Elephants are still being used for rides and performances in many parts of Asia, leading travel association ABTA to update its guidance to members.

While most UK travel companies stopped selling attractions featuring the riding or bathing of elephants a long time ago, that doesn’t mean the animal welfare issue has gone away.

Travel association ABTA is now in the process of updating its guidance so that such practices involving elephants are deemed to be unacceptable rather than just discouraged.

Its members are also working with local communities to help them develop more positive and responsible ways of involving elephants in the tourist experience, such as viewing the animals from a respectful distance and providing access to as much natural habitat as possible.

Harmful training methods

ABTA says there is a now “a strong weight of evidence” to suggest that harmful training methods of elephants are widespread.

Its current guidance from 2013 states that elephants shouldn’t be encouraged or forced to perform unnatural behaviours such as headstands, football or painting. They also say that elephants should have good access to food, quality housing, be in good health, demonstrate natural behaviour and are protected from fear and distress.

In drawing up the new guidelines, ABTA says it will be important to understand the role that elephants play in community livelihoods, as well as cultural attitudes towards animals. It admits working with local suppliers to change practices won’t happen overnight.

Rising tourist numbers

In 2017, World Animal Protection investigated the conditions of nearly 3,000 elephants at tourist venues in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Laos and Cambodia, concluding that more than three-quarters of them were treated badly.

They said the animals were fed poor diets and frequently kept on concrete floors in stressful locations near loud music, roads, or noisy visitor groups.

Several venues in Thailand reportedly cater to thousands of visitors daily, with the doubling in the country’s tourist numbers between 2010 and 2016 resulting in a 30% rise in the number of elephants held in captivity for tourist activities.