Captive Elephant Welfare Assessment and Guidelines Initiative

The treatment and use of captive elephants is very much an ethical concern in today’s tourism industry. The rapid growth over the last 25 years in tourism’s demand for interaction with elephants across Asia, coupled with a severe lack of adequate government regulations, has resulted in poor treatment of these animals while exposing practices that inflict unnecessary pain and suffering.

With over 3,000 years of captive elephant history – and given that there are over 10,000 captive elephants in Asia – it is important to establish scientific facts, respect for local culture, and lay down solid foundations that ensure the welfare of captive elephants – as well as their traditional mahouts. Despite calls for action from various animal rights groups, their one-sided approach does not present achievable solutions or look at long-term sustainability. The truth of the matter is that the majority of elephants born and raised in captivity cannot simply be returned to the wild, and will always require professional care throughout their long lives – a huge expense that must somehow be met.

Even with very clear laws and regulations on wild elephant populations worldwide, the illegal wildlife trade and trafficking of body parts, lack of protected natural habitat areas and human-elephant conflict, continue to endanger wild herds even in this day and age.

We believe that responsible tourism and correct practices encouraging elephant experiences of the highest standard are the most immediate, viable solutions. We believe that more can be done by engaging stakeholders to seek holistic improvements and setting standards across the industry that actually protect captive elephants and ensure their welfare, rather than staging boycotts or signing pledges. Hard work and hard choices based on scientific facts, balancing the interest of individual elephants, the mahouts, and the conservation of the Asian elephant, are required by all involved.   

PATA in partnership with Travelife for Tour Operators and the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) has therefore initiated a process to establish a widely supported set of standards and criteria as a guideline and reference for elephant camps. The so-called Elephant Camp Animal Welfare and Sustainability Standard and Assessment Initiative will provide tour operators as well as their clients, with an ethical choice.

The standard

The standard takes into account international standards including the ABTA animal welfare guidance and the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) principles. In addition, many elephant experts have commented on the standard in their individual capacity. Based on a careful process, a final draft of the standard was agreed in 2017. The standard includes more than 160 criteria divided over seven themes and 24 sub-themes and provides detailed guidelines for the camps – covering not only the elephants but also the staff, mahouts and business practices in the camps – as an external assessor. Currently, more than 30 elephant facilities from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Malaysia, and Indonesia are under assessment.

Elephant camps that follow the highest of standards treat their elephants in the best possible manner and are committed towards a process of permanent improvement. The scientifically based guidelines cover, for example, subjects such as cruelty-free practices, new positive reinforcement training techniques, closely monitored and regulated working times, rest periods throughout the day – ideally in a forested area to socialize, relax, bathe and more. Good camps have veterinarians on staff, and/or provide regular health checks. Elephants are not tied up with chains of lengths less than two meters for prolonged periods of time. Such camps work with local communities providing jobs, marketing local handicrafts and purchasing local supplies to ensure everyone benefits. Camps promoting best practices also actively support and engage in research and conservation projects protecting animals in the wild. Any interaction between elephants and tourists is conducted based on scientific standards, not compromising the welfare of the elephants or endangering humans. Most importantly, all good camps’ elephants are registered with the relevant government department, complete with DNA testing to ensure no wild stocks are being poached or added to the captive population. The assessment investigates all such factors to ensure standards set by leading experts are being met and improved.

Supporting Tour Operators and DMCs

From the start, Khiri Travel has been heavily involved in this initiative providing finances, manpower and industry experience. We will continue to encourage and support this initiative along with others in the tourism industry – which includes a growing number of Asian tour operators and private stakeholders in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Indonesia – with more joining next year.

When you travel with the tour operators supporting this initiative you can, therefore, be assured that any elephant experience suggested is being held to the highest of international standards and practices. In this way, we believe we are contributing to the protection and preservation of elephants in Asia. We wish to set the standards that can then be adopted by ASEAN and other regional governments to eventually implement as law and be enforced – thus creating the first-ever regulations for captive elephants and their welfare in the region.

The DMCs and tour operators involved in this initiative will also no longer work with any elephant camp that refuses to be audited or assessed, as complete transparency is needed into all aspects of the operations in order to gage and ensure responsible practices are indeed in place. Thus, financial gains are directed to those working on improving and ensuring the long-term welfare of their captive elephants and staff and not to those operating unethically, or purely for profit under false pretenses.

So yes, elephants in captivity are an ethical concern under current circumstances, but by working together and using tourism as a powerful tool in the right way, we can ensure the long-term survival of thousands of captive elephants throughout Asia and provide clients with an inspiring experience, while improving the lives of all involved and preserving local culture and heritage