Horror as elephant kills British tourist

Riding high: Tourists go for an elephant trek in Southeast Asia.

The gory incident, which took place on a trek in Thailand, has shocked the world. But given the abuse that elephants face, is it surprising? And should we change the way we go about tourism?

They are cute. They are charismatic. Tourists travel halfway across the world to eat with them, sit on them and watch them paint.

It is easy to forget that elephants are, in fact, wild beasts – until a tragedy drives the point home.

Such an incident took place in Thailand on Monday. Two British tourists were riding an elephant on the island of Koh Samui, accompanied by the animal’s mahout (handler). According to witnesses, as the mahout was taking photos of the tourists, the elephant lashed out at him. He then shook off the tourists, gored one to death with his tusk, and rampaged off.

In the moments leading up to the attack, reported the witnesses, the elephant had appeared upset as his mahout physically abused him. A video which surfaced soon after seemed to tally with this: taken a week before the killing in the same park, it shows a mahout beating a docile elephant with a hooked stick.

None of this will have surprised animal rights activists. Elephant shows and treks are a huge draw across Southeast Asia, but campaigners have long trumpeted the ethical problems surrounding them. Elephants are often made to carry tourists for longer than they can bear. What is more, mahouts tend to subject them to harsh abuse, so as to tame them into accepting riders and performing shows. No wonder they sometimes rebel.

Yet the proportion of elephants in captivity keeps rising, as life for their wild counterparts gets harder. Since the early 20th century, the Asian elephant’s habitat has been reduced by 85% — dams, roads, mines and human settlements have eaten into it. Elephant communities have become isolated; increasingly they end up in confrontations with humans, who often kill them.

As nature shrinks, tourism continues to grow, and elephants – not to mention mahouts – are becoming dependent on it. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Can the power of tourism be harnessed to improve the elephants’ welfare?

Wildest dreams

Of course, argue some. Plenty of resorts – unlike the one where the British tourist died – only permit activities that are safe for the elephant. The animals are well fed and humanely treated, and the mahouts receive a decent income. Elephants may be wild at heart, but the wild can no longer support them all. Ethical tourism is the way forward.

Those resorts are doing good work, say others, but they are few and far between. As long as the demand for elephant treks and shows is there, the cycle of abuse will continue: countries are barely passing legislation to prevent animal cruelty, let alone enforcing it. We should expand conservation zones and gradually return elephants to the wild. If we truly love them, we must respect their right to freedom.

You Decide

  1. Which animal would you most like to ride, and why?
  2. Is it always bad to keep animals in captivity?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are running an elephant park in Thailand. Create a one-day itinerary of activities which are fun for tourists and safe for the elephants.
  2. Research the concept of ‘sustainable tourism’. Give a three-minute presentation on a place that you think does it well (it can be a hotel, park, restaurant, or even an entire region).

Some People Say...

“Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equals.”

Charles Darwin

What do you think?

Q & A

What happened on Koh Samui is awful. Does this mean I should avoid riding horses and camels too?
While riding always carries dangers, there is a crucial difference: unlike elephants, horses and camels used in tourism have generally been domesticated. This makes them safer.
Hang on. I thought you said the elephants were tamed?
Yep, but that’s not the same thing. Taming is about conditioning the behaviour of a wild-born animal. Domestication is a gradual process, whereby a population changes at the genetic level through selective breeding. Elephants have never been domesticated.
What’s the advantage of domestication?
We breed only those animals which have traits that benefit humans – for example, being at ease around large groups of humans. This makes them suitable for use in tourism.

Word Watch

Charismatic
The concept of ‘charismatic megafauna’ describes large animals which are especially popular with the public, such as elephants or lions. Environmental activists use images of these animals to promote their cause; wildlife tour companies to sell their products.
Mahout
A mahout’s job is to train and look after his elephant. The profession is typically passed down from father to son. A mahout will generally develop a close bond with his elephant, but, in some families, violent treatment of the animal is seen as a crucial part of the job.
Longer than they can bear
According to Lonely Planet, an adult elephant can only support a load of 150kg for up to four hours per day, but many are made to carry heavier loads for eight hours at a stretch.
Harsh abuse
There have been reports of baby (or newly captured) animals being starved, beaten and kept in cages. In 2002 National Geographic caused a stir when it released a video of such practices.
Often kill them
According to the WWF, such confrontations are now the leading cause of elephant deaths in Asia.