The owner of the Pang Chang Kamala Elephant Camp in Thailand bought six young elephants to entertain Chinese tourists. The camp offers elephant rides and elephant showers. The Thai government expects around five million Chinese tourists this year.
There are over 3000 elephants used for tourism in Thailand. Almost all captive elephants in the country are privately owned. The collapse of tourism during the pandemic meant owners could no longer look after their elephants. But tourists are returning to Thailand, and camps are getting their elephants ready to entertain humans again.
Because it’s been well documented by animal welfare organizations how elephants are tamed –elephant crushing– and how they are treated at camps, some foreign visitors have decided not to support the industry. Some travelling agencies in North America and Europe don’t promote elephant camps which include riding or bathing.
But most tourists from China and India often have elephant rides or baths in their travel packages when they visit Thailand.
“We’ve even created and added more programs such as elephant care for tourists that don’t want animals to be chained up or use the hook,” the owner of Pang Chang Kamala Elephant Camp, Wittaya Taweeros, told news agency Reuters with a bullhook on his shoulder.
A bullhook is a stick with a sharpened metal tip used at elephant entertainment camps to poke elephants when they don’t do what humans want.
The wild population of elephants in Thailand has declined from around 100,000 a century ago to only 3,000-4,000 today. In the past, elephants were captured for the logging industry, but when that was banned, they started being used to entertain tourists; elephants were trained to carry humans, take baths from them and sometimes even do tricks.
The UK-based animal rights group World Animal Protection (WAP) estimates that elephants brought in up to $770 million a year for Thailand before the pandemic.
WAP and other animal rights groups are campaigning against elephant entertainment because it is unnatural and always involves cruel training techniques.
According to the Thai Elephant Alliance Association, which represents elephant owners, riding elephants can be part of a system for taking care of them. “They get to go to different places, going to a waterfall, for example, where they can drink the best quality water, or swimming there,” Theerapat Trungprakan, who heads the organization, told news media BBC.
“The ideal scenario would be having elephants semi-wild, like we keep them here, in large natural enclosures where they can hang around, bathe, run or forage for food, as they would in nature,” Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, said.
He realized that it would be an expensive project to offer all 3000 captive elephants in Thailand a semi-wild home. Camps should focus more on offering tourists the chance to see elephants in a semi-wild environment rather than touching them, Wienk said.