FAQ on Elephant Camp
Exploring Answers to the Elephant Camp Topic. Support for Destination Management. Companies and Tour Operators
Written by EU Switch Asia Luang Prabang Handle with Care Project
Postscript by Manifa Elephant Camp
This FAQ was made under a project financed by EU, implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit and supported by Laos/ASEAN official & tourism associations. Although anti elephant tourism campaigns are very simple, countering their false discourse requires a great deal of evidences and complex logic. This elephant FAQ may be different from what you know from media, but is worth reading by all travel professionals in Laos as well as all elephant lovers who are interested in the sustainable relationship between elephant and human.
The elephant camp topic is much more complex than most would think at first sight. The “black and white approach” or “right or wrong method” is not necessarily a constructive approach and it is thus crucial to build an opinion by onsulting as many reliable sources as possible. Information spread widely through the media where, at times, emotions are running high should be handled carefully. We strongly advise working not only with factual data but also common sense and feedback from professionals. Consequently, the goal of this document is to inform and provide knowledge on key topics surrounding elephants’ interactions with tourists in camps.
The following information results from various sources and in-depth experiences and multiple visits to 25 elephant camps over a three years period as well as discussions with stakeholders. Those include: in-depth interviews with Mahouts, camp owners, elephant veterinarians, animal protection NGOs, zoo keepers and elephant trainers. This accumulated data was key in developing an understanding of the current status in elephant camps and establishing a guideline of encouraged, acceptable and non-acceptable practices. You will find below 10 frequently asked questions and explanations to help the industry obtain an understanding of the topic as well as to inform and support travellers’ choices regarding their experiences with elephants.
There is a tradition going back 4000 years of human-elephant interaction in Asia. Elephants have been used as beasts of burden in the logging industry, in the mines, in the fields, in hunting, in armed conflict as well as in ceremonies. While the way elephants have been treated through the ages may have changed, the fact is that local people have a long history in dealing with elephants and have acquired a tremendous amount of knowledge.
To the unexperienced eye, it is important to remain open and careful in judging current practices. In Thailand, the logging industry was banned in the 1990’s. In Laos, timber export has been banned and machines have replaced elephants. Those working elephants, living up to 80 years of age, have de facto no more use. The capture of wild elephants is illegal in most South East Asian countries. At the same time breeding programmes are successful. This is one of the reasons why the elephant population in tourist camps in Thailand is growing, for example.
The tourism industry is one of the last resources for the elephant owners to provide care for the elephants. Banning or boycotting this activity directly impacts on elephant welfare. An elephant eats about 250 kg of diversified food per day. It is a costly, and labour intensive activity where tourism’s contribution is essential so that elephants are kept in good conditions. However, this does not mean that the tourism industry should sign a blank cheque to the camps. In fact the goal should be to support the Mahouts (those individuals in charge of the elephants) and camps that take good care of their elephants and to demonstrate to other camps how to improve the quality of their care.
Contrary to some popular beliefs, the absence of riding, refraining from using hooks or chains are, in fact, not tangible signs of good elephant welfare.
Following numerous visits, it is possible to find excellent animal welfare in camps where rides are organised and deplorable treatment in so called sanctuaries claiming not to ride elephants nor using hooks and chains.
Some signs of acceptable animal welfare may include, but are not restricted to:
• the size of the camp compared to the number of elephants and daily visitors;
• the richness and balance of the diet and the opportunity for the elephants to forage by themselves
during the day and night;
• the way elephants are trained when they are young and how they respond to verbal commands.
The veterinarian support to the camp is crucial to cure any disease or wounds. It could be an on site veterinarian for big camps hosting more than forty elephants or regular visits from an external professional or an existing network allowing fast support in case of medical issues. Other questions related to welfare could be: What are the elephants’ daily routines? Do they exercise enough and do they have opportunities to socialize with cohorts? Are they owned by the camp or
rented? How many years do they work in the same camp? How are the Mahouts treated (decent payment, living conditions, insurance…)?
