Once travel and vacations are a thing again -- and spending time with elephants is high on people’s ‘to do’ lists, they’ll be faced with a bewildering choice of places that promise a day of fun in the sun with these magnificent creatures. But people who really care about elephant welfare should beware. Not all of them are the same. And many of them are hurting - not helping - elephants.
If people are worried about how elephants are treated and are intent on finding an organization that truly offers ethical, humane care, they need to do some sleuthing before they choose. This effort can change a lot of captive elephants – and improve their lives.
Here are 10 questions people can ask, or check on the websites, before they make their choice and pay to support a place that may not really be delivering all the great care it promises.
1: What do you feed your elephants -- and how much do they eat every day?
Elephants eat constantly -- and they eat a lot. 250 kilos (550 lbs) of food a day keeps an adult elephant healthy. They thrive on vegetation foraged in the jungle, especially when supplemented with protein-rich Napier grass, pineapple bottoms, bananas, sugar cane, and bamboo. Tamarind and rock salt aid their digestion. You can quickly tell if an elephant is well nourished. If you can see their bones through their thick skin, they probably aren’t getting the nourishment they need. And if only their bellies are swollen, it could be a sign of worms that aren’t being treated.
2: Do your elephants get regular medical care? If so, is it a trained vet tech or a veterinarian who provides the care?
Captive elephants need consistent care. Preventive care means being weighed every month, periodic de-worming, and vaccinations. Feet and nails need regular inspection. New elephants coming into a program need to be checked for tuberculosis. Changes in health and details on diet, weight, etc, need to be carefully documented…records with emojis are substandard. You can ask if a vet is on hand to treat colic, eye infections, abscesses, snake bites, trauma. And you can request the contact information of the vet if you don’t feel confident. Sometimes, care is provided by someone who “wears a white coat” but who lacks medical training.
3. Are your elephants chained during the day or night and, if so, when can they physically interact with each other?
Elephants are intensely social. Herd interaction and bonding time is paramount. Separation and isolation cause mental trauma and insecurity. Chained elephants can’t get close to each other and are deprived of touch and physical affection. And their natural need to move is stifled.
Enclosures are a better alternative. These fenced-off areas allow elephants room to move and socialize. (https://bit.ly/399bDNg). You can ask whether a herd has time to get physically close to one another without chains. Before you visit, find out if the elephants are chained, or if they are allowed to socialise freely, and for how long each day.
4: Do you offer elephant rides?
Most people who ride elephants love them and would never purposely hurt them. Elephants are strong, but their spines are fragile and not designed to carry weight. Sadly, most captive elephants in Southeastern and Southern Asia are forced to carry tourists around atop heavy wooden saddles (howdahs) cinched tightly around their chests, with hot scratchy blankets beneath, doing loop after loop in the hot sun. The result is frequently sores, abscesses, spinal damage, open wounds, and great emotional, social, and physical stress.
#5: Are your elephants happy and healthy?
Healthy elephants interact intimately with members of the herd. They “talk” with each other—a purring sound communicates that all is safe. They swing their tails back and forth. You might see them play in a river together – playfully dunking each other and swimming -- rolling in the mud or giving themselves a good dust bath. Watch to see if they are relaxed and enjoying their food, knowing there will be more.
These are all good signs. The bad signs? Check for abrasions around their ankles from chains or nicks and cuts from bull-hooks. Are they standing on concrete? Isolated? Do they seem to cower when their mahout (caregiver) approaches? Are they swaying back and forth neurotically? These clues mean the elephants aren't getting the care they need and deserve.
#6: What kind of experience do your mahouts have with elephants?
No one knows more about a captive elephant than its long-term mahout. Historically, they all but lived with their elephant for most of their lives. Most seasoned mahouts have an almost clairvoyant sense of what their elephant is thinking and feeling, and actually consider them part of the family. But things are changing. Younger people—typically unskilled and unfamiliar with elephants—are now working as mahouts. A mahout trained to care for elephants without hooks and hammers is key to helping shift the model of care to one focused on kindness, respect, and conservation.
You can ask the owner what protocols are in place to help ensure the safety of mahouts. Do they provide training on elephant care and is it focused on positive reinforcement?
#7 Do your elephants have plenty of water to drink and places to wade or swim?
Elephants need (and crave) water! They should be drinking about 150 to 200 liters every day. They’re also natural swimmers—it’s fun and it cools them off during some seriously hot months. If the organization tells you mahouts carry water to their elephants a few times a day, or if it has no streams, rivers, or man-made pools, it could be a red flag that the elephants are in danger of dehydration.
You may not be able to verify the answer (unless the website shows pictures of flowing water) but if you see that the elephants don’t have access to water when you’re visiting, don’t hesitate to speak up. You can give elephants a voice and help raise the bar on their care and treatment.
#8: If you allow physical interaction between guests and elephants, is it voluntary for the elephants?
Captive elephants can be affectionate and may enjoy the company of their mahouts, but they aren’t puppies. They have no interest in having their belly scratched and they don’t seek out hugs and kisses. They usually enjoy being fed sweet bananas, with their mahouts nearby, as do tourists. And, if an elephant walks over to a guest
for a pat or simply to stand beside them (again with the mahout nearby), it can be a moving, meaningful experience for both.
But if the center chains its elephants so that guests can pet them, it’s not voluntary. If guests can ride elephants into a river, it’s not voluntary. If mahouts are jumping on their backs to get their elephant to spray water on tourist swimmers, that’s not voluntary. Red flags!
#9: How do you support the overall wellness and prosperity of the local community and people living there?
Elephant tourism centers should have plenty of land so elephants have room to roam and spend time in the jungle -- and so guests can fully experience the area's beauty. To be successful, particularly if it is located in or near a village, it's essential that the locals are involved at every level and that they benefit economically and socially. When locals are partners, the desire to improve elephant care grows along with a strong sense of communal pride and loyalty. Ask the owner how many people they employ and what percentage of the staff are locals. Are locals part of the management team? Are women and men represented? Are locals paid at market rates? Is health insurance offered? Does the organization contribute to the local temple, school, medical facility or sponsor local events? They should!
#10: What is your long-term goal for elephants?
FACTS: The best organizations try to do everything possible to ensure their captive elephants live a life that mirrors, as closely as possible, the one they would live in the wild. This means time with their companions in the jungle; plenty of food, water, and no hooks, hammers, or chains. They make sure they employ mahouts who love elephants, who use positive reinforcement training, and provide their elephants with proper medical care. But ultimately, true elephant conservation is about working toward a future where there are no longer captive elephants and the population of wild elephants increases and flourishes.
Ask owners if they breed their elephants. If they do, ask why. Do they plan to raise the babies so they can continue to offer elephant experiences to tourists? Do they plan to let guests interact with the baby/babies and use this to attract new visitors? Or do they plan to raise these babies, with their mothers, until the time when they can be reintroduced safely into the wild.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Many elephant tourism enterprises do business on a walk-in basis. Before you agree to pay an entrance fee, ask if you can take a quick look around. The truest test is to look into an elephant's eyes. What do you see? Fear, pain, sadness? Or a drowsy, relaxed peacefulness. Trust your gut - and post what you experience to Tripadvisor. It matters!