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Last year, Buffalo Tours launched an ambitious initiative to tackle an important issue: the welfare of captive elephants in Asia. Coming from a long history in logging, many elephants now live in captivity within tourism camps whose main income is elephant riding – a practice that raises important questions about animal welfare. Buffalo Tours completed a full review of our tours to establish strict welfare standards, with the ambition to phase out riding in the future.
We invited Nicolas Dubrocard to shed light on the issue:
My first interaction with wild elephants was in Khao Yai National Park. The two-day trip was a master class in wildlife spotting – bats, giant lizards, birds and deer darted in and out of view while we trekked and drove our way through dense jungle foliage.
We were mesmerised by the life of the jungle, but our group was most looking forward to one particular wildlife close encounter: spotting wild elephants.
On our second day a palpable excitement course through our group. This was the golden hour for elephants, our guide told us. We rattled toward an area where elephant spotting was best.
As the night fell and our hopes of seeing wild elephants evaporated, the atmosphere shifted from happy anticipation to forlorn disappointment. Many knew that this would be the last time they’d ever have an opportunity to see wild elephants, and I could sense the frustration. Yet only hours ago, these same sad faces were overcome with excitement at the prospect of experiencing elephants in the wild. Despite my own disappointment, the shift of the group’s energy made me wonder – what made international travellers react this way? If these elephants were living in peace, comfort and freedom, who were we to change things for our own amusement? Did we really care about the elephants, or did we care about the photos on our camera instead? Being part of this paradox left a bad taste in my mouth.
A few years later, I was in Ayutthaya, Thailand with my wife. She had one goal in mind – to ride an elephant. We travelled to an elephant camp where dozens of tourists were queuing near a raised platform, climbing aboard an elephant for a 20-minute ride along a busy road packed with cars and trucks.
Based only on what I saw with my own two eyes, I had a gut feeling that something was off. It was hot – nearly 40 degrees in the sun – and the elephants appeared to be anything but happy. The procession seemed a million miles away from the lush national park. If wild elephants lived within the Thai jungle, how could this environment be appropriate?
My stroll around the camp solidified by discomfort. These incredible creatures were living in squalor – on extremely short chains attached to trees, swinging back and forth on their front legs. Nearby, tourists goaded the creatures with bananas or corn, snapping selfies as the visibly concerned but powerless mahouts looked on.
Here was a prime example of supply and demand. The care of the elephants relied on the income of the camp, and well-meaning tourists threw money at the opportunity to tick another item off of their bucket list by riding an elephant. Meanwhile, camp owners and mahouts gave the tourists what they wanted – knowing full-well that by doing anything less, the camp’s income (and ultimately the capital for the elephant’s care) would dry up.
The elephants were often veterans of the logging trade, and came from even more dire working conditions than the tourist camps. In 1989, logging was officially banned in Thailand. In a desperate bid to keep the elephants fed and sheltered, the mahouts would send them to the elephant camps.
The cost of feeding a single captive elephant for one day is $30. Captive elephants are virtually impossible to release back into the wild, and require care and food throughout their 50-year life spans. The industry was faced with a dilemma – allow the elephants to die out, or provide an incentive for tourists to visit elephant camps with their vital travel dollars? In the early 2000s, the public began waking up to the elephant tourism industry. Shocked and appalled by the treatment many captive elephants endured, a flurry of elephant riding and elephant camp boycotts sprung up among the travel community. But the gaps are quickly filled by those that either don’t know or don’t care about elephant welfare, leaving those committed to lasting change with an important question: how can change at a demand level really work?
In my work with Wild Asia, I collaborate with hospitality and travel brands to make the travel industry more responsible and sustainable.
The Buffalo team approached me with an exciting new project; a massive and encompassing audit of all of the elephant camps that they worked with, using a lengthy set of criteria. The intention was not only to source camps that were the gold standard for elephant welfare, but also find those that were committed to making a change but needed support in doing so.
The goal was two-fold: reward responsible camps with more business, and give other worthy camps the tools and incentive they needed to change their operations. By doing so, the Buffalo team hoped that they could be at the forefront of a massive change. But as a team of locals, they knew that this quantum shift must begin with discourse. Only then could they lead camp owners away from the quick win, and toward a more responsible future. In April of 2016, I was lucky enough to visit three of Buffalo Tours’ proudest examples of change in Thailand. Throughout my visits to these three elephant camps, I learned what change really looks like at a demand level – and about how travellers themselves play a massive part in all of it.
You can read part two of the blog here.