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Is your overseas holiday contributing to animal cruelty?

Lek Chailert with Jokia and Mae Perm at the Elephant Nature Park.

If you knew that your holiday was contributing to animal cruelty, would you still choose to do the same activities?

The woman featured in this photo is Lek Chailert, the founder of the Save the Elephants foundation and the Elephant Nature Park. The elephants photographed with her are Jokia and Mae Perm.

Mae Perm was the first elephant that Lek rescued from the logging industry – where she was required to drag heavy loads every day, despite her increasing age – and brought to the park. Jokia was rescued many years later, blind in both eyes after being abused by humans. The two elephants bonded, and because Jokia cannot see she relies upon Mae Perm to be her guide and help.

This anecdote alone should give some indication of the intelligence and emotion these gentle giants are capable of.

But just as elephants can show compassion and love, they can also feel deep suffering. Distress when separated from other members of their herd. Psychological problems when confined in unnatural habitats. Post-traumatic stress disorder when abused or hurt.

Sadly, the suffering of elephants is not uncommon. At least, it is not uncommon for these wild animals kept in captivity.

Elephants need to be given space to roam and interact with their herd.

Asian elephants are highly endangered. There are about 30,000 in the wild, and 15,000 in captivity. In recent decades much of their natural habitat has been destroyed, which places the species in an even more precarious position.

In Thailand, captive elephants were used in logging until 1989 when the degradation of the environment forced the government to shut down the industry. After that, many elephants were ‘unemployed’ and ‘homeless’; they could not return to the wild, and their owners needed them to earn their keep.

Elephants ‘begging’ on busy streets in major cities – holding out their trunks to collect money for their owners – became a common sight for many years. The bright lights and the vibrations from cars driving on the road were distressing for these creatures; and the cruel methods used to train the elephants were just as physically damaging as over-working in the logging industry had been.

These days, elephants in Thailand are used to entertain tourists, and this has led to a situation where elephants in captivity are forced to do performances that are unnatural to them. Moreover, the methods used to train elephants to entertain tourists are tortuous. Mahouts – elephant trainers – still use bull-hooks, and separate elephants from others of their species to break their spirit.

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Unfortunately, this also include elephant rides.Research has found that riding elephants, along with other activities typically involved with elephant tourism, are very distressing for these intelligent, emotional creatures.

Elephant rides in particular are a popular experience while travelling through countries like Thailand and India, and many tourists who want to ride elephants are in fact animal lovers. For some of these people, if they knew that the animal was suffering, they wouldn’t want anything to do with it.

At the Elephant Nature Park, it’s people who stand behind bars.

Being a responsible tourist can be hard. Many of the businesses that offer elephant rides keep their animals in substandard conditions or use cruel training methods – and they might also call themselves ‘welfare’ or ‘conservation parks’. This means that as an outsider, it’s hard to know whether you are contributing to cruelty, or supporting an organisation that does have the animal’s best interests at heart.

If you are keen to visit Thailand and go to an elephant sanctuary – and want to make sure you visit somewhere that is actually concerned with animal welfare – there are a few key things to look out for. Make sure the elephants you see have ready access to fresh water and adequate food, shelter and a comfortable resting area, sufficient space, natural stimulation, and company of the animal’s own kind.

It’s also worth remembering that it’s not just elephants. Animals in the tourism industry the world over face abuse and mistreatment, in the name of entertainment.

Intrepid Travel (who recently phased elephant rides out of all their tours, and now work with rehabilitation and sanctuary facilities in their place) and World Animal Protection are working on a campaign to raise awareness about how tourists can travel responsibly.

If you want to find animal parks that are doing the right thing, do your research. Tourists have the power to change how the animal tourism industry operates.

It’s time to end animal exploitation for entertainment.

If you want to find out how you can stop the cruelty and abuse suffered by wild animals in entertainment, visit World Animal protection here. 

The author travelled to Thailand as a guest on Intrepid Travel, with World Animal Protection. 

If you are interested in travelling to Thailand and visiting elephant parks that do the right thing, check out Intrepid’s Chiang Mai and Elephants short break.

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