Last update: Oct 15, 2017
Ethical Parks - Fact or Fiction?
Lets start off with the mental health of elephants; which must have an influence on their physical health. One of the signs of their mental health is very obvious for anyone to see; some elephants display a rocking, swaying motion - so-called weaving. Animals in the wild are active day and night looking for food and water; in captivity they get bored and start a monotonous movement like pacing or swinging their head. Lions, tigers and large cats in cages behave the same: they start pacing back and forth in their small cages to vent energy and frustration. Asian zoos are quite backward and usually have very small cages for animals; for example the Yogyakarta zoo has a tiger in a space the size of a garage. The poor tiger stuck in there hasn't even the space to pace up and down. If you are an animal lover you should avoid going to Asian zoos at all cost, or suffer a shock at seeing the caged large animals.
A large, majestic bull elephant.
A very surprising statistic from www.nytimes.com/2016 :
Logging is arduous. But elephant experts say hard work is one reason Myanmar’s elephants have remained relatively healthy. A 2008 study calculated that Myanmar’s logging elephants, which have a strict regimen of work and play, live twice as long as elephants kept in European zoos, a median age of 42 years compared to 19 for zoo animals.
Weaving is a type of movement caused by boredom and frustration. Once a bored elephant starts "weaving" it is difficult and usually impossible to stop this behavior. Elephant parks should create enough space and activities to give their elephants a meaningful life. Let's be straight here, they are not going back to the wild or to logging trees, there is hardly any wilderness left in Thailand and no trees to cut or move; those times are long gone.
The riddle ... a rumble in the jungle?
The word on the street is "don't ride an elephant because you'll damage his spine". Is that a fact or a Rumble in the Jungle? I'm not quite convinced by that myth. Horses probably suffer more from their riders' weight than elephants, but people still ride horses and back and spine damage can occasionally occur. Should we prohibit all horse riding or use proper training, good saddles and have good veterinary care?
Shan howdah, the green area is where it rests on the elephants' ribcage
(between howdah and elephant is more then 10 cm thick padding)
If a proper howdah (saddle) is used with thick padding an adult elephant should hardly be bothered by 2 people on its back. Two people weighing 150 Kilograms together on the back of a 3000 KG elephant is just 5% of its weight (150/3000 = 5%). For a human of 80 Kilograms a comparable backpack would weigh just 4 KG. The howdah is a lightweight wooden or bamboo saddle which rests on the ribcage of the elephant and does not touch the spine at all! Riding an elephant bareback is even less of a strain. (elephantconservation.org)
A note on the howdah's used nowadays: some parks don't use lightweight wooden or bamboo saddles but rather crude metal frames; which are heavier than necessary and do not fit very well.
A Shan howdah in the Chiang Mai National Museum.
A quote from Elephant Stay in Ayutthaya: Before jumping to conclusions about the effect of the elephant riding, consider the facts and make an informed decision. Facts and simple mathematics show that elephant rides are neither strenuous nor damaging to the elephant’s back or spine. (www.elephantstay.com)
Fact: The average weight of a full-grown riding horse is 500 to 700 KG. An Asian elephant weighs between 2600 and 5000 KG. Roughly speaking adult elephants are about five to seven times heavier than the average horse. Consequently we can deduce that for 1 or 2 people on an elephants' back:
When riding and elephant; your weight is quite irrelevant.
Elephants in loei province, 1898.
The Riddle is ... for more than a 1000 years captive elephants have been used for logging, transporting people and even warfare. Where is the evidence on the damage to elephant spines or vertebrae when riding them? Where are the photos? When this "spine damage" is so common why is there no information about it anywhere on the internet? Elephants can suffer many diseases; for example foot disease and arthritis are quite common; they are often caused by standing on the concrete floors. The only mention of "spine damage" however is on some Elephant Parks' leaflets; actual spine damage occurs only very rarely.
Is the solution to put them in a retirement park and let them do nothing? One of the most famous parks was evaluated in 2011 by Elephant Aid International.
They found that Elephants who spend all day standing in one area with little activity have seriously overgrown and decaying nails and pads. Many elephants had serious foot health issues. The straightforward report with recommendations is here: Enp_Report2011.pdf.
The number of Daft Dumbo tales that are being told is quite amazing. My point is that the "Don't ride an elephant" argument is somewhat narrow minded; one has to look at the bigger picture. That bigger picture includes the treatment and health of the elephants:
- Are the elephants chained all day or just at night?
- Are the mahouts experienced and well-trained?
- Do the elephants get good medical care?
- Do they have room to move around and interact; can they take a stroll?
- Do they have some occupation to prevent boredom and "weaving"?
The first point - unchaining them - is relatively easy to fix. The last point may be more difficult to implement - elephants in parks have no meaningful occupation and don't have to search for food and water.
We do not approve of elephant abuse.
(stop elephant riding cartoon)
Elephant marketing - the ethical park.
Are they ethical or is it marketing?
All good marketing works with emotions. You don't buy a car because it's economical and has a mileage of 20 kilometers to the liter; but because of marketing that influences your emotions. Body shape, aesthetics, color, brand status - that is what sells a car.
However there is a new "feel good" trend that also sells cars: green cars and green driving and the new image of the modern consumer that does care about the planet and about fuel consumption; and a Hybrid car is also a cool high-tech status symbol.
The same trend works for the promotion of elephant parks - it's not the idea of being a Maharaja on the gentle giant; it's the image of the conscious tourist that cares about mistreated animals that gives the good feeling and motivation; to such an extent that some people become "devotees" of the new type of parks that targets not just your wallet but also your heart. The new elephant sanctuaries and rescue parks are a paradigm shift from the old show parks, and they are very successful.
