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Elephant populations have plunged over the last century

The elephant is synonymous with Asia. These beautiful animals are omnipresent in trinket-form at night markets throughout the region, as well as depicted in historical artefacts. Their religious importance extends through both of the region’s largest belief systems, Hinduism and Buddhism. And elephant ownership has a long history of signifying wealth and royal lineage.

But despite this reverence, over the last 100 years, elephant populations have plunged by more than half, from an estimated 100,000 a century ago to just 35 to 40,000 today.

Conflict between humans and elephants over habitat loss through farming and urban development has contributed to depleting populations. This is further compounded by explosive human population growth.

Poaching is less of an issue for the Asian elephant because its tusks are not as big or highly prized as its African cousins, but demand still exists in Asia for elephant body parts for use in traditional medicine.

Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals who live in matriarchal societies with a lifespan that rivals humans. When a baby elephant is born, it falls under the protection of the entire herd.

So when elephants are taken into captivity, either to perform manual labour or to entertain tourists, this familial bond has to severed in order to ‘tame’ them. The methods deployed to achieve this include a traumatic separation from the mother as well as the matriarch of the group – which in most cases involves killing either one of both of them, given the strong maternal bonds of an elephant to protect their young. This is followed by an equally cruel process commonly referred to as ‘spirit breaking’, where the baby or juvenile elephant is restrained, beaten and bullied into submission.

These elephants are then destined for a life of service; in trekking camps, circuses, elephant ‘painting’ shows, religious rituals and cultural processions. Because submission to any animal outside of its herd is a conditioned behaviour, elephants are constantly kept in line with bull-hooks (a metal hook with sharpened points that is used on the most sensitive part of the elephant’s skin to exert control), restraints and limited freedom.

The next time you’re on a Cathay flight, look out for the documentary Love and Bananas, which follows a team of rescuers led by renowned elephant conservationist, Lek Chailert, on a 48-hour mission across Thailand to rescue a captive 70-year-old elephant. The film is an eye-opening account of the current state of play of the Asian elephant and exposes generations-long methods of controlling elephants in forced captivity. As Lek says in the film, “Elephants have been broken, not domesticated.”

The tide is, however, thankfully turning. Through awareness and education programmes led by a network of conservationists and animal welfare champions around the world, demand for elephant-riding has decreased, leading to some trekking camps removing their saddles for good in favour of less invasive elephant encounters.

A knock-on benefit of this is to the communities surrounding these projects, from job creation for farmers whose yields help feed the elephants, to training mahouts (elephant keepers) and employing on-site staff to help run the project. Community engagement on this scale leads to lasting attitudinal changes which benefit not just the elephants, but the surrounding community as a whole.

A wildlife project deep in the jungles of Wasgamuwa, Sri Lanka, led by the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society, instigated the planting of orange trees around rural villages. Research found that native elephants displayed an aversion to citrus, so planting the orange trees has enabled human and elephants to live side-by-side. Decades on, this has created a new source of income for the farming families most impacted by wild elephants.

Unfortunately eco-tourism has become a victim of its own appeal. Tourist attractions have started to employ buzz words such as ‘eco’, ‘environmental’ and ‘sanctuary’ in their marketing without backing up with true conservation practices.

Years of captivity has created a situation so unnatural to elephant behaviour that there are arguments even among conservationists as to how best to tackle active captivity. The good news is that at the most impactful thing you can do is really easy – don’t support any programme that requires elephants to ‘do’ something. If the elephant needs a saddle, paintbrush, football, or is made to respond to humans in ways that fall outside their natural behaviour, then it’s an attraction best avoiding. Even bathing with elephants is off the cards; elephants love to bathe, but to do so properly, they need to splash, roll and submerge themselves in mud. Standing at a distance and quietly observing is respectful, educational and fascinating – plus you’ll come away with some great shots.

Spending time with elephants in an acceptable way is a fairly new space and even the more established sanctuaries are still feeling their way around balancing demand with animal welfare. Some things to look out for include size of the herd; the level of human/elephant interaction permitted; what restraints are used; is there a safety briefing; how are the elephants sourced; are there vets on-hand; and how transparent is the process? Reviews from people who have already visited are a good way to gage this information.

When I visited sanctuaries in both Cambodia and Thailand, I was struck by the knowledge, care and commitment to animal welfare shown by staff. Humans are responsible for the current plight of the elephant, let’s hope they can also take responsibility for the damage that has been done. As the old adage goes, an elephant never forgets.

Where to head to view the herd

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai, Thailand

This sanctuary is managed by Save The Elephant Foundation and is home to over 80 ex-working elephants.

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket, Thailand

PES rescues elephants from the Thai tourist and logging trades and helps them to retire in peace. Beware imposters and book directly through the website here.

Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Also managed by Save The Elephant Foundation, this sanctuary offers the opportunity to help prepare food for the three resident elephants. Lunch for humans is also included.

This article was written by Nashua Gallagher and published in the Summer issue of Hong Kong Family Traveller. Don’t miss our September issue by subscribing now at