Thousands of elephants exploited for tourism held in cruel conditions

Press release

Countries in Asia continue to grow the captive elephant industry for elephant rides and performances to meet irresponsible tourist demands.

06 July – A new report released by international animal welfare charity World Animal Protection reveals that more than three quarters of nearly three thousand elephants used in tourist entertainment in Asia are kept in severely cruel conditions.

Riding an elephant is one of the most popular tourist activities in Asia. World Animal Protection investigated the conditions endured by 2,923 elephants at tourist venues in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Laos and Cambodia, and found that 77% of them were treated appallingly.

Thailand is the main concern using twice as many elephants in tourism than all the other Asian countries combined. Tourism to Thailand doubled from 15.9 million to 32.6 million visitors between 2010 and 2016, contributing to a 30% rise (1,688 to 2,198) in elephants held in captivity for tourist activities. The research also found that several venues in Thailand cater to thousands of visitors daily, generating estimated profits of tens of thousands of dollars per month from exploiting Asian elephants - an endangered species.

When not giving rides or performing, elephants are typically chained day and night, most of the time to chains less than 3m long. They are also fed poor diets, given limited veterinary care and are frequently kept on concrete floors in stressful locations near loud music, roads or visitor groups.

These conditions take no account of the elephants’ intelligence, behaviours and needs and follow the severe trauma endured by elephants in their early years. This is caused by separation from their mothers and harsh training regimes to break their spirits and make them submissive enough to give rides and perform.

Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach, Global Wildlife and Veterinary Advisor at World Animal Protection, said:

“The cruel trend of elephants used for rides and shows is growing - we want tourists to know that many of these elephants are taken from their mothers as babies, forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions throughout their life. 

“There is an urgent need for tourist education and regulation of wildlife tourist attractions worldwide. Venues that offer tourists a chance to watch elephants in genuine sanctuaries are beacons of hope that can encourage the urgently-needed shift in the captive elephant tourism industry.” 

Since 2005, the charity has been campaigning to improve the welfare of elephants and a study on tourist attitudes in 2017 has seen a 9% drop in the number of people who find elephant riding acceptable compared to three years ago.

In 2014, the charity revealed that 53% of people felt that riding an elephant was acceptable and 40% found it unacceptable, compared to 2017, when only 44% thought elephant riding was acceptable and 49% found it unacceptable.

Most tourists sign up for experiences with elephants because they love wild animals and don’t know about the cruelty behind the rides, tricks and photo opportunities – if people knew the facts, then they wouldn’t do it. The best place to see an elephant is in the wild or, in the next best place, a genuine elephant sanctuary.

Notes to editors

For images, b-roll or an interview with Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach, please contact International Media Team: mediateam@worldanimalprotection.org / +44 (0)20 7239 0500

About the report

This World Animal Protection report documents the conditions endured by nearly 3,000 elephants used in tourist venues across Asia. 220 venues were surveyed between late 2014 and mid-2016, including all venues that could be identified in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and a representative selection of venues in India. It follows World Animal Protection’s first survey in 2010 covering the conditions of elephants in entertainment in Thailand, called Wildlife on a Tightrope.

Global research on consumer attitudes

A new poll survey was commissioned to obtain insights into tourists visiting animal entertainment establishments. The poll was conducted in 12 countries using a sample size of 1,000 people in each country. The poll took place between 12-16 January 2017.

Travel companies

World Animal Protection has helped to secure over 160 global travel companies to commit to stop elephant rides and show. Most recently TUI Care Foundation and World Animal Protection joined forces to protect about 1500 Asian elephants in captivity by 2020. With this partnership, the development of welfare-friendly example venues will be supported so tourists can experience wildlife responsibly. The two organisations hope to establish a benchmark for best-practices in the region and enable expansion of those models to other venues. While focused mainly in Thailand, this initiative is aimed at five other key countries reaching the largest part of captive Asian elephants’ population: Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.

Tourist attitudes around the world

While people want to see an end to animals suffering for entertainment, attitudes vary about what is acceptable:

  • There has been a 9% drop in the number of people who find elephant riding acceptable compared with three years ago. In 2014, 53% of those surveyed felt that going on an elephant ride was acceptable and 40% found it unacceptable. In 2017, only 44% thought elephant riding was acceptable and 49% found it unacceptable.
  • The acceptability of watching a show or performance with wild animals also declined – with 54% of people now finding this unacceptable. The acceptability dropped from 45% to 40%, and the unacceptability rose from 48% to 54%.
  • More than 80% of people thing that wild animals belong in the wild, and would prefer to see them in this way.  A large majority (77% in 2014, 76% in 2017) think that people should not make an income from keeping animals for entertainment if the animals suffer.
  • There is a small increase in the number of people who think that if the only way to see wild animals up close is to see them in captivity, it should not be allowed (44% in 2014, 47% in 2017).
  • Almost two thirds of people disagree that wild animal performance should be preserved if it is part of the local culture, even if it involves animal suffering.
  • There’s a strong expectation (85% in 2014, 83% in 2017) that tour operators should avoid activities that cause suffering for wild animals, and around 60% of people would avoid tour operators that failed to live up to this expectation.