Marketing works best if it has some basis in reality. For example the marketing of fuel efficient diesel cars with the BlueMotion slogan works if it is based on facts and real-world testing. If the reality is distorted by a "defeat device" that makes the car only clean on the roller bench you might have a lot less trust in the brands' image.
The Golden Triangle tours
Another example of reality distortion by smart marketeers are the "Golden Triangle" tours in Thailand. The Golden Triangle used to be a large triangular area in Burma, Thailand and Laos where poppy was grown and heroin produced. Unfortunately, the poppy growing has been eradicated in Thailand a long time ago.
Golden triangle tours
So the "Golden Triangle" tours take gullible tourists to the point at the Mekong River where Laos, Burma, and Thailand meet and where you can have a look at Myanmar and Laos in the distance. Here, in the town of Sop Ruak you can visit the Opium Museum or a fake hill tribe village with long-neck women - who are really Burmese and from an area far away in the Shan State. If you start from Chiang Mai it is a very long 12 to 13 hour round trip of 600 kilometers, therefore it is better to start the tour from Chiang Rai if you believe it's worth it. And the real poppy fields and opium? They have now shifted to the Shan State (Burma), Laos and Afghanistan. The poppy growing area in the Burmese Shan State is now off-limits to tourists because there is ongoing conflict and they really don't need any "Peeping Toms". It seems that in the remote mountains of northern Laos, the red and white poppies can still be seen.
And the White temple near Chiang Rai, which is part of The Golden Triangle tours is also very, very busy and a bit of a tourist trap. Wat Rong Khun (White temple) is a nice little modern building, a bit kitchy and very small; so there are usually way too many tourists. The many temples in Chiang Mai are authentic and very quiet compared to it. Chiang Rai is certainly worth visiting, but not just for a visit to the White temple.
And the Ethical Parks; are they Fact or Fiction?
So even if you follow your heart it's best to do a reality check first, as in the Sufi saying:
" Trust in Allah but tether your camel first".
So is a park ethical just because there is no riding? Not in my opinion, it should take care of its elephants in many other ways, like good medical care, professional mahouts etc. etc. Are ethical parks better than the "old" type of show parks? Yes they are, and the mahout parks may also be a good idea. There is no rule of thumb though that a "No-riding" park is a good park and all other parks are bad parks.
And is an Ethical Parks Fact or fiction? Well, a real Ethical Park is certainly a possibility - the marketing of them is mostly fiction, in my opinion. It is a very beguiling fiction feel-good though, and your money does go to a good cause.
Just like the "Golden Triangle" can be anywhere you place it; in Thailand Burma or Laos. An Ethical Park can be ethical in many ways; as long as your customers are happy. And the elephants too; hopefully.
The future for Asian elephants.
The Asian elephant may be going the way of the tiger: there are globally more tigers in captivity than in the wild. In Thailand the captive elephant population is 3500 to 4000; the number of wild elephants is between 3000 and 3700. In the 1800s there were still around 100.000 elephants in Thailand!
In Southeast Asia the majority of elephants are captive and used for logging or tourism parks and camps. For example in Laos less than 1300 wild elephants remain. Whether we like it or not, the future of Asian elephants may be for a large part in elephant conservation camps with some kind of entertainment for tourists; and an occupation or activity for elephants as well.
Elephant population in SE-asia.
In Vietnam the captive elephant population has declined over the past 25 year from about 600 in 1980 to 165 today. Because wild elephants are so close to total extinction; the government of Vietnam has started a National Elephant Action Plan. In Cambodia the estimate of the wild population is between 400-600 elephants.
Burma’s wild elephant numbers have dropped dramatically over the past 50 years and appear to still be in decline. Here elephants are still used for logging; the Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) employs around 4000 elephants. The new semi-democratic government of Myanmar has set a temporary national logging ban in 2016 and a 10-year logging ban in the Pegu Yoma region. It is good news for Myanmar's nature and forests but a major problem for the 5500 captive elephants.
In 2004 the Smithsonian convened a workshop of elephant experts in Myanmar; their conclusion was that possibly less than 2000 elephants remain in the wild. (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute report: http://nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI )
Deforestation is rampant in Myanmar.
The Katha/Yinke reserved forest above has completely disappeared. Katha is a town north of Mandalay on the Irrawaddy river. (24°8'11.51"N, 96°27'34.75"E) The area that has disappereared is about 500 sq.km. (124000 acres)
There's not just bad news, mistreatment was far more prevalent in the logging industry than in touristic elephant parks. In Thailand many tourists are prepared to pay more for the rescue and conservation parks. The larger parks let elephants roam around or trek, and ENP is now building an enclosure to keep elephants at night without chains.
Elephant crossing. In Chiang Mai elephants have always right-of-way.
Facts, Facts and more Elephant Facts.
Here are some links to scientific reports and factual information on elephant health and rehabilitation. This is no info or promotion from elephant parks but research by independent organizations. The Wikipedia information is done by volunteers and can be quite subjective.
Mae Taeng elephant clinic.
This clinic is run by MaeTaeng elephant park.
Reports and statistics on elephant health and welfare.
Reports from elephant parks.
Blogs, news and information on elephants
Tripadvisor reviews of parks.
Burmese elephant drawing (1910)
Any comments or improvements? Please mail me at : bytelife AT gmail.com
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DISCLAIMER: No responsibility is taken for the accuracy and reliability of the information provided. I am not connected to any elephant park or organization.
All foto's and text Copyright © 2017 Rolf Schierbeek