In the west, however, there can sometimes be a tendency to look at this complicated situation and boil it down to misleading moral absolutes. Led by animal rights groups like PETA and World Animal Protection (WAP) and fueled by legions of social-media followers, movements agitate international tour companies and tourists, urging them to immediately boycott elephant riding altogether. “Elephant rides are archaic and cruel,” reads a recent PETA blog post, “and they offer no benefit whatsoever to the ever-shrinking population of these endangered animals.”
Plotnik calls the movement to ban elephant rides “extremely misguided,” in that it provides no scalable alternatives for elephants or their owners. Elephants need to eat 250 kilos per day and cost owners approximately $1,000 per month to house and feed. Without tourism, these elephants would have nowhere to go and no one to pay for their fodder.
“PETA advises compassionate tourists not to patronize any establishment that profits in any way from elephant captivity,” said PETA spokesperson Heather Rally in an email, insisting that all elephants should be living freely in nature, or in “proper sanctuaries” with “vast acreage” to roam and no direct human contact. But when I asked her how this could be physically or financially possible, she offered no concrete answers.
“All elephants belong in the wild, but unfortunately, that’s just not the current state of reality,” says Plotnik.
PETA and WAP galvanize supporters by repeatedly disseminating and describing the same two or three undated video clips of unidentified Asian men brutally beating elephants. Lair asserts that this kind of footage, while excruciating to watch, represents the worst minority, not the norm. Abuse—and more often neglect and improper care—does happen, he says, and this is a problem, but to say that all captive elephants are tortured is “simply not true.”
To the contrary, many mahouts develop deep, lifelong bonds with their elephants, as they have for centuries. “Inexperienced mahouts use their strength to punish elephants, make them afraid, and force behavior,” said Preecha Phaungkum, one of Thailand's foremost elephant veterinarians, in an interview with Thai magazine Sarakadee. “The best mahout will not only establish love, but have the elephant respect him as much as he respects the elephant.”
While scientists and conservationists I spoke with expressed mixed feelings on the ethics of elephant rides, all pointed out that there is a great deal of misinformation being spread about them. “It’s a shame when we throw the good science out for hysteria,” says Linda Reifschneider, the president of the U.S. nonprofit Asian Elephant Support. “But hysteria brings in a lot of money.”
Chatchote Thitaram, a veterinarian and the director of Chiang Mai University’s Center for Excellence in Elephant Research and Education, worries that setting arbitrary boundaries like banning rides obfuscates the more critical indicators of elephant welfare, such as proper nutrition, quality veterinary care, adequate water and shade, and plenty of resting time away from tourists. A recent BioMed Central research article recommended that elephants work less than six hours a day. Many more progressive elephant camps are opting for single-person bareback rides, foregoing the heavy chairs that can cause skin lesions when overused, reducing the number of hours per day elephants (and mahouts) work, and creating a more comfortable and intimate interaction between elephant and rider.