Responsible travel

Published on June 16th, 2015 | by Geckos Tales Team


Elephant welfare: the basics

Read time: a bit over 3 minutes

The good folks at Intrepid Travel recently announced that they have stopped offering elephant rides on their trips. And as they’re our sister company, the same goes for us too.

Since so many of you are clearly super passionate about elephant welfare – and the welfare of other animals – we thought we’d contribute to the conversation by giving you some more background information on the ways in which elephants and other animals are mistreated around the world, as well as some practical tips on how you can help make sure your travels are as animal-friendly as possible.

During 2010 and 2011, our friends at the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) conducted extensive research around wildlife ‘entertainment’ venues in Asia. They assessed the welfare of the elephants, monkeys and tigers housed there. From this research, we have learned much, particularly about elephants. So without further ado, let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

About Asian elephants

Asian elephants are highly endangered and their habitat has been devastated over the course of recent history.

There are only around 30,000-52,000 in the wild, with about 15,000 in captivity. This number might seem large, but it isn’t. At the current rate of decline, they could be completely extinct within three generations. Your great grandkids could live in a world with no elephants. Imagine that.

Elephants typically live 60-70 years in the wild, but significantly less in captivity (elephants used in the timber industry in Burma, for example, had a median life expectancy of 41 years).

They’re extremely intelligent and highly socialised animals – practically the Steven Hawking’s of the animal kingdom – forming complex groups. They can recognise themselves in a mirror, they cooperate and they feel empathy (they’ve been known to mourn and even hold gatherings resembling funerals for members of the herd who die). They’ve also been known to stand ‘guard’ on a busy road while the younger ones cross.

In short, elephants are the best.

Animal welfare basics

Animal welfare concerns the state of an animal’s body and mind, and the extent to which its nature is satisfied – so just like humans, it’s about an animal’s physical and psychological state. Scientists have worked out the following pillars of an animal’s welfare which they call the ‘five freedoms’. If all of these freedoms are true, it indicates good welfare for an animal.

• Freedom from hunger and thirst — ready access to fresh water and a diet that maintains full health and vigour

• Freedom from discomfort — an appropriate environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area

• Freedom from pain, injury or disease — correct nutrition, disease prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment

• Freedom to express normal behaviour — sufficient space, natural stimulation of the senses and the company of the animal’s own kind

• Freedom from fear and distress — conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

What happens in captivity?

If we compare the above understanding with what is happening in captivity and at many elephant camps, their conditions are highly compromised. Some common observations:

• Chaining of elephants so they have very limited movement – particularly of the bulls (males)

• Limited diet – for example, just one or two plants such as pineapple leaves

• Isolation from others – limited opportunity for touching or other normal social interaction

• Little or no veterinary care

• Unsuitable, unyielding ground such as concrete, which is harmful to their feet • Bright sunlight where it may be up to 40 degrees with limited shade.

What about domestication?

Elephants are NOT domesticated. Cow, horses, dogs etc. have been domesticated – a process which is done through selective, human-guided breeding over at least 10 generations of an animal. You cannot domesticate an individual animal during its lifespan.

Even though elephants have been kept by humans for around 3,000 years, they have been, on the whole, poached directly from the wild, with perhaps one generation (or rarely two) being bred in captivity.

Domestication is a breeding process where you select the characteristics you want and breed the animals with those characteristics over many generations. This has never been done with elephants.

Because all captive elephants are not domesticated animals, for them to be kept in captivity:

• They need to be restrained

• They are vulnerable to sudden outbursts of human targeted aggression, leading to injuries and fatalities

• They undergo a cruel and painful process to break the elephants will and accept human control

• They are susceptible to the development of health and behavioural problems

How can you help?

Check out the next instalment of our elephant welfare series, where we lend some practical advice to help you help the elephants.

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About the Author

We run awesome trips around the world. But when we’re not on the road, we’re sitting here and writing loads of travel-related insights, tips, information and advice. Geckos Tales is your go-to source for whenever you need to find something out about pretty much anything.

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