Last year, Buffalo Tours launched an ambitious initiative to tackle an important issue: the welfare of captive elephants in Asia. Coming from a long history in logging, many elephants now live in captivity within tourism camps whose main income is elephant riding – a practice that raises important questions about animal welfare. As leaders in responsible travel, Buffalo Tours completed an encompassing review of our tours to establish strict welfare standards, with the ambition to phase out riding in the future.
A year on, we invited Nicolas Dubrocard of WildAsia on a visit a collection of camps to shed light on the issue, our initiative and the future of captive elephants in Asia. Go behind-the-scenes with him for a closer look at our steps toward lasting change. This is part two of his story. Read part one here.
My relationship with Buffalo Tours began in early 2014 , at the very beginning of one of their most challenging responsible travel initiatives to date: an elephant camp audit. Until that point, Buffalo had included a number of visits to elephant camps in their itineraries – but a greater understanding of the welfare issues in many elephant camps made the need for an encompassing audit essential.
The audit wasn’t just difficult because of its scope – more than three dozen camps – but also because of its depth. The team planned to test each camp’s operations against a list of 81 points, each delving into the welfare, safety and care standards of the camp. The goal was to keep the camps that were committed to ethical operations and changes – and cut ties with those that weren’t. My role was to help them fine-tune that criteria to make the very most of the initiative.
The audit was completed in 2015 after over a year of tireless and painstaking work – work that was the catalyst for wonderful changes happening within many camps. That’s when the Buffalo team reached out to me – this time to help them tell their story.
The team invited me to accompany them on visits to a collection of camps that had passed the audit, and had an important story to tell. Their goal was to prove how mutual respect, dialogue and commitment to lasting change was the way forward in improving the welfare of captive elephants in Asia. So in early 2016, my journey with the team began with a visit to three camps – each with a unique story of change.
Phang Nga Elephant Park
Phang Nga, Thailand
As soon as I arrived at Phang Nga Elephant Park, I could sense that this camp was leading big changes. Opened only a year prior, this park was unique mostly because of its location – deep within nature and far from civilisation. Large, lush trees kept the area shaded and calm and a mere 10 elephants called the camp home.
One of the resident elephants at Phang Nga Elephant Park
The owner himself rescued three of the camp’s elephants directly from the logging trade, in the hopes that he could provide better living standards for all of them. He also studied in the UK, and carried with him a deep understanding of what foreign travellers were looking for in elephant experiences and how to care for elephants more humanely. In the operations of the camp, this understanding was apparent.
Unlike many camps, he had created a unique electrified fence area that allowed for the elephants to roam freely without chains – a system that was later adopted in many other camps. The mahouts live on-site and have deep connections with the elephants – with the chief mahout having over three decades of experience.
But beyond just the environment, the way in which elephants here interacted with visitors was a winning combination. Combining a short 20-minute ride with more relaxed feeding and bathing sessions, a significant portion of the experience is centred upon interaction rather than riding. Soon, it might be possible for visitors to interact with the elephants while skipping riding entirely – but the demand to ride still exists and often dictates the direction of a camp’s operations.
“Soon, it might be possible for visitors to interact with the elephants while skipping riding entirely – but the demand to ride still exists and often dictates the direction of a camp’s operations.”
Phang Nga Elephant Park was different in that the management of the camp was intrinsically involved in the operations, and sought a deeper understand of how (and why) elephant shows and riding drew crowds. By shifting the focus away from performance and developing a system that showcased learning instead, Phang Nga Elephant Park is at the forefront of the industry’s evolution.
These camps are so nearly there, but it will take a final push from visitors to create demand for interaction that isn’t riding. With the changes made in the operations of this camp – and helping mahouts lead that change while educating visitors to do the same – the change is certainly possible.
Sealand Phuket Camp
Close to Phang Nga City, Sealand Phuket Camp was reached via a breathtaking drive through jungle and beside sheer cliffs. The experience we were in for included both elephants and a river rafting excursion. When we arrived, we’d meet four elephants – all of which had come from a village nearby.
In this village, the elephants were considered much like family members, living in very close connection with their owners. Most had come from the logging trade, but after it was made illegal in the early 1990s, the families who cared for these creatures turned to tourism as a way to feed and care for the animals.
“In this village, the elephants were considered much like family members, living in very close connection with their owners.”
The income from Sealand Phuket was perhaps the only reason these families could afford to keep the elephants of whom were now unable to simply be released back into the wild. The income supported these small local communities, and offered another option beyond “renting” their elephants to unfamiliar mahouts – a practice that too often leads to abuse.
