Why are there still captive elephants?
Poaching, a lack of protected areas and human-elephant conflict means there are very few places remaining where wild elephants are completely safe. Until these issues are resolved, most captive elephants are safer living under human care. Release into the wild is a massive uncertainty, not to mention impractical for the hundreds of elephants that have been born into captivity. Captive elephants also play a strong role in conservation management for the entire Asian elephant population. We need captive elephants as their genetic diversity is critical for species perpetuity.
Chaining an elephant is cruel.
Most camps will use chains at some point (even passive viewing camps). An elephant in chains is not in itself a welfare problem. The issue is not the use of chains, but the length, time spent in chains, and the positioning of the chains. An elephant can be restrained without suffering adverse stress levels. Indeed many animals under human care face some kind of restraint, often on a daily basis and without cruelty concern (think collars, cages, leads and choker chains for dogs. Harnesses, saddles, mouthpieces and whips for horses. Cattle prods for cattle, cages for birds). Chaining is a problem if it is prolonged, sustained and incorrectly positioned. ACES thoroughly assesses back-of-house chaining practices to ensure they are done with minimal effect or impact to the elephant.
Riding an elephant is dangerous and cruel.
Elephants need exercise, just as humans do. Without exercise, elephants tend to become overweight and are suspectable to health issues. Walking provides both physical and mental stimulation for an elephant. Elephants that undertake riding have lower stress levels than elephants that do not offer rides. Walking 4-8km each day is acceptable, as long as the path is mainly shaded, the elephant is walking on is appropriate substrate (not only concrete or road), drinking water is available, it is a suitable temperature and the elephant is given adequate rest breaks.
Elephant experts agree that an Asian elephant can comfortably carry 20-25% of its body weight on its back. The saddle should be designed in a way that does not put pressure on the elephants’ spine. Two people in a well-fitted saddle weighs under 10% of an elephant’s body weight and will not cause any stress or damage.
The hook is cruel and should be banned at all times.
The hook was developed as a guiding tool and safety measure for the mahout and is no more damaging than a rein in a horses’ mouth. The hook should be used in conjunction with verbal commands and never as a way to control the elephant. Indeed no mahout would ever expect to be able control an elephant using only the hook.
Some camps proclaim ‘no hooks’ as a way to appear welfare-friendly and to attract visitors. Sadly there has been an increase in mahout deaths at these camps, simply because the elephant may have become spooked by something out of the camp’s control (any number of loud noises or sudden movements). Nobody should die at their workplace, and everyone should have the ability to protect themselves. A mahout with a hook tucked into his pants does not make him an elephant abuser, it simply means he has a chance to survive if the worst occurs.
Similarly, some ‘no hook’ camps bypass the hook issue by making mahouts use a concealed nail in their hand. Technically it’s not a hook, so they are not fibbing! And let’s not forget ‘no hook’ does not mean ‘no abuse’. These are just a handful of reasons why the presence of hook is not in itself an admission of animal cruelty.
Elephant shows are outdated and promote unnatural behaviours.
Behaviours such as standing on two legs, headstands or an elephant balancing on an object are not natural. Camps should be phasing out these activities immediately and we do not recommend that these camps are patronised. Shows should also be mindful of other externalities that may stress an elephant, including excessively loud noises and sudden movements. But crushing a coconut to show off strength or putting a wreath of flowers around a person’s neck can be achieved without any harm done to the elephant during the training process.
Elephant training involves “breaking the spirit” of an elephant.
There are so many excellent verbal training methods now in practice at camps; fear, pain or starvation are simply not needed for training. The old stereotypes of “breaking in” elephants are very outdated and do nothing but perpetuate old stereotypes. Elephants that have been born into captivity do not need their ‘spirits crushed’. Training a calf for 10 minutes a day using verbal commands and positive rewards is commonplace at many camps. The calves grow up knowing exactly what is expected of them, making them relaxed and not at all stressed when undertaking commands. Training has changed for the better and it’s time to acknowledge this.
But training is still very important and is a critical component of elephant welfare at any camp. It is a fallacy that passive-viewing camps do not have to train their elephants. Appropriate training allows veterinarians the ability to provide immediate relief if an elephant is sick, without the need for stressful and invasive physical or chemical restraint.
What is a mahout?
Similar to an Argentinian gaucho or a cowboy of the west, mahouts are the skilled caretakers of elephants. Mahouts and the skilled art of mahoutship have been of equal importance to both royalty and remote communities because elephant ownership has been a cultural tradition for over 4,000 years. Traditionally a male-inherited family tradition, mahouts and the art of mahoutship has changed rapidly over only two generations. With many younger and less skilled mahouts now caring for elephants, a lack of adequate mahout training has been identified as a critical issue for elephant welfare
Most camps however are rectifying the issue. Senior mahouts can now receive formal training by joining national and international mahout associations. Most camps will have their own in-house training programs and apprenticeships that new mahouts must strictly follow. This is vital for their own safety as well as that of guests and other staff.
Who owns the elephants at the camps?
In general most captive elephants are owned by private individuals or camps. The exception is Indonesia, where the Government still holds ownership of captive elephants. Private ownership means people can buy, sell and move their elephants as they please. At ACES we believe private elephant ownership provides a chance to help elephants. Private elephant ownership is an opportunity to engage and communicate respectfully with owners to see what help or assistance they may need to support their elephants. Breeding pairs can be established, and help can be offered to camps that are struggling to understand how to improve their welfare practices.
At ACES we believe in respectful communication and cooperation with camps. We do not condone rude or angry behaviour towards owners as this is not in the spirit of responsible travel, harmony or improvement. We prefer to listen and help rather than act in a combative manner.
What is a standard?
All elephant camps are different. Size, location and country legislation all contribute to these differences. But there are ways to categorise and quantify the important elements essential for quality camp welfare and management purposes. The ACES accreditation process evaluates and quantifies over 190 unique camp attributes. This allows us to grade and score all elephant camps into our Gold, Silver, Bronze and Conservation levels of accreditation.
How can I help elephants?
By only visiting camps that have reached ACES accreditation! This way you can be assured that the back-of-house camps standards are excelling at supplying very high levels of elephant welfare and camp management to their elephants.