in a pen and beaten for several weeks.

At least 77% of the captive elephants listed in the report, released on July 6, are chained day and night when not in use for entertainment and have very little social interaction with other elephants.

The animals are malnourished, do not have access to proper veterinary care, and are often exposed to stressful environments with loud music and large numbers of tourists.

These conditions work against the most basic needs of elephants.

Elephants are intelligent and socially developed animals, which form complex hierarchies within herds. But in captivity, elephants are forced to submit unnaturally to humans; it has been found that they live shorter lives, have behavioral problems, are more likely to develop chronic diseases, and are less likely to recur.

The captive elephant population is now thought to represent between a quarter and a third of the remaining elephants in the region. Despite conservation efforts, Thailand has seen a 30% increase in elephant entertainment venues – from circus performances to horseback riding or swimming with elephants. According to the report, up to 40% of tourists from the top 10 countries visiting Thailand said they had taken or were planning to take an elephant ride, resulting in demand of around 12.8 millions of elephant rides across the country.

This coincides with the growing number of foreign visitors to Thailand which reached 32.6 billion last year, an increase of 9% from 2015.

Elephant tourism remains popular because it can be “a hidden form of cruelty,” said Chiara Vitali, wildlife expert at World Animal Protection. The crushing process “will happen before a tourist sees an elephant, so they could see an animal that is quite relaxed – but it was beaten when it was a baby,” she said.

The organization believes the best place for captive elephants are true sanctuaries, where animals can roam freely, bond and structure their herd – and where tourists can view elephants in a respectful way.

“There is an urgent need for tourism education and regulation of wildlife tourist attractions around the world,” said Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach, Global Fauna and Flora Advisor at World Animal Protection. “Sites that offer tourists the opportunity to view elephants in real sanctuaries are beacons of hope that can spur urgent change in the captive elephant tourism industry.” Another report released this week on July 4 found that an obscure Chinese city was at the center of an ivory smuggling ring, revealing weaknesses in the nation’s ivory ban that came into effect in March 2017. L The Environmental Investigation Agency spent three years investigating the city. of Shuidong, and found it to be home to a network of ivory trafficking unions reaching East and West Africa, according to the EIA. The group’s influence has spread to poaching hotspots in Tanzania and Mozambique. Researchers say the smuggling group was still active at the end of June 2017, describing Shuidong as the world’s largest ivory trafficking hub. “What the EIA discovered in Shuidong (…) clearly shows that transnational criminal networks operate with near total impunity,” said Mary Rice, executive director of the EIA. “It is vital that law enforcement agencies in Africa and China immediately bankrupt these criminals. ”


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