Duncan McNair is a lawyer and CEO of Save The Asian Elephants.
The Government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare in May announced a new Animals Abroad Bill “to ban the advertising and offering for sale here of specific, unacceptable practices abroad. Our intention is that this will steer tourists towards visiting attractions that involve animals being cared for and treated properly.” Polling and other indicators show public support across the UK at over 90 per cent and rising.
Why is this law important and how did it come about? I founded Save The Asian Elephants in 2015 to fight to protect this ancient, wondrous species, having witnessed the most extreme violence committed on baby and adult elephants in India.
To supply tourist attractions baby elephants are brutally snatched from the wild, the mother killed who tries to protect it. To compel submission for easy use in tourism, the babies are isolated, starved, beaten, stabbed, ripped – to “break the spirits”. My shock at witnessing the screaming and crying of the babies was eclipsed by the outrage at learning of the leading role played by the UK market in driving up this atrocious trade.
Revered by the world, numbers of Asian elephants have crashed from millions to barely 45,000 today, 40 per cent of them in cruel, non-breeding captivity, routinely tortured to ensure submission for ready exploitation. Now they are highly endangered.
What’s gone wrong? The 1960s’ explosion in package tours hugely increased elephant tourism in SE Asia, promoted by businesses indifferent to the terrible price paid by little elephants. Their daily lot is unnatural tricks, rides and games enforced by brutal violence. A life of torment, pain and loneliness for tourism “fun”. Held down by chains and fierce wire bindings, without shade or water, malnourished, forced to work in burning heat, untreated wounds going septic, they suffer and die broken by physical exhaustion and deep psychological distress.
Tourists too pay heavily for this exploitation. Elephants when provoked beyond endurance attack and kill. STAE’s evidence shows hundreds of people attacked, 242 fatally. One such instance is tourist Gareth Crowe, killed by a captive elephant in 2016. The elephant, Golf, is reported to have been tortured as a punishment, then placed back amongst other tourists.
Further, held in dank fetid captivity, when they exhale, sneeze and spray water elephants transmit lethal airborne viruses like TB, and seemingly now Covid-19, both global pandemics killing millions, dangers concealed by the travel industry.
Human trafficking is now emerging as a feature of the unethical elephant tourist trade. Uneducated and vulnerable ethnic minority groups, such as young Karen refugees in Myanmar, are trafficked on false promises to Thailand to handle elephants at unethical tourist venues. Without training or experience they fall victim to many dangers, are often unpaid, and being stateless face intense discrimination and rights violations. In contrast at ethical venues like Elephant Nature Park in Thailand proper pay, security and housing is provided to incoming mahouts and their families.
Asian elephants play a uniquely important role in our ecology as “megagardeners of the forests” which they nourish and sustain and on which untold species including humans rely for survival. Forests are the lungs of Earth that lock in our carbon output, helping combat climate change and maintaining biodiversity. We destroy them at our peril.
STAE’s research reveals the UK’s shameful role in this pernicious trade: over 1,200 UK companies selling 265 brutal venues through thousands of adverts. The figures just keep rising. Many are members of leading trade body Abta. The problem is vast and growing.
In 2016, 40 per cent of tourists visiting Thailand had or planned elephant rides. Thirteen million rides happened there in 2016 alone, 16 million in 2019. Guidance by the industry to itself is voluntary, full of holes, lacking any monitoring, enforcement or sanctions, and widely ignored. Self-regulation has proved futile for decades, no evidence forthcoming it has yielded any benefits whatever. Numerous promises of change by operators have been broken.
STAE has relentlessly urged new law to ban adverts and sales of access to brutal venues. Public and specialist support for such change is vast and growing: STAE’s petition stands at 1.08 million, 32 million more from aligned, similar petitions.
Populus polling (2020) shows 90 per cent support for such change. 2021 polling records 99.1% want penalties for those benefitting from such abuse. A hundred leading organisations and influencers want this new law including RSPCA, the Royal Veterinary College, vet schools, biologists, conservationists, churches, businesses and leaders of SE Asia’s faiths.
Government has promised an Animals Abroad Bill to do just this. But it must have teeth –robust enforcement and effective deterrence, not just token fines for multi-billion-pound serial exploiters. STAE’s purpose is to steer the market to ethical, sustainable sanctuaries where elephants exhibit natural behaviour in herds from a safe, respectful distance. If well-framed and enforced, and not undermined by an active tourist lobby against change, such law offers real hope for all endangered species brutalised in tourism who are facing their end: elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys, gorillas, bears and more. Such law is adoptable across the world, and fitting for any nation with such a gruesome market.
We thank government for its promise. It must now act. It can lead the way globally and help save the noble Asian elephant, brought so low by Man. Untold millions are waiting. The time is now.
STAE’s petition to end the cruel treatment of elephants is at www.stae.org.