Most of the information circulating in the media focuses on cruelty, bad treatment, worst practices, all these aspects are emotionally impactful. This negative side of the story does happen and we strongly support the fact that such unacceptable treatment must be exposed. It is equally important to know that there are also many camps where elephant welfare is taken very seriously by the owners and Mahouts. Thus these camps should be supported and promoted, rather
Elephas Maximus, the scientific name for the Asian Elephant, is listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
The Laos elephant population is under threat as the number of females of a reproductive age is very
limited and the population is getting older as calves have been massively exported to other countries over the past decade.
Elephant population in Laos: 400 wild + 400 under human care
Lifespan: 50 years and more
Gestation: around 22 months (longest of all living animals)
Weight: 3 to 5 tons
Food per day: 150 to 300 kg
Water per day: around 150 litres
Very developed sense of smell and hearing (especially low frequencies), limited vision
Elephants are owned by the camps or rented. The Mahout may be the owner or hired by the camp or by the elephant’s owner. This particular ownership system has consequences on the management and responsibilities.
Male elephants have musth periods lasting up to two months. During this time, they are very aggressive and require isolation which is a reason why many camps have only females. A young elephant costs around 30.000 USD
The Captive Elephant Animal Wefare and Sustainability Standard
The Standard is an initiative from ECEAT in partnership with Travelife for Tour operators, Asian Captive Elephant Working Group and PATA. The standard was supported by leading Asian travel companies such as EXO Travel, Buffalo Tours, Khiri Travel, Go Vacation, Destination Asia, Bamboo Travel, Asia DMC, Panorama Destination, Asian Trails, Destination Services, Easia, Trails of Indochina and Club Med. The standard provides a comprehensive list of 170 criteria covering the different areas of elephant welfare (elephant identification, living conditions, nurture, medical care, breeding, elephants in Musth), elephant interactions (riding, bathing, feeding, free roaming, walking with elephants, unacceptable activities) and how the Mahouts are treated (labour relations and living conditions). This list was reviewed on multiple occasions by specialists from different origins and backgrounds to reach the highest level of excellence. Animal protection NGOs were also invited to review the criteria and provide feedback.
The Standard is designed for the camps working with elephants in a tourism context with the aim of improving the elephants’ welfare and the Mahouts’ quality of life.
Tour Operators participating in the process can access information about the camps and make their own decisions regarding the activity, based on serious third party audits.
Our company, Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism Ltd (www.solutionstourism.com) is a for profit consultancy platform specialising in sustainability for the tourism sector. Our work related to animal welfare focuses only on the elephant topic as we have spent the past three years participating in the creation of standards for elephant welfare in camps in South East Asia.
Our business model is based on fees. The company does not depend on donations. The company is not an NGO, neither a foundation, and is not linked to any government nor any elephant camp. The company is made up of independent consultants.
10 frequently asked questions
Are the elephants working in the tourism industry still wild elephants?
No. While they may come from the wild, they are not wild anymore.
There are many misunderstandings when discussing elephant camps in regards to the words being used, one of them being the term “Wildlife”.
Accepted definitions are: “wildlife refers to the animals and other living things that live in the wild”. or “wildlife relates to living things and especially mammals, birds, and fishes that are neither human nor domesticated”.
Elephants working in the camps with tourists are not wild animals as they have been trained to work with humans. These elephants were poached from the wild originally, however, this is now illegal (ban on wild elephant capture in Laos from 1989). Breeding programmes are successful in countries where the pool of females at an age to procreate is wide enough. So there is less interaction with the wild population. The tourists are not in contact with wild elephants, these being potentially dangerous and aggressive.
Privately-owned elephants in Thailand and Laos are now microchipped (small device embedding information, implanted under the skin behind their left ear) and each of them should possess their own “passport”. Since 2006 Elefantasea and the Department of Livestock and Fisheries (DLF) have been working together in Laos to create a database of all the elephants working in the tourism and logging industries (sex, age, location and ownership details).
This initiative contributes to discouraging illegal trafficking and helps to track the elephants’ location and, in the future, the type of employment.
Should a wild elephant be captured, which is illegal, and transferred to a camp and consequently be spotted (without a passport), the elephant would be confiscated by the authorities.
The confiscated elephant is then moved to a government-controlled facility or a private camp under governmental supervision.