A feeding session at Sealand Camp
But the stand-out element of this camp was its evolution over the past few years. If you had visited this camp only a year prior, it would have appeared to be an entirely different environment. Visitors used to be greeted by a baby male elephant upon arrival – but the elephant has since been reunited with its mother. This came shortly after the Buffalo team stressed the importance of it being with its mother until at least five years of age.
And not long ago, the camp also had close ties with cruel animal attractions well out of line with Buffalo’s responsible travel policy. A frank and productive discussion with management highlighted how important it was to cut these ties – and the promise of continued work with Buffalo Tours prompted the removal of promotion of these unethical animal attractions.
“The cooperation fostered a lasting connection that has prompted the creation of new touring options – most of which include no riding, and very intimate and respectful interaction with elephants and mahouts one-on-one.”
It was here that I realized the profound effect that mutual respect and understanding can have on the prospect of lasting change. Had Buffalo simply cut all ties with Sealand after its initial audit – and not made an effort to urge changes – the camp would likely be operating in the very same way it had in the past, replacing Buffalo clients with those of other, less vigilant companies.
Instead, the cooperation fostered a lasting connection that has prompted the creation of new touring options – most of which include no riding, and very intimate and respectful interaction with elephants and mahouts one-on-one. It’s this that demonstrates how changing the hearts and minds of camp management is the real way forward in changing elephant welfare for the better.
Sai Yoke Elephant Haven
I’d experienced so many fascinating things during my visits to these camps, but the most inspiring visit was my very last – in Kanchanaburi Thailand at Sai Yoke Elephant Haven. At this camp, the past few years had hosted a tectonic shift in its operations. Once a hub for mass tourism – 500+ visitors daily swarming in to watch elephant shows and go on elephant rides – the camp was now a far cry from its mass tourism past.
Following a visit to Elephant National Park in Chiang Mai, the team here was inspired by Miss Lek, a woman who had pioneered a method of elephant handling that required no chains or hooks. In collaboration with Buffalo Tours, Sai Yoke Elephant Haven returned to change the way their camp was run. Elephant shows were discontinued, riding was removed from all touring options and the focus for visitors’ experiences shifted from hollow interaction to deep, purposeful learning.
“Elephant shows were discontinued, riding was removed from all touring options and the focus for visitors’ experiences shifted from hollow interaction to deep, purposeful learning.”
Now, visitors spend an entire day cutting watermelon to feed the elephants, walking alongside the elephants and their mahouts through the forest, and watching them bathe in the river. All the while, the mahouts carry no hooks and direct the elephants using only speech – a rare and inspiring thing to witness in Thailand.
Roaming elephants at Sai Yoke Elephant Camp
But the risky change for the camp’s operation was not out of the woods. With the changes, the numbers of tourists plummeted, and the camp is now in dire financial need to continue operating in this manner. It’s examples like this that demonstrate how important it is for travellers to research their travel decisions – and work with companies that have strong standards with which they create itineraries. Only then will camps operating to this degree of integrity be rewarded in visitors – and their travel dollars that are crucial for the care of the elephants.
The takeaway here is most certainly the power of demand, and how we as travellers hold the cards for supporting lasting change.
The Future of Elephants – and our responsibility
Change is happening for elephants throughout Asia. Camps and sanctuaries are waking up to the importance of welfare – and this is happening because of people like you. Travellers and the companies that serve them are the ones that hold the power in changing the future of Asia’s captive elephants. But too often, we give into anger more often than we try to incite change.
Change – much like respect – is earned. If the goal is to help elephants throughout Asia live in peace and comfort, then we must understand the role of tourism in that goal. Asia’s captive elephants need money for their care – but the source of that money depends on us. By choosing to support those who value ethical treatment of their elephants, we create a demand for kindness.
“In the end, this will create lasting change that boycotts and a refusal of dialogue will never manage. Bringing out the best in people takes patience and respect – two things that are crucial to the future of Asia’s elephants.”
For travel companies, the goal is two-fold – reward those that operate with strong focus on welfare, and help those who are willing to change for the better. In the end, this will create lasting change that boycotts and a refusal of dialogue will never manage. Bringing out the best in people takes patience and respect – two things that are crucial to the future of Asia’s elephants.
It was an eye-opening experience with Buffalo Tours – and their successes are a good omen for Asian elephants’ future. This is just the beginning of the changes we all hope to see in Asia – and a change that your next journey can be a part of making a reality.
By working with Buffalo Tours’ travel experts, you can rest assured that any interaction with elephants has passed a strict audit for welfare. Ask our experts to tell you more about our elephant policy, and to help you select a location where you can create lasting memories responsibly and ethically.