The Human Cost of Elephant Tourism

While Western activists focus on the animals, their handlers are often treated as expendable.

Mahouts rest as their elephants eat fruit in Chiang Mai. (Sukree Sukplang / Reuters)

It should have been a day like any other in Mae Wang, Thailand. But at one elephant camp in this small rural district just outside the tourism hub of Chiang Mai, the elephant handlers, or mahouts, were on edge. Somjai, a five-ton bull decked out with a pair of meter-long ivory tusks, was in musth, a hormonal phase characterized by huge increases in testosterone and aggression.

The mahouts knew Somjai was too volatile to give rides, but they say the camp owner dismissed their warnings, instead pairing him with an unfamiliar mahout named Chai who agreed to handle the elephant in an attempt to appease his boss.

The tour buses arrived and the day began as usual. Batch after batch of eager vacationers, some armed with selfie sticks, clambered two or three at a time onto metal chairs strapped to the elephants’ backs. Chained together like a living train, the elephants walked down their well-worn path around the camp, through the jungle, and down to the river.

That’s when Somjai snapped, according to reports. He threw Chai to the ground, goring him in the neck and shoulder and trampling him underfoot. Then he took off into the jungle with three Chinese tourists—a mother, father and small child—still strapped to the chair on his back. As Chai lay bleeding, the other mahouts chased Somjai and somehow managed to wrangle both the elephant and the terrified tourists back to camp unharmed. But Chai died, leaving behind a devastated wife and two very young children with no source of income.

Rides resumed as usual the following day. According to volunteers at a nearby eco-resort who witnessed the incident and its aftermath, neither the tour company nor the owner of the elephant camp faced any criminal charges. The other mahouts were given no time off to grieve, or even to attend a Buddhist funeral for their friend. The funeral itself was interrupted by tourists snapping photos.

Mahout deaths are common in Southeast Asia. In March alone, elephants killed at least four mahouts in Thailand. It is tough to say how many deaths occur each year, since many don’t get reported at all, according to Khon Bathar, a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma who recently investigated several elephant camps in Northern Thailand.

While most mahout deaths go completely unreported by international media, Chai’s made headlines when it occurred last August, likely because of the dramatic nature of the incident and number of tourists who witnessed it. But the public’s response, including that of many westerners, reveals a disturbing trend.

“Score one for the pachyderms!” reads the most popular comment on the Daily Mail’s report of Chai’s death.

“I have seen the way they mistreat these animals. He deserved what he got,” says another.

“I wish all the elephants killed the mahouts!” writes a third. “These are sick sadistic sociopaths!!!”

Out of the 340 total comments on the article, only three express sympathy for Chai, and all three are shouted down by other commenters. The vast majority suggest that the mahout deserved to die.

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Mahoutship was once a highly honorable position in traditional Asian societies, but modernization has brought drastic change, says Richard Lair, an acclaimed Asian elephant specialist who has spent over 35 years working with the species in Thailand. “Today’s mahouts, unlike their elephants, receive no respect or appreciation from the larger society,” wrote Lair in his encyclopedic report for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. “Economically, nearly all mahouts are disadvantaged and many are genuinely downtrodden. Socially, Asian societies accord great theoretical respect to the elephant but very little to the mahout, who remains a sort of invisible man.”

Many mahouts in Thailand today are ethnic minorities from neighboring Myanmar, a country that has been gripped in violent civil war for over 60 years. Refugees who flee across the border are required to remain in holding centers where they are barred from paid employment. As a result, many make the illegal but well-worn decision to leave the centers and seek out the jobs most Thai citizens avoid.

Working as a mahout is one of these jobs. Despite the fact that these young men, often just teenagers, act as the sole barriers between wild animals weighing three to five tons each and the thousands of foreign tourists that interact with them every year, mahouting is considered a low-skilled, low-paying, low-status profession. There are no training standards.