Is riding harmful to the elephants?
No. As long as it is done in an appropriate way.
Acceptable riding will be for a reasonable distance (four kilometres per day, for example), on natural ground, under natural shade, with a maximum of two individuals in the saddle (or one bareback) plus the Mahout, not during the hottest hours of the day and with access to food and water. Elephants must be fit for the ride, have no preeminent spine and have a calm character. The saddle should be removed after the ride and never be in direct contact with the dorsal spine. And finally, the elephant should respond to the Mahout’s verbal commands and no use of force should be needed to make the elephant walk.
Unacceptable riding would be on concrete, dirty roads surrounded by noisy cars and trucks, for many hours, in the sun with three or four people in the saddle and with no access to food and water. Elephants would have scars on their flanks caused by the equipment. Finally, the Mahout may require force to make the elephant walk, such as beating with a hook.
It is important to remember that it is mandatory and natural for elephants to have daily activity, so that they are stimulated physically and mentally. If riding is not performed and elephants are only used for feeding and bathing activities, there is a risk that they would not exercise enough. Being fed with large amounts of banana and sugar cane, it could even lead to obesity problems.
Claims against elephant riding have focused on the process that is needed to let the elephant be ridden. This argument is controversial as all elephants interacting with humans did undergo some training independent of the activity being performed (riding, bathing, feeding, walking, roaming). Riding is only one of the many activities for which elephants have been trained.
There is currently no serious scientific study available that argues and demonstrates that well-managed riding has a negative impact on elephant welfare.
“Studies have not been done on elephants; however, in horses, dogs and donkeys, the weight carrying capacity is about 20-25% of their body weight, which equates to over 600 kg for an average sized elephant weighing about 3,000 kg. Furthermore, the front and rear long bones of elephants are particularly strong because they do not have a bone marrow cavity, but instead have a dense bone structure. This means they can bear more weight than many other mammals.“ (Asian Captive Elephant Working Group)
Elephant riding in Manifa Elephant Camp
・Time: 9:30 AM – 3:00 PM
・Walking Place: Manifa Elephant Camp property 110 Hectares (270 Acres) jungle + Mekong River
・Walking Distance: 3-5 times a day, about 1 Km each time
・Riding Types: Bare neck or Howdah
Please check Google map. They show when visitors are in Mania Elephant Camp. You can estimate how many hours our elephants are actually working.
Is it important to use a hook?
Yes. But it must be handled carefully and properly.
The tool called the “hook” (or bull-hook or ankus or goad) is used to guide and control the elephant in free contact management. Free contact management is the opposite of protected contact where the elephant would remain behind fences or protective barriers during the interaction with humans, like in some zoos. The hook is long enough that it can access areas that are untouchable by hand. A well trained Mahout will know how to control and guide the elephant through even emergency situations using the hook and will know the sensitive areas to avoid when using it. The right use of the hook is linked to the training method and the bond between the elephant and the Mahout.
The hook should never be used as an instrument of pain or punishment and it is not designed to be so – it is a guiding tool that may be essential in case of panic following an unexpected event (gun shot, animal popping up, drone or helicopter coming nearby,…). Elephants may get afraid and panic. They may start to run away and throw the person on their backs to the ground or become a danger for tourists. The hook is also used for controlling the elephant during routine care such as feet cleaning and maintenance and veterinarian intervention which also means avoiding sedating the elephant.
On no occasion should the hook be used to beat an elephant. This is a sign of poor management and lack of a bond between the elephant and the keeper. This could lead to serious injuries and result in the elephant developing aggressive behaviour towards the keeper. This is absolutely unacceptable. When scars are spotted on the forehead of an elephant, it may be an ancient wound. It is also important to keep in mind that elephants have a long life span and many of them used to work in the logging industry in very difficult conditions. Some wounds are also caused by the elephants themselves while walking in the forest. One can identify the fresh wounds when these are still pink and white or bleeding. However, it is important not to jump to rash conclusions.
There are cases where the hook is replaced by knives or sometimes hidden nails. This is a downgrade for the elephant welfare. These sharp tools are more harmful to the elephant than the hook. The use of these inappropriate tools is a consequence of international pressure against hooks.
