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Viral Images Of Elephants Being Mistreated Reignites Debate

Warning: GRAPHIC CONTENT

Elephant tourism. It's one of the most popular tourist activities in countries across Asia and Africa, bringing in huge revenue for organisations who allow visitors to ride, feed and bathe with the creatures.

But a recent series of photos uploaded by Facebook user Patong Beach has reignited the debate over the practice, with hundreds of thousands sharing what appears to show elephants being severely abused.

Animal welfare organisations have been advocating against elephant tourism for years and say the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity offered is only possible because of cruel training regimes.

World Animal Protection is leading the push and said elephants are one of the main animals caught up in the wildlife tourism industry.

But Senior Campaign Manager Australia New Zealand, Ben Pearson said the answer isn't as simple as shutting down the industry altogether, because of concerns over local employment and what would become of the elephants.

An elephant who was abused for 50 years before being rescued. Image: Wildlife SOS/Barcroft India via Getty Images.

The organisation lobbies the industry directly, with more than 200 travel companies now committing to stop selling elephant rides and shows. 

"We are trying to prove that tourists will still go to Thailand and see elephants where they can't actually touch them and ride them," Pearson told 10 daily.

Pearson explained that Thailand is the "epicentre" of the industry, but nearly 3,000 elephants were used in entertainment tourism across Asia, the vast majority of which live in severely inadequate conditions.

Image: World Animal Protection

Alarmingly, the number of elephants at tourist venues in Thailand saw a 30 percent increase between 2010-2015, according to a World Animal Protection report.

That's despite a nine percent global decline in the acceptability of elephant riding, according to the same study.

'The Crush'

Pearson said one of the key ways organisations can move away from cruel elephant tourism is to only allow interaction from a distance.

He explained that this went beyond solely elephant riding, and extended to washing and bathing activities.

He said parks, where countless tourists are allowed to interact physically with the elephants is usually a sign the animals have been through cruel training to make it "safe" to do so.

This process is referred to among animal advocates as "The Crushing", and involves the elephant being taken from its mother at a young age and put through a brutal routine until it's scared of its handler.

"With any wild animal there is a general rule of thumb: if you can touch it, hold it, take a photo with it or ride it, then that animal has probably endured cruelty".

Kelly Borg from Perth said she visited a Bali sanctuary in 2014 which claimed to be "super ethical" with rescued elephants from across Asia.

She said while the elephants roamed freely, the park was packed with tourists who were offered elephant riding through water and forests.

Image: World Animal Protection.

"I got a little bit manipulated into thinking that they were super 100 percent ethical," Borg told 10 daily.

"I do believe that the [the owner] cares for them but he's obviously monetising off that for tourists".

She said while she didn't ride the elephants herself she saw they were rotated so one wasn't taking rides or in the water for an entire day.

Borg said she remembered the adult elephants were also chained up at night but said she was unsure if this may have been for safety reasons.

Image: World Animal Protection

Pearson told 10 daily sometimes elephants were chained up for their own comfort after suffering years of abuse.

"You're talking about elephants that have been rescued from entertainment venues... you're dealing with animals that have been broken and treated to a lifetime of cruelty," Pearson explained.

Heading In the Right Direction

Borg told 10 daily that she had no desire to go back to a sanctuary.

"I think I was a little bit naive and believed that it was all 100 percent ethical, now that I'm a bit older and know more, I'm not convinced it was".

Travel company G Adventures is one company which has banned tours to elephant parks which allow riding and physical interaction.

Image: World Animal Protection

Global Purpose Specialist Steph Beard said it was part of the company's commitment to responsible travel and Animal Welfare Guidelines, which have been acknowledged and endorsed by Jane Goodall.

The company now prohibits activities where wild animals interact with humans in an 'unnatural way', including elephants, tigers and monkeys.

"The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive," Beard told 10 daily.

"There's been a real shift in travelling mentality in the last couple of years... people are becoming more conscious of decisions they're making while travelling".

She said while seeing elephants is on many people's bucket lists, riding one was not necessary to enhance their holiday.

"We really encourage people to think of the knock-on effect of what they are doing".

She said tourists who are serious about ethical animal encounters should look out for the five freedoms, including that the animals are free from hunger, thirst, discomfort, pain, disease, fear and stress.

Image: World Animal Protection

Pearson said it was also handy to look for travel companies that had signed the "elephant pledge".

"Only go to places where they are not offering you direct interaction and be aware of words like 'sanctuary or conservation,'" Pearson said.

He said park owners now use those terms to bait misinformed tourists.

World Animal Protection lists parks which have been found to treat animals well and urge anyone who has visited a sanctuary they believe may be mistreating elephants to contact them

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Featured Image: World Animal Protection

Contact the author: vgerova@networkten.com.au