Captive Elephants in Thailand?
Asian elephants in captivity also face many other problems.
Historically, the vast majority of Thailand’s captive elephants and mahouts were employed in the logging industry where they were used to haul trees out of dense jungle. When logging was banned in 1989, thousands of captive Thai elephants and their mahouts became un-employed. Elephants are expensive to feed and to keep, especially if you want to do it properly. Elephants eat around 10% of their body weight a day, for a full grown elephant that can be over 200kgs of food. So the mahouts faced no other option than to find alternative employment.
Many elephant owners resorted to taking their charges into big cities in order to put themselves in touch with people who would pay to touch, feed or play with their elephant. This is illegal in Thailand and while there are racketeers making big bucks from elephant hire to do this a large proportion of the ‘city mahouts’ are from traditional elephant owning families and truly love their elephants, but can think of no other option.
Walking in cities is undoubtedly not the life for an elephant and the situation is made worse by the tendency to split mothers and babies well before natural weaning age, the baby will survive but have problems later in life through lack of calcium at the developmental stage. City elephants face a life of inadequate nutrition, health problems from pollution and walking on hot concrete all day as well as the constant threat of being hit by traffic.
Other elephants work in Illegal logging camps, these elephants face extremely dangerous conditions, one in which elephants are constantly over worked and under fed and accidents frequently occur. As well as this, illegal logging camps are often located near or on the border with neighbouring countries where there are many landmines, which elephants can step on causing horrific injury.
While some tourist trekking camps provide adequate standards of care and fodder for their elephants, limit the workloads of their elephants, provide green spaces for the elephants to rest in and operate in a sustainable fashion it is safe to say that most do not.
In some camps we have witnessed elephants working up to 10 hours a day without a break, the mahouts eat lunch on their eles, only to be chained in a non-forest rest area at night.
With the tourism industry increasing and with an ‘elephant experience’ of some kind on everyone’s itinerary it is important to show to tourists, mahouts and camp owners alike that guest activities can be provided in such a way that all stakeholders are satisfied.
Mass tourism remains the only income source available to keep the majority of Thailand’s captive elephants fed and so cannot be abandoned or boycotted but it is important to work with business and mahout communities to modify welfare and sustainability aspects.