The best way to help improve the lives of captive animals is to do your homework, writes Julie Miller.
At Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital, near Chiang Mai in north Thailand, I meet Mosha. She is the recipient of the world's first prosthetic elephant leg. Her front leg was blown off by a landmine when she was only seven months old. Now aged eight, she will never be able to roam free, but she has mobility and quality of care, thanks to the continued support of generous tourists and operators such as Intrepid.
The Asian elephant has had a relationship with humans since the Bronze Age. They have been captured from the wild and used as a beast of burden, for transportation and as a partner in war. Thailand has a close association with the elephant - it is a national symbol, integral to its history, culture and religion.
But even in this south-east Asian kingdom where the elephant is revered, Asia's largest land mammal is in crisis. Less than 100 years ago, Thailand's jungles teemed with about 300,000 wild elephants, with another 100,000 in captivity. Today there are an estimated 2500 living in the wild, with that number threatened by habitat loss and poaching.
Of Thailand's 4000 captive elephants (elephants are theoretically not "domesticated", having never undergone selective breeding), 95 per cent are today employed by the tourism industry. There are about 108 elephant camps, sanctuaries, government elephant facilities and hotels that keep elephants for tourist purposes, including trekking, shows and entertainment.
Many of these elephants once hauled logs in the forests; but when logging was banned in 1989, it seemed they had been given a reprieve. Instead of hours of backbreaking, cruel work, they carried adoring tourists on seemingly benign walks, or painted, played "music" and kicked balls around.
Look an elephant in the eye, and there's no doubting you are in the presence of a sentient being. Studies have proven that the giants of the animal kingdom are among the most intelligent of mammals, able to solve problems, use tools, and with an elevated self-awareness. They are playful, form strong social bonds and are capable of genuine empathy, even mourning their dead. They are also the most forgiving of souls, continuing to work placidly for their captors, despite their obvious advantage in size and strength.
Yet our concept of conservation and animal welfare has evolved over the years and now many people feel increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of supporting establishments exploiting animals as entertainment.
Questions are being asked about the quality of elephants' lives in trekking camps, of their confinement by chains, long working hours and methods of training the animals.
There is also a suggestion, supported by a recent report by wildlife monitors TRAFFIC, that elephants are being poached from the wild in neighbouring Burma to prop up the Thai tourist industry. Therein lies the elephant in the room, as it were: in our desire to have an "experience" with elephants, are we, as tourists, inadvertently contributing to their ill-treatment?
After conducting a study several years ago in conjunction with conservation group World Animal Protection (WAP, formerly WSPA) examining establishments in Thailand that keep wildlife for entertainment purposes, Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel - whose mantra is "responsible travel" - made the bold decision to cut elephant riding from its itineraries in south-east Asia.
"There were about 120 places around Thailand that used animals, and very few of those existed in a way that was beneficial for the animals," says Geoff Manchester, founder of Intrepid Travel. "We then decided we would stop using elephants in our type of tourism and gradually reduced elephant riding from our trips.
Led by veterinarian and wildlife researcher Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach, the Intrepid study graded elephant camps according to five pillars of animal welfare: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain and injury, freedom to express normal behaviour and freedom from distress. Sadly, only about six establishments made the grade, keeping their animals in conditions that did not compromise the animals' health and well-being.
Rather than cut interaction with elephants from its tours altogether, Intrepid focuses on two places that Schmidt-Burbach's study deemed acceptable: the Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital in Lampang, and Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Both these establishments reveal the tragic side of human/elephant interaction, with the hospital treating victims of injury and landmine attacks, and ENP providing a haven for neglected and abused elephants.
For the animals fortunate enough to be rescued by these sanctuaries, there is a happy ending. "Tourists can choose to visit establishments that treat elephants in a way that is humane where elephants have a good life, and it will be sustainable well into the future," Manchester says. "Intrepid Travel is the first global tour operator to stop using elephant entertainment on its trips. We hope this is a start of a trend and that other companies follow suit and change the way that elephants are used in tourism."
Elephants, of course, are expensive to keep, hoovering 200 kilograms of food each day. The bottom line for most owners is financial - how to best make a living - and for this reason, John Roberts, from Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, cautions against a blanket ban on elephant tourism.
"The problem is that when people boycott the good camps, the mahouts have no choice but to seek an income at the bad camps," Roberts says.
"I've been part of and have been watching the Thai elephant tourism industry for 11 years now and I can tell you, despite the effective marketing of self-appointed sanctuaries (and I include ourselves in this even though we don't use the word), by far the largest growth area is trekking for "new", non-English speaking markets that are not yet educated about welfare and are looking for the cheapest possible ride. This is not good for the elephants as they end up overworked, underfed and have none of their emotional needs met."
With education and time, however, the winds of change will take effect. By supporting venues that provide better welfare to their animals, others will be pressured to improve their conditions.
For those who really do want to experience a jungle trek on an elephant, there are ethical options, John Roberts believes. "Trekking can be done well - it is not inherently harmful," he says. "Look for a camp that limits working time, has the land to give elephants forest grazing and browsing areas when they're not working, and gives elephants the chance to interact with one another.
"Most importantly for the survival of the species, always check that your camp or sanctuary does not buy elephants - buying elephants we have seen time and time again (and the recent TRAFFIC report shows) leads to elephants being taken from the wild and that, for the species and for the forest, is the worst possible outcome."
Tourism can make a positive change. By directing money towards companies with sustainable business models, we can ensure elephants in captivity are cared for in the best way possible. Those looking for rewarding interaction with wild animals can also view them in their wild, natural habitat.
"If you don't like the idea of captive elephants, support the community tourism initiatives that are growing up around Khao Yai or Kui Buri National Parks and go to see truly wild elephants, roaming totally free where they are meant to be," Roberts says. "They'll be performing their ecosystem services and, by keeping your spending in the local communities, you'll be helping to keep the wild elephants safe and wild by providing an incentive to people whose fields are regularly raided to stay friends with elephants."
The writer travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.
FIVE MORE WAYS YOU CAN HELP
FREE THE BEARS SANCTUARIES, CAMBODIA, LAOS AND INDIA
Australian wildlife charity Free the Bears funds sanctuaries that house sun and moon bears rescued from the bile industry in Cambodia and Laos. See freethebears.org.au
BABY SLOTH SANCTUARY, COSTA RICA
The facility offers tours of the baby sloth hospital as well as overnight accommodation. See slothsanctuary.com
DAVID SHELDRICK WILDLIFE TRUST, KENYA
This sanctuary has hand-raised more than 150 orphaned baby elephants and rhinos, reintegrating them back into wild herds. See sheldrickwildlifetrust.org
SEPILOK ORANGUTAN REHABILITATION CENTRE, MALAYSIA
This sanctuary in Sabah rescues and rehabilitates orang-utans orphaned as a result of deforestation. It takes seven years of care to rehabilitate them back into the wild. See orangutan-appeal.org.uk
MAHSEER CONSERVANCY, INDIA
This NGO based in Uttarakhand is dedicated to wildlife conservation in Corbett National Park. See maheerconservancy.com
Thai Airways has daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Bangkok, with transfers to Chiang Mai. Phone 1300 651 960, see thaiairways.com.au.
Intrepid Travel incorporate visits to the Elephant Nature Park and FAE Hospital in several itineraries, including it eight-day Explore Northern Thailand trip, priced from $803 a person. See intrepidtravel.com. For a guide to what to look for when visiting a venture with wild animals, see worldanimalprotection.org.au.
Watch a video from Intrepid Travel about efforts to protect elephants in Thailand here.