Elephants in captivity exposed to distressing cruelty; Study


Elephants are big business for tourism venues – offering shows, riding, bathing or using them as photo props for selfies. But these elephants in captivity are exposed to distressing cruelty at these entertainment venues, according to a report of the World Animal Protection.

The report “Elephants. Not Commodities. Taken for Ride 2” concluded that 63 per cent of the captive elephants in Asia (where the study was conducted) suffered in severely inadequate conditions at 208 venues (58 per cent venues). The researchers at the World Protection Animals assessed the conditions of 3,837 elephants at 357 venues across Asian countries from January 2019 to January 2020. The report said that only 279 (seven per cent) elephants were kept in high welfare observation only venues. The report was published on August 12, which is the World Elephant Day.

The report has looked into the plight of elephants used in tourism in India, Thailand,  Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Malaysia  and Nepal. The report looks into the living conditions, training, breeding, status of the industry and academic research with respect to welfare and conservation. World Animal Protection’s Head of Wildlife Research and Animal Welfare Dr Jan Schmidt Burbach and Lindsay Hartley Backhouse co authored the report.

The report said that the cruelty to captive elephants included separation of mothers and calves, social deprivation, restriction of movement, poor nutrition, harsh training methods, limited or no veterinary care and punishment. The elephants in most of the venues were chained for long periods when not involved in tourism activities, often in inadequate shelters featuring concrete floors and unhygienic conditions.


Nearly three quarters of captive elephants in Asia are seen in Thailand. A total of 2,798 captive elephants are found in Thailand that attracted 39.8 million tourists in 2019. The study said that about 10.9 million (28 per cent) of the tourists rode or planned to ride an elephant while on holiday in Thailand. The report notes that Thailand continues to be a hotspot for elephant suffering. In the report, the World Animal protection says that the number of captive elephants used for tourism had increased by 70 per cent in just ten years. Moreover, the country also saw a dramatic increase of 135 per cent in the number of captive elephants living in the very worst of conditions in the country between 2010 and 2020. Of the 2,798 elephants, the study said only 5 per cent were kept in high welfare conditions.


Home to the second highest number of elephants used in tourism, the report said that 44 per cent (225) of the elephants were kept in severely inadequate conditions. It said that 51 percent were housed in medium welfare venues and four per cent were kept in higher welfare conditions.


The researchers assessed 13 venues that housed 188 elephants in Lanka. The report said that 24 per cent (46 elephants) were living in severely inadequate conditions. This was in contrast to the 22 per cent (36) of elephants in 2015. They also note that 28 per cent (52) of elephants lived in high-welfare conditions at a single venue — Elephant Transit Home. It was found that Elephant Transit Home had a clear policy against elephant entertainment and the ultimate aim was to reintroduce their elephants into the natural habitat.


In the ten venues that had 64 elephants, the study said that 24 elephants (38 per cent) were living in severely inadequate conditions. Meanwhile, 27 elephants (42 per cent) were living in medium scoring venues with improved conditions.


The report said that the number of elephants at tourism venues in Nepal decreased by eight per cent between 2015 and 2020, from 155 to 143 elephants. “We also found that between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of elephants living in severely inadequate conditions decreased, and those living in improved conditions at medium welfare venues had increased. Since 2015 several smaller scale projects have been initiated that aim to provide observation-only attractions for tourists, providing higher welfare to a few elephants,” the report said.


In Laos, they assessed 11 venues with 105 elephants. The number of venues increased by 83 per cent and the number of elephants by 78 percent since 2015, the report said. The researchers said that found 48 per cent elephants living in severely inadequate conditions and 15 per cent living in improved conditions. They noted that more elephants were living in better conditions during 2019–2020.

Meanwhile, Global Head of Wildlife at World Animal Protection Audrey Mealia said elephant-loving tourists that want that ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity, are fuelling demand for a mammoth sized problem that causes unthinkable cruelty behind the scenes, even if they don’t realise.”

“These intelligent, sociable, creatures are the victims of a trade that exploits them in their thousands. Tourists need to know the truth – any elephant that you can get close enough to touch, is an elephant that’s been subjected to horrific abuse for this use,” said Audrey Mealia.

“It’s not just riding and circus-style shows that involve suffering – it’s the bathing and selfie opportunities that you might find at so-called ‘sanctuaries’, ‘orphanages’ or ‘rescue centers’. This isn’t innocent fun. This is cruelty,” said Audrey Mealia.

Training cruelty – lasts a lifetime

The report said that the methods used for training included calves put in a ‘crush’ – two heavy, wooden frames – to stop them moving, chaining, prodding and hitting them. It said that similar or variations of these training methods are used throughout Asia, but the cruelty of them is frequently denied or underplayed by venues and trainers.

Breeding matters  

Though several venues say that they keep and breed elephants for conservation purposes, the report said that the elephants kept in tourist venues are unlikely to be released in the wild. It noted that most of the captive elephants in Thailand are bred for commercial tourism. Across most of Asia, elephants are commodities and legally traded as livestock and are priced as high as an expensive car. It also notes that more captive elephant breeding was likely to happen in 2020 and beyond as owners try to mitigate the economic effects of Covid-19.

Changing tourist attitudes

In the report, the World Animal Protection says that the attitude of tourists have changed in a drastic way. It said that the public became more aware of animal welfare issues. They noted that more tourists from China visited Thailand than from any other country. An elephant ride was usually on the bucket lists of many. “However, from 2016 to 2019, there has been a decrease: 23% of Chinese tourists took part in elephant rides in 2019 compared to 36% in 2016,” the report said.

The World Animal Protection in its report has made the following suggestions;

  • Reduce the number of captive elephants used for commercial tourism
  • Decrease demand for captive elephant tourism entertainment attractions
  • Improve conditions for the current generation of captive tourism elephants and their caretakers.
  • Governments must prevent captive breeding and the intake of any wild elephants for commercial use. They should also support transitions to high-welfare observation-only venues.
  • Travel companies and individual travellers should choose to only promote and visit elephant-friendly venues offering observation-only experiences, or choose to observe elephants responsibly in the wild.
  • Mahouts must be part of the improvements to venues and to elephant welfare. They need better employment packages and living conditions. They also need career development that will take them beyond the lifespan of the elephant in their care.


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