One mahout, an undocumented Karen refugee who witnessed Chai’s death, told me his story through a translator. “I want to stop. It’s dangerous and I’m tired, but I like my friends here and I don’t have any money,” he said. We’ll call him Kyaw, since using his real name could lead to serious repercussions from his employer.

Kyaw and other mahouts I interviewed in Northern Thailand reported working up to 14-hour days, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Some reported salaries as low as 3,000 to 5,000 baht ($85-142 USD) per month. “From the moment they arrive in Thailand, many migrants [are] fleeing from one difficult or deadly situation into another that is equally bad, or sometimes worse,” reads a 2010 report from Human Rights Watch. “Migrant workers are effectively bonded to their employers and at risk of rights violations from government authorities.”

According to Lair, non-mahout owners like Kyaw’s boss typically fall into one of two categories: traditional owners and “nouveau riche” owners. Lair says that while traditional owners have kept elephants for generations and are thus “well versed in elephants and usually quite kind to them, often for deeply ingrained cultural reasons,” the more common type of non-mahout owner today is much different. “Mostly local businessmen with newfound fortunes in real estate, logging, rice mills, and the like, nouveau riche owners buy elephants for what to them is pocket change,” he wrote in his UN report. “Sometimes purely status hungry, sometimes kind-hearted, nouveau riche owners nearly always spell trouble for elephants because inexperienced owners, no matter how well-intentioned, invariably lack the expertise needed to supervise their hired mahouts.”

Kyaw’s lack of documentation, not uncommon among mahouts and other migrant workers in the region, means that his employer has no legal responsibility toward him, even if he is injured or killed on the job. “I am very angry with my boss,” Kyaw said. “He doesn’t let us go to the hospital, even if the elephants hurt us, even if we have a concussion.” When pressed on these allegations, local owners have denied engaging in such practices, including hiring undocumented workers and paying below minimum wage.

These young men, however, continue to feel expendable. “If the elephant kills a mahout from Burma, it’s free for the owner,” said Kyaw, beginning to cry. “The owner will not pay my family. It’s the same for me as for a chicken or a dog.”

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Mahouts today are caught in a catch-22. Tourists have come to believe that traditional tools like chains and bullhooks are inherently unethical, but still want to be able to have up-close-and-personal interactions with elephants. “I use a bullhook because some elephants we cannot control with our hands,” one mahout explained. “Humans are small. Elephants spook easily and are dangerous. If elephants get scared, they kill people.”

“We don’t understand much about the mahouts,” says Emma Seppala, the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “We often see them beating an elephant and keeping it in chains. If we understood how hard their lives were and that they were as much in a place of suffering and captivity as their elephant, then people’s empathy would probably span out to include the mahouts.”

Another mahout recounted the time an American tourist told him he deserved to die for using a bullhook to control his elephant. Then the tourist pulled out a smartphone and demanded a picture of himself, sitting on that very same elephant’s trunk.

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Asian elephants are critically endangered, thanks to relentless habitat destruction at the hands of human development. Southeast Asia’s record-setting rates of deforestation have decimated the vast majority of tropical forests where wild elephants used to roam, and wild populations have plummeted by at least 50 percent over the last three generations alone. On-the-ground conservationists estimate only 6,000 or so Asian elephants remain in Thailand, with roughly half in captivity. The simple fact is that there is not nearly enough natural habitat left in Thailand for these captive elephants to be set free.

The only areas considered safe for wild elephants in Thailand today are national parks patrolled by armed guards, and even these cannot guarantee full protection from poachers, nor prevent elephants from wandering into nearby settlements, destroying crops, and running into serious conflict with humans. “We cannot act as if captive elephants belong in the wild or should go back to the wild,” says world-renowned animal behavior scientist Frans de Waal. “The wild barely exists anymore.”