The absence of hooks should be investigated to understand if these were replaced by another controlling tool or whether the elephants obey the commands, following years of working with the Mahout so that the use of the hook is not necessary anymore. It is recommended that Mahouts are able to explain how they would handle their elephants in case of an unexpected event or when the elephants are in need of basic care (foot care) or veterinarian interventions.
Is it important to use chains?
Yes. But following strict guidelines.
Elephants should never be chained nonstop throughout the night and day. The length of the chain is crucial and the animal should be properly tethered to avoid harming his feet. It is also essential to take into account where the elephants are chained: is it on a concrete floor? In the forest?
It is important to remember that elephants have to walk for their physical and mental health. The Mahouts accompany the elephants during those walks.
However there are also periods of the day and most of the night (elephants sleep only a few hours per night) when the Mahouts need to chain the elephants. Failing to do so may result in the elephants walking away and potentiality destroying farm crops, coming into conflict with humans or attacking other elephants. Elephants’ social structure is very important. However, most individual elephants in camps do not have acquaintances from that social structure and it happens that they attack each other. Unfortunately there are regular cases of elephants injuring or even killing other elephants. It may even happen in camps branded as sanctuaries where elephants are free to roam with no chains and have limited Mahout supervision.
When the elephants are performing rides or any other interactions with humans, they may be chained before or after participating in these activities. This chaining is also important to avoid conflicts between elephants, especially in camps where there are a lot of elephants living with a mix of males and females
Chains may also be used for veterinarian care.
Many camps claiming the absence of chains may actually still use chains at night. Chains may also be used for male elephants during the musth period.
An alternative to chains is the building of enclosures. Results may be mixed. For one, these enclosures are very expensive to build properly. Secondly, the space available for the elephants in a 6 by 4 meter enclosure (24 square meters) is inferior to a ten meter chain (31 square meters). Thirdly, if the elephant is chained in a forest, it can be moved from one place to another, allowing access to different types of food and interaction with other elephants.
“In Asia there are few enclosures outside zoos that can securely contain adult elephants, so when individuals are not under the direct control of a mahout or keeper it is normal that they are restrained by chaining, which may be for long periods.” (Asian Captive Elephant Working Group)
Some signs of good usage of chains include: long chains at night (some camps use 30 meter long chains) so that the elephant can move and access food. During the day: short period of chaining, the possibility to touch other elephants would also provide an opportunity to socialize. The chain should not be too tight whereby it should be able to move around the foot and no wound related to the chain is visible (iron may be preferred to ropes as it’s less abrasive). The area where the elephants are chained should not be concrete but natural soil and should always be clean from urine and faeces to avoid foot infection.
The use of chain in Manifa Elephant Camp
During daytime from morning to afternoon, we have stopped using rope while elephants are waiting for tourists. They are free to roam in our property.
During nighttime from late afternoon to next morning, for safety both of Elephants and neighbor villagers, Manifa Elephant Camp keeps Elephants chained with a 30 meter long chain in our 110 hectares forests while changing the location where plenty of foods available.
The reason why we do not use enclosure is that it is unrealistic to build a huge and reliable enclosure in our over 100 hectares jungle.
One of “non riding” elephant camp in Luang Prabang that are believed to give elephants the most ethical cares actually uses only 100 square meters enclosures (electric barbed wire). We heard that 6 of their 10 elephants are locked in the jail during nighttime. 100 square meters enclosures are definitely too small for 6 elephants to access natural vegetation & fresh water. The reason is probably that they just want to say “we do not use chain” .
Although the chain is a symbolic of slavery, the long chain is clearly better solution for the elephant welfare than small jail. We do not want to be a liar and honestly give our elephants better enviroment.
What is a stereotypy movement and what does it mean?
