Change is coming for elephants

Posted on 16/09/2019 by Katheryn Wise

We are excited to have helped ABTA get to a place where they can truly make a difference to elephants in tourism.

Who is ABTA?

You will likely have seen the ABTA logo even if you don’t realise it. They are the largest UK travel trade association for tour operators and travel agents, supporting the travel industry with guidelines on aspects of travel from health and safety to responsible tourism. They are also one of only a very small number of travel associations who offer guidelines on animal tourism.

It is not just ABTA’s members who look to them for guidance on animal tourism, but also others outside the UK, including other travel trade associations. It’s because of this that it has been so important for us at World Animal Protection to have their Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism improved as they have the potential to make such a huge difference for animals.

So what will change for elephants?

We know that at the end of this year ABTA will publish their new animal welfare guidelines. In those new guidelines ABTA will classify any tourist contact with elephants without a barrier – including riding and bathing – as an unacceptable practice. Elephant riding is well acknowledged to be a cruel and harmful practise and we have got 245 travel brands (so far) to pledge to be elephant friendly and not offer elephant entertainment, such as rides and shows. ABTA’s new guidelines are also going to classify the bathing and washing of elephants as unacceptable. These activities are often considered to be more ethical but they actually present many of the same welfare as well as safety concerns.

Along with elephant riding and washing, elephant shows and elephants taking part in other unnatural behaviours such as painting pictures or playing football will now also be unacceptable.

Elephants are trained to perform unnatural and dangerous tricks, such as tightrope walking, for tourist shows in Thailand. World Animal Protection believes that wildlife should be left in the wild. Credit: World Animal Protection

How did we get here?

ABTA’s original Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism were published in 2013. While these standards were the first within the industry and have generated awareness on animal welfare amongst travel suppliers, they are not strong enough to provide the protection that elephants and other species need to prevent them from suffering in the name of tourist entertainment.

We have been calling for an update of the guidelines ever since. In fact we commissioned a study from the University of Surrey to see how member tour operators, wildlife experts and auditors understood them. Although ABTA is one of the very few trade associations in the world providing guidance to its members on animal welfare, researchers found that the language used in their guidelines was considered vague and inconsistent.We presented these findings in November 2018 at the World Travel Market asking for travel trade associations to step up, in particular ABTA. 

At the end of 2018, ABTA announced the start of a consultation period as the first step in updating their guidelines. Since then our experts have proposed changes and supplied strong evidence showing the cruel conditions and harmful training methods required to control elephants so that they will take part in performances and interactions involving direct contact with tourists.

Tourists take a ride on an elephant in Thailand. World Animal Protection launched a campaign to urge tourists to act responsibly on holiday, where local wildlife can be exploited for entertainment. Credit: World Animal Protection

Why is elephant entertainment unacceptable

Elephants are often used for tourist attractions. World Animal Protection’s 2017 Taken for a Ride report found that 77% of the 3,000 elephants used at tourist venues across Asia were living in ‘severely inadequate conditions’, with a clear correlation between those conditions and the activity being offered to tourists. Essentially, almost all the elephants living in severely inadequate conditions were found at venues offering elephant rides.

Whether taken from the wild or bred in captivity all elephants used for entertainment in this way will have undergone a traumatic training method known as ‘the crush’. This involves separating a young elephant calf from its mother, keeping it in isolation, depriving it of food and water, and in many cases beating it repeatedly until the animal is broken down and can be controlled by fear.

World Animal Protection have been working with a sanctuary called Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) in Chiang Rai since 2018. In July 2019 the sanctuary managed to acquire a 50 year old elephant called Zach, pictured. Credit: World Animal Protection

World Animal Protection have been working with a sanctuary called Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) in Chiang Rai since 2018. In July 2019 the sanctuary managed to acquire a 50 year old elephant called Zach (pictured), that had been used in the logging industry for 16 years. Credit: World Animal Protection / Amanda Mustard

We are building an elephant-friendly future

This update to ABTA’s elephant guidelines is a huge win for elephants and further proof that the travel industry can make change for the better. More evidence of this is the reopening of ChangChill, a former elephant riding camp in Thailand, which is now a true ‘elephant-friendly’ tourism venue. ChangChill was previously called Happy Elephant Valley and until last year offered tourists the opportunity to bathe and feed the elephants, having previously also offered elephant rides. With the encouragement from travel industry leaders the owners agreed to work with World Animal Protection to transition into an ‘elephant-friendly’ venue, which they renamed ChangChill (meaning ‘relaxed elephants’ in Thai). Here, the elephants can simply be elephants and tourists can experience this from a safe and respectful distance.

We consider ABTA’s strong stance for elephants in their upcoming guidelines as a breakthrough. They represent a great move towards a future where elephants will not be exploited and abused in the name of entertainment.