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 one of his story. Read part two here.
My first would-be interaction with wild elephants was only a few years ago. I was in Khao Yai National Park – a vast and beautiful region of Thailand just a stone’s throw from Bangkok. The two-day trip was a master class in wildlife spotting – bats, giant lizards, birds and deer darted in and out of view while we trekked and drove our way through dense jungle foliage.
We were mesmerised by the life of the jungle, but our group of eight was most looking forward to one particular wildlife close encounter: spotting wild elephants.
I remember the sun beginning to set on our second day, and a palpable excitement course through our group. This was the golden hour for elephants, our guide told us, and it was just a matter of time before the gentle giants wandered into our peripheral. All of us were squeezed into the back of a pick-up truck, oblivious to our discomfort as we rattled toward an area where elephant spotting was best.
The truck came to a halt, and we spilled out onto a quiet park road flanked by jungle. Minutes passed as our group waited silently, motionless for fear that any movement would spook the creatures still hidden in the trees. The sun was nearly beyond the horizon, and our eyes darted to our guide, whose gentle smile was beginning to give way to worry.
Suddenly the walkie on his hip crackled to life, and after a few muffled words of Thai, he urged us back into the truck. “There are elephants on the other side of the park,” he assured us, before throwing the truck into drive and speeding down the road well above the speed limit. Our cameras ready, we tumbled back out of the truck a few minutes later as our guide motioned triumphantly toward a pile of elephant droppings. While the most enthusiastic of the bunch began snapping photos, I remained in my seat, feeling dejected.
As the night fell and our hopes of seeing wild elephants evaporated, the atmosphere in my car shifted from happy anticipation to forlorn disappointment. Many knew that this would be the last time they’d ever have an opportunity to see wild elephants, and I could sense the frustration hidden behind their sad expressions.
“Did we really care about the elephants, or did we care about the photos on our camera instead?”
Yet only hours ago, these same sad faces were overcome with excitement at the prospect of experiencing elephants in the wild. Despite my own disappointment, the shift of the group’s energy made me wonder – what made international travellers react this way? If these elephants were living in peace, comfort and freedom, who were we to change things for our own amusement? Did we really care about the elephants, or did we care about the photos on our camera instead? Being part of this paradox left a bad taste in my mouth.
A few years later, I would find myself in Ayutthaya, Thailand with my wife. She had one goal in mind – to ride an elephant. We travelled to an elephant camp where dozens of tourists were queuing near a raised platform, climbing aboard an elephant for a 20-minute ride along a busy road packed with cars and trucks.
Based only on what I saw with my own two eyes, I had a gut feeling that something was off. It was hot – nearly 40 degrees in the sun – and the elephants appeared to be anything but happy. The procession seemed a million miles away from the lush national park in which I’d once hoped to see elephants in their natural habitat. If wild elephants lived hidden within the depths of a lush Thai jungle, how could this environment be appropriate for the very same creatures?
With a strange sense of discomfort, I decided not to go for a ride, and let my wife to go along without me. She jokingly dubbed me a “sustainability freak”, even though I’d never considered myself an animal welfare advocate before. To me, it wasn’t a matter of ethics or animal welfare – what lay in front of me was common sense.
My stroll around the camp solidified by discomfort. These incredible creatures were living in squalor – on extremely short chains attached to trees, swinging back and forth on their front legs like a metronome. Nearby, tourists goaded the creatures with bananas or corn, snapping selfies as the visibly concerned but powerless mahouts looked on.
“To me, it wasn’t a matter of ethics or animal welfare – what lay in front of me was common sense.”
In front of me was a prime example of supply and demand. The care of the elephants surely relied on the income of the camp, and even well-meaning tourists threw money at the opportunity to tick another item off of their bucket list by riding an elephant. Meanwhile, camp owners and mahouts gave the tourists what they wanted – knowing full-well that by doing anything less, the camp’s income (and ultimately the capital for the elephant’s care) would dry up.
A History of Struggle
I’d learn later that these incredible creatures were often veterans of the logging trade, and came from even more dire working conditions than the tourist camps. In 1989, logging was officially banned in Thailand after a series of disastrous floods that wreaked havoc on local communities. In a desperate bid to keep their gargantuan wards fed and sheltered, the out-of-work elephants’ mahouts would send them to the only place they knew they could: to the elephant camps.
With the cost of feeding a single captive elephant for one day at $30 – and with average monthly income in Thailand just under $500 caring for these creatures required one important thing: money. Despite popular belief, captive elephants are virtually impossible to release back into the wild, and require care and food throughout their 50-year life spans. The industry was faced with a dilemma – allow the elephants to die out, or provide an incentive for tourists to visit elephant camps with their vital travel dollars?
“The industry was faced with a dilemma – allow the elephants to die out, or provide an incentive for tourists to visit elephant camps with their vital travel dollars?”
Thus, the market for elephant riding was born – fueled by the well-meaning but misguided aspirations of travellers. While many camps attempted to build a larger boundary between the elephants and visitors, travel dollars most often funneled toward camps that provided the biggest “bang for the buck”. More often than not, these same camps were the ones with the worst treatment of their elephants.
But in the early 2000s, the public began waking up to the mistreatment within the elephant tourism industry. Shocked and appalled by the treatment many captive elephants endured, a flurry of elephant riding and elephant camp boycotts sprung up among the travel community. Yet, even as more informed travellers call for an end to all elephant riding, the gaps that they leave behind are quickly filled by those that either don’t know or don’t care about elephant welfare. Which leaves those committed to lasting change with an important question: how can change at a demand level really work?
Change at a Demand Level
In my work with Wild Asia, I collaborate with countless hospitality and travel brands in order to make the travel industry more responsible and sustainable. In recent years, the discussion about elephant welfare began bubbling to the surface – and around the same time, the responsible travel team at Buffalo Tours approached me with an exciting new project.
The Buffalo team was embarking on a massive and encompassing audit of all of the elephant camps that they worked with, using a lengthy set of criteria. The intention was to not only source camps that were the gold standard for elephant welfare, but also find those that were committed to making a change but needed support in doing so.
“The intention was to not only source camps that were the gold standard for elephant welfare, but also find those that were committed to making a change but needed support in doing so.”
The goal was two-fold: reward responsible camps with more business, as well as give other worthy camps the tools and incentive they needed to change their operations. By doing so, the Buffalo team hoped that they could be at the forefront of a massive change. But as a team of locals, they knew that this quantum shift must begin with discourse. Only then could they lead camp owners away from the quick win, and toward a more responsible future.
In April of 2016, I was lucky enough to visit three of Buffalo Tours’ proudest examples of change in Thailand. Throughout my visits to these three elephant camps, I learned about what change really looks like at a demand level – and about how travellers themselves play a massive part in all of it. In part two of this series, I share these lessons I learnt and how I see the future for elephants in Asia.
Be a part of the conversation online by using the hashtag #ChangeTravelChangeLives. Share your own stories and experiences with responsible travel – and follow along on my journey through the heart of change in Asia.