The history of captive elephants in Thailand is long and complicated. Revered as cultural icons, they feature prominently in Thai art and religion, and have worked alongside humans in transportation, war, and logging for many centuries. “Elephants have always played an extremely important part in virtually all of Thai culture,” says Lair. Due to the onset of modern transportation and the 1989 banning of the logging industry, however, tourism is now “the only viable, legal source of work for elephants in Thailand,” he explains. “There is no other job for them. So in a way, tourism is their savior.”

Joshua Plotnik, a Thailand-based comparative psychologist at Mahidol University and the founder of the science-based U.S. conservation charity Think Elephants International, has spent more than a decade studying Asian elephant behavior. While Plotnik firmly believes that all elephants should be wild and free, he recognizes the need for realism. “At this point, given the high number of elephants currently in captivity, tourism is by far the best option for raising funds to take care of these animals,” he concurs.

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.

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Several for-profit “sanctuaries” in Thailand have spent a lot of time and money distancing themselves from other camps by distributing the same disturbing video footage as groups like WAP and PETA and claiming to be the only facilities that don’t abuse elephants. They ban riding and traditional mahout tools in favor of a “free range” model that closely resembles a zoo except for the fact that it allows people inside to feed, bathe, and walk with elephants. While these kinds of tourist attractions have profited greatly by catering to western perceptions of ethical animal treatment, scientists and conservationists raise serious questions about their safety.

“No chains means no control,” says Thitaram. He notes that while banning the use of unsightly bullhooks and restraints makes self-proclaimed sanctuaries look good to tourists and activist groups, allowing close contact between people and elephants without a backup plan is very risky, and has led to more than one mahout death.

Plotnik adds that free-range facilities can also be dangerous for the elephants themselves. “Wild elephants live in closely-knit, genetically-related, female-centric family groups,” he says. “Putting captive elephants into arbitrarily formed, unrelated family groups is very difficult and can often cause elephants undue stress.”

A mahout walks past elephants near Bangkok. (Sukree Sukplang / Reuters)

Conservationists note that apart from welfare issues, organizations that buy elephants to “rescue” them feed into the same symbiotic relationship of supply and demand that many traditional trekking camps do, lining the pockets of elephant traders and enabling them to buy more elephants, which they can then sell to rescuers at a premium. “Every elephant purchase is liable to cause conservation damage as they are likely to cause another elephant to be sourced from the wild,” notes John Roberts, the director of Elephants and Conservation Activities at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.

Roberts’ model for elephant tourism, developed at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp in Chiang Rai, Thailand, tries to incorporate realistic best practices in both captive elephant welfare and wild elephant conservation. Rather than buying elephants to rescue them, the camp rents elephants from their mahouts, employing the mahouts onsite for chair-free rides. GTAEF enforces a strict no-breeding policy, and uses “target training,” a positive reinforcement-based training technique scientists hope could eventually replace traditional methods altogether.

In June 2015, a group of about 40 multinational elephant specialists, veterinarians, researchers and conservationists came together to form the ASEAN Captive Elephant Working Group. Recognizing the urgent need for reform and regulation in the elephant tourism industry, the group has released a statement establishing a set of realistic goals for improvement. Their recommendations include a formal elephant registration system to prevent illegal capture and trade, and a certification system for tourism camps to ensure proper care and training for elephants and mahouts.

“I don’t see getting rid of the demand for elephant rides as something that’s achievable,” says Roberts, a member of the group. “[Anti-riding activists] dominate the conversation, but elephant trekking is still bigger business in Thailand than it’s ever been.” In the past year alone, the number of elephant camps in Mae Wang has tripled to meet the rapidly growing demand of Chinese tourists, whose presence in Thailand has increased 263 percent since 2011. For this reason, scientists stress the importance of acknowledging difficult truths and coming up with realistic, if imperfect, solutions that consider everyone involved.

“By working with mahouts to improve their treatment of elephants while also acknowledging the difficult lives mahouts often live themselves, we can positively impact the captive elephant situation as a whole,” says Plotnik. “Criticizing a culture that is not your own does not help change it.”