Key Factors Impacting Domestic Asian Elephant Welfare (Part II)
A huge variety of factors play a role in determining the health and wellbeing of domestic elephants, many of which can be controlled, to some extent, by humans. Because elephant welfare depends greatly on human actions, Mahouts (elephant caretakers), elephant owners, and others involved in the care of domestic elephants have a responsibility to ensure the health and overall wellbeing of their animals. This can be accomplished, in part, by careful monitoring, with close attention being paid to the primary needs of each elephant, including their physical, physiological, and psychological needs. In our previous article on this topic, we examined the fundamental needs of domestic Asian elephants in detail, and we will build upon this knowledge here by discussing key practices, techniques, and human-influenced environmental variables which can impact elephant welfare. Specifically, these will be related to domestic elephant care in Thailand, where the majority of domestic elephants are – or have recently been – engaged in activities within the tourism sector, though many of the following points may be extrapolated to domestic or captive Asian elephant populations in other locations. You can read Part I of this article HERE.
In Thailand, a complex combination of cultural influences and pervasive issues impacts both elephant welfare and elephant care practices, resulting in a lack of consistency and enormous variation in the treatment of elephants (and, thus, their overall health and wellbeing) throughout the country. These influences include, but are not limited to:
- A vague, oftentimes archaic legal framework surrounding elephants and elephant ownership;
- A lack of adequate oversight, enforcement, and regulation of the existing protective laws and guidelines;
- The prevalence of traditional and culturally ingrained elephant care practices which can sometimes conflict with national industry standards, international domestic elephant care guidelines, and contemporary veterinary science; and
- Extremely high tourist demand for interactive elephant experiences or other forms of entertainment involving elephants, and the resulting reliance – perhaps even dependence – on income from tourism to provide elephants in the industry with adequate care. This practice of hand-to-trunk subsistence was proven wholly unsustainable when travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in record-low tourist numbers and an almost complete dismantling of Thailand’s tourism industry.
When compared to international welfare standards and other widely accepted elephant care guidelines, levels of compliance and the overall quality of camp management and elephant husbandry practices vary widely throughout Thailand. A general lack of oversight and other monitoring and enforcement difficulties encountered by governmental and regulatory bodies have created an opaque environment in which unscrupulous owners may thrive without adequately meeting the needs of their elephants, and deceptive marketing practices are not uncommon, making it difficult for visitors to discern the degree of ethical elephant treatment prior to attending an elephant-based tour or other experience. However, there are certain practices which may be observed by tourists which are indicative of a healthy and safe environment for elephants. In addition, there are a number of accepted standard practices which may be implemented by elephant camp owners and their staff which can help ensure that the needs of their animals are being met. Broadly, these include providing adequate exercise and nutrition, opportunities for social interaction, enrichment programs, routine physical examination and behavioural observation, environmental assessments, Mahout training and supervision, clearly defined internal welfare policies and inspections, appropriate and ethical forms of elephant training (where applicable), veterinary treatment, allowance of naturally-occurring behavioural outcomes, and, in camps where tourists are present, safety information, supervision during human-elephant interaction, and group size limits.
Exercise and a carefully planned diet program are essential to ensure the health of domestic elephants. Obesity and other weight-related conditions have proved to be a growing concern throughout Thailand’s elephant tourism sector. Limited opportunities for exercise and the overfeeding of foods such as bananas, sugarcane, and fruit during tourist interaction activities are key contributing factors to weight gain in domestic elephants. Asian elephants consume approximately 10% of their bodyweight (or around 150-250kg) in food daily, and eat almost constantly to support their massive frames. As they will eat anything which is readily available, and often prioritise sweet-tasting foods over the grasses and fibrous plants which constitute most of their diet, elephants’ diets must be planned, controlled, and monitored carefully to ensure that they are properly balanced.
A healthy and nutritious diet should include fruits, vegetables, and other foods commonly fed to elephants during feeding activities, however these should be restricted in volume to ensure the maintenance of a healthy weight in the same way snack foods should be limited in a human diet. In camps where feeding by tourists is a fundamental tour activity, the foods offered to the elephants should be varied as much as possible daily, and the intake of each elephant should be monitored. In addition, tourists can be encouraged to participate in healthy feeding activities, such as the cutting and feeding of grass or other fibrous crop plants, rather than feeding foods such as bananas exclusively.
Exercise also plays a vital role in the health of domestic elephants. Chaining or confinement of elephants, excessive control and poor husbandry practices by Mahouts, and an insufficient area in which to roam freely can all contribute to an overall lack of exercise opportunities, which, in turn, can negatively impact elephant health. Proponents of elephant rides often argue that riding is valuable as a form of exercise, however there are many viable alternative forms of exercise which involve far less risk of harm to the elephants involved. These include allowing elephants to roam, forage, bathe, and explore their environments naturally, as well as free interaction with tourists and other humans, rather than static feeding from behind a wall or fence. Tours which allow tourists to follow or accompany elephants as they walk or forage freely encourage both natural behaviours in the elephants and natural, low-impact exercise in the form of walking. Tourists can also be encouraged to observe elephants from afar, allowing the animals the opportunity to exercise, socialise, and express natural behaviours. These activities can not only prevent weight gain and promote good physical health, but also support psychological health.