Definition: a stereotypy is a term for a group of phenotypic behaviours that are repetitive, morphologically identical and which possess no obvious goal or function.¹
An elephant may be swaying from one leg to the other one or moving head and trunk, as if they were dancing. This repeated movement is called stereotypy and is related to a situation where the normal behaviour of the elephant is or was restricted. The reasons for such comportment are multiple: long chaining period, boredom, lack of mental stimulation, food restriction, absence of social contacts with other elephants…
This behaviour can persist even if the elephant is not in this stressful situation anymore. It is similar to a tic repeated by the animal over a long period of time. This bad habit could even be picked up by other elephants. It is always essential to discuss with the owners and/or the Mahout of the elephant in order to know more about this behaviour which could have health consequences on the feet, nails and joints. An enrichment program should be implemented to try to prevent the elephants developing a stereotypy. For example, the elephant would need to search to find its food instead of being given it all the time at the same place.
Stereotypy is not always a sign of bad treatment; it could persist even in a much improved environment. But the persons in charge of the elephant should implement strategies to manage this behaviour.
¹Age and context affect the stereotypies of caged mink by GEORGIA J. MASON – Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB3 8AA – Acc. 5-X-1993
How are elephants trained to interact with humans?
This question is very important as the potential abuse during training is one of the reasons why elephant rides are criticized.
All elephants working in camps, interacting with tourists or free-roaming (but in camps) needed to be trained at some point to collaborate with humans. It is difficult, to almost impossible, to trace the way these elephants were trained 20, 30 or 40 years ago. One certainty is: these elephants did undergo some training otherwise any interactions with tourists would be impossible. Some older videos, available online, show the use of torture to train young elephants. Such practices are not common and are strictly unacceptable.
Nowadays most of the calves are bred and born in captivity. This implies that the training is different from that needed for wild elephants with no experience of living with humans. The young elephants have an early contact with humans, getting used to their presence.
There are several techniques to train the elephants (some influenced by horse training) including positive reinforcement or target training, for example.
The way it works is simple: the trainer gives a verbal order to the animal and when the action is performed well, the trainer uses another sound (or a whistle) to validate the achievement which is followed by the elephant receiving a treat as reward¹. The purpose of this kind of training is also to manage the elephant for medical care such as cleaning feet, cutting nails, checking teeth. If an elephant is not trained to perform these movements, it may be very difficult for a veterinarian to cure an infection, for example, which can even lead to the death of the elephant.
“Elephant training, like the training of all animals, can be cruel when it is done badly. When elephants are trained to respond to light cues and have reliable habits, training poses no threat to their welfare. In fact we have seen that in places where the elephants are completely free to run off into the forest at any time during training, such as in Nepal and India (Manas and Kaziranga), we have typically seen that they show up voluntarily for their training each session.”
¹ Check the reference book: Elephant-Friendly Training for Working Elephants: A practical manual for foundation training from first handling to riding and trunk control by Andrew Mc Lean – 2014
Elephant Training in Manifa Elephant Camp
We actively take the opportunity to learn from international veterinarians. An Australian elephant specialist Dr. Andrew McLean and the director of Manifa Elephant Camp.
Should elephants working in camps be reintroduced into the wild?
The size of forests in South East Asia, which is the natural habitat of elephants, has dramatically decreased during the past fifty years leaving little space for the wild elephants and increasing the frequency of elephant/human conflict with casualties in both camps.
An estimate by the World Wildlife Fund concluded that between 1973 and 2009, Thailand’s forests declined by 43 percent¹. In Laos, the total forest area reportedly declined from approximately 70% of the total area in the 1940s to 40.3% of the total area in 2010² .
Wild elephants are on the move most of the day seeking security and finding food. They require space as they should not be in contact with humans.
However, space is not the only concern: reintroduced elephants who have been used to the presence of humans for decades come closer to villages seeking crops and thus leading to more conflicts. Elephants released in the wild may also spread diseases. Some reintroduction programmes are in place and they need to be supported. However, success of the
programmes has been sparsely communicated, also as a method to ensure that those elephants concerned are not captured again or killed by poachers for ivory or other parts of their bodies.
The wild elephant population needs support and conservation projects to protect them and increase the population.
However, this does not resolve the issue of elephants currently working in camps. While it would be great to generally re-introduce domesticated elephants back into the wild, there are some constraints and dangers to the animals that are difficult to overcome in practice, i.e. lack of space due to habitat loss and the loss of the “healthy fear” of humans by captive elephants.
