The world's largest land mammal is a huge draw for tourists. But while Africa's elephants are more likely to be spotted roaming vast nature reserves, their Asian cousins are less fortunate.
In a report released by World Animal Protection (WAP), three out of four of nearly 3,000 elephants employed at tourist venues in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Laos and Cambodia are living in "severely cruel conditions."
Thailand alone accounts for almost 2,200 of the total. According to the report titled "Taken for a ride: The conditions of elephants used in tourism in Asia," elephants are typically chained day and night when not giving rides or performing. They are also fed poor diets with limited veterinary care, and are often kept on concrete floors in stressful areas with loud music, traffic noise or among crowds of people, the report indicated.
Jan Schmidt-Burbach, a Thailand-based expert with WAP, said tourists had the power to improve captive elephant lives by choosing venues that promote observing animals over interacting with them. "As a general rule, if you can ride, hug or have a selfie with a wild animal it's cruel and you just shouldn't do it," he told
The animal welfare charity also found a 30-per-cent increase in the number of elephants at tourist sites in Thailand since 2010, with hundreds of elephants in Thailand found in worse living conditions than five years ago.
"The cruel trend of elephants used for rides and shows is growing," said Somsak Soonthornnawaphat, head of campaigns at World Animal Protection Thailand. "We want tourists to know that many of these elephants are taken from their mothers as babies, forced to endure harsh training and suffer poor living conditions throughout their life," he added.
However, Thai officials denied abuse, saying most elephants treated at animal hospitals across the country suffer from various diseases, with some injuries from accidents, not intentional mistreatment. There are 3,000-3,200 domesticated elephants in Thailand in total.
Researchers from World Animal Protection spent two years visiting 220 venues using elephants across Asia, in what they describe as the most comprehensive survey to date of a rapidly growing, lucrative, but poorly regulated industry.
Their data showed pachyderm welfare routinely came in second place to turning a fast profit, with three-quarters of Asia's captive elephants kept in conditions that were rated poor or unacceptable.