Previously unseen footage of baby elephants being wrenched from their mothers and poked with sharp objects has been released by World Animal Protection.
The footage, shot in Thailand, shows elephants chained up and being trained to perform tricks, like walking on their hind legs, spinning a hula hoop with their trunks or painting on a canvas.
Ben Pearson, head of campaigns at World Animal Protection in Australia, said mother elephants typically remain close to their young for up to five years in the wild.
“In the case of the videos that we’re seeing here … after only a couple of years, the baby is essentially snatched from the mother who never sees it again,” he told the ABC.
“Elephants are intelligent animals, they’re sentient beings and frankly, their mothers and babies have a bond, which is similar to us.
“We know in the case of one of those elephants, this has happened to her four times. The impact is just immense trauma.”
He said while many tourists to South-East Asia had become aware of the harms of elephant riding, the same practises, known as “crushing”, were involved behind the scenes in elephant bathing and other close interactions with humans.
“They are wild animals, they do not want to be in contact with human beings,” he said.
“The only way an elephant would submit to do anything like riding or being in a pool of water with a bunch of tourists who splash water on it … is if it’s gone through this brutal training process.
“What’s distressing is that trauma and that cruelty is intentional. I mean, that’s part of the process. Essentially, that baby elephant has its spirit broken, and therefore can be used in the tourist trade.”
World Animal Protection said the footage was shot in an elephant training camp in Thailand between 2018 and 2020, and said some elephants were sent to larger tourist areas like Chiang Mai or Phuket for activities like rides, shows or elephant washing.
They did not name specific tourism operators, but a number of tourist ventures continue to advertise elephant rides online.
The ABC contacted Chiang Mai Local Tours, which confirmed the company offered elephant rides. They asked for further questions to be sent via email, but did not respond by deadline.
The Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai did not respond to calls or emails, but in an interview with CNN, owner Anchalee Kalampichit said the coronavirus pandemic had given her a chance to rethink her business model.
“I didn’t know what else to do in the camp instead of shows and elephant riding,” she told CNN, adding that she had observed other operators had scrapped elephant rides and tricks.
“My announcement to the public is that we will stop from now on, shows and riding on the elephants.”
It comes at a time when there are concerns elephants could starve as travel restrictions due to the pandemic has left elephant tourism operators and mahouts (trainers) out of work.
Travellers push for ethical tourism
The issue is not restricted to Thailand. Elephant “crushing” is prevalent across South-East Asia.
A report from World Animal Protection in 2018 highlighted ill treatment of elephants, dolphins and other animals in “wildlife abusement parks” in Bali — a popular travel destination for Australians.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought international travel to a halt, but Natalie Kyriacou, founder and CEO at My Green World said it was “likely that South-East Asia will be a key region that Australians flock to once travel restrictions ease”.
“There is absolutely a growing awareness among travellers of the prevalence of animal cruelty across the tourism industry,” she said.
“Often videos depicting animal cruelty [justifiably] trigger emotional and impassioned responses. I think it’s important that this response does not morph into discriminatory attacks on a single community, culture, country or region.”
Ms Kyriacou said while data was limited, anecdotally, there was a marked increase in online activism and demand for ethical tourism, with travel operators moving towards more ethical models.
Philip Pearce, foundation professor of tourism at James Cook University, said there was a rising concern among Western tourists about the mistreatment of animals.
“The ethics of elephant riding and its hidden training procedures deeply disturb many well-informed tourists,” he said.
“The topic is one part of a social and ethical concern about the tourism industry behaving well and tourists doing their part to promote better industry and personal behaviour.”
World Animal Protection urged travellers to seek out observation-only elephant tourism operators that prioritised animal welfare.
Mr Pearson said many Australians may have taken part in elephant riding or bathing in the past.
“It’s not about making people feel guilty. It’s more about providing people the information they need so that they don’t contribute to this cruelty in the future,” he said.