¹ Living Forests Report, Chapter 5. Gland, Switzerland: World Wildlife Fund. 2015. p. 35. Retrieved 28 Apr 2015.
² Fujita, 2011; Meeserli, et al., 2008; UNEP, 2012 Ref: 05/18
Should I trust a camp based on its name only?
No. Trusting a brand or a camp name is not a guarantee of best practices.
There is currently no regulation regarding elephant camp labelling. This means that owners of camps can name or brand their businesses the way they prefer without having to fear any official controls.
At times, this can result in misleading information displayed to attract visitors by pretending to be involved in any “good practices” activity, a sort of “greenwashing” for elephant camps. This partly results from the many campaigns in western countries against bad treatment in elephant camps whereby the reaction of camp owners was to change the brand or name to become, from one day to the next, shelters, rescue centres, conservation centres, havens and the list goes on (in bold the definition of each term).
Consequences are twofold: firstly, both the tourism operators and the tourists base their choice on biased information resulting in their expectations not being fulfilled, and secondly, the camps which are serious about conservation commitment or participating in the care of retired elephants are badly impacted by unfair competition.
Rescue center: rescue: to save (someone) from a dangerous or difficult situation.¹
If the Mahout and/or owners are better paid in a tourist-based camp than in another industry they will move the elephant to work in those tourist-based camps. Sometimes authorities may confiscate elephants (illegally sold, badly injured, badly treated) and then “give” them to rescue camps to take care of.
Retirement: the period of one’s life after retiring from work.¹
These camps should only accommodate elephants in their 50’s to 80’s or more and provide special care with adapted diets, activities and medical follow up. There should be little interaction with visitors.
Orphanage: a residential institution for the care and education of orphans.
These camps should only host young elephants. One of the key questions remains however: how are we certain that those young elephants are orphans and not simply a marketing trick to attract tourists?
Sanctuary: a tract of land where wildlife can breed and take refuge.
There should be no human interaction and control over these elephants. The elephants should have enough space to roam, and find shaded areas as well as diversified food (none given by humans but only foraged). Many camps using the word ‘sanctuary’ may not meet those requirements.
If a camp communicates its involvement in conservation, there should be clear and tangible proof that an effective program is in place to support the wild elephant population. Breeding in camps is not considered a conservation activity. Conservation is a commitment to resource allocation dedicated to the protection of elephants living in the wild and their environment.
It is important to understand the differences between the above-mentioned terms. If a tour operator or a destination management company works with a camp using one of those terms, it is necessary to obtain additional information about what the camps are really proposing and how they are financing those activities so that the marketing materials set realistic expectations without any false or misleading claims.
Do all Mahouts treat the elephants badly?
No. But some elephant keepers have little to no skills for this commitment and are discrediting the profession.
It is important to make a clear difference between elephant keepers and Mahouts to highlight the acquired skill gap separating them.
Mahout used to be an honourable position in Asian societies. The tradition of Mahoutship¹ started many centuries ago and was transmitted from father to son over generations. Unfortunately, the massive use of elephants for logging and other activities has changed the demands for the job. Slowly but surely, the attractiveness of this demanding work has decreased.
To take care of an elephant translates into a total dedication to the animal with limited holidays and nowadays in many camps, a small salary. The consequence has been a decline in the level of qualifications required with the growing demand linked to many new camps opening. There are no Mahout schools and right now only a few training courses are proposed in Northern Thailand.
The oldest Mahouts may come from the logging industry. Their knowledge is related to tough tasks such as carrying wood from difficult locations and thus, at times, pushing elephants to their physical limits.
There are Mahouts who have worked and lived with the same elephant for decades and the bond between the human and the animal is very strong. However, some experienced Mahouts are able to take care of a new elephant without this long relationship.
¹ “The neologism ‘mahoutship’ is intended to be the exact equivalent of ‘horsemanship’ and to carry all of that word’s hoary connotations. Just as with horsemanship, the word ‘mahoutship’ implies that not only does the rider possess great physical skill but he also has extensive transmitted technical knowledge and, in a traditional culture, even a powerful spiritual or magical component.” Gone Astray – The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity – Richard C. LAIR – FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS (FAO) –Forestry Department, Rome, Italy and Forestry Department Group, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific Nov.1999)
Experienced Mahouts manage to control their elephants with few verbal signs, and keep the elephant in perfect physical conditions (not too skinny not too fat). Those Mahouts who do not need to chain the elephant all the time stay close to the animal to care for its welfare. During the activities, there is no stress, and no use of violence to be obeyed but only gentle sounds or use of feet if sitting on the elephant’s neck.
An unexperienced keeper could be stressed when being around the elephant, shouting and using the hook or any other tool to ensure that the elephant obeys the instructions. Thus, the elephants are chained for long hours with little or no chance to go for a walk or to bathe. The keeper would not provide the elephant with enough water and food and the elephant’s nails would not be correctly cut, the elephant may have untreated infections.
A camp involved in elephant welfare will try to keep each Mahout with the same elephant for as long as possible. A goal could be to create a loyalty programme to reward both the Mahout and the owner (if they are different) and prevent them taking the elephant back to other activities. The Mahout would get regular health checks and insurance.
The relationship between the Mahout and the owner is crucial for the good management of the elephant. The salary must be fair and tips should be equally redistributed as they can sometimes exceed the monthly salary.
Should all activities including interactions with elephants be banned or boycotted?
No. The consequences of a ban or boycott would be disastrous to all parties involved, including the elephants.
The daily cost of an elephant is high because of the amount of food and care required. Without income from the tourism industry, the elephant owners are left with limited choices.
1. Owners in Laos can send an elephant back to the logging (sometimes illegal) industry. The elephant then works in exhausting conditions for long hours. Payment is linked to the amount of wood removed. There are often no days off and only limited medical care. In Thailand the alternative is non welfare oriented trekking camps.
2. Owners can sell their elephants (which is increasingly happening in Laos) to companies or individuals based in foreign countries resulting in a decrease of the elephant population in Laos.
3. Owners can kill their elephants for the value of body parts such as tusks, skin, tail, genitals and so on. The black market is fuelled with elephants caught in the wild but also with some sold by desperate owners. All these scenarios are contributing to the extinction of the elephants in Laos. This is already programmed to happen within two hundred years if nothing is done to accelerate the level of reproduction.¹
Boycotting or banning are not sustainable solutions to the problems. A dialogue must be engaged with the camps and elephant owners to make them aware of the level of welfare which is expected for the elephants and for the wellbeing of the Mahouts.
“The use of captive elephants for tourism purposes has been recognized as holding great significance for the long-term conservation of both wild and captive elephant populations”.¹
¹ Population viability of captive Asian elephants in the Lao PDR – Ingrid Colette Suter*, Gilles Pierre Maurer**, Greg Baxter*
*The University of Queensland, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, St Lucia, Brisbane,
Queensland 4072, Australia
**ElefantAsia, PO Box 3804, Vientiane, Lao People’s Democratic Republic – 2014
Choosing the right camp is not a simple task and should be handled with care and based on facts rather than emotional judgment.
Here are recommendations to match the elephant activity offer with the tourist’s demands:
– analyse the tourists’ expectations and the level of elephant interaction desired
– be honest, transparent and clear about the proposed activities
– use this FAQ document to explain the complexity of the topic
– understand the chosen camps in terms of the kind of activities offered, the level of care for the elephants’ welfare and the wellbeing of the Mahout.
It is important to rely on scientists, veterinarians, experienced Mahouts and camp owners to understand a camp.
To gain more knowledge about the camps, use the Captive Elephant Animal Welfare and Sustainability Standard. The criteria are now implemented in Laos and Thailand and the audit phase will start during winter 2018.
The auditors are third party independent consultants, working in pairs of one international and one local member to access information in the local language.
A camp’s audit requires roughly one full day to collect the information and evidence from managers, staff and Mahouts to complete the criteria. There is an online system to report the information. Access is then made available to partnering tour operators.
At the time of writing this document, the system is still in a testing phase with assessments in more than fifteen camps in Thailand and three in Laos.
To take part in the project please contact Travelife for Tour Operators : firstname.lastname@example.org