Rows of elephants chained up in cramped stables, saddles resting heavy on their backs. Mahouts — trainers — standing close by, clutching sharp bull hooks. Nearby, groups of tourists wait to mount the beasts ahead of an exhausting trek through jungle.
This is a common sight across Asia. It is also one that organisations promoting the ethical treatment of elephants are trying to stamp out through a series of initiatives.
One such initiative — the inaugural Elephant Travel Mart, organised by the Save Elephant Foundation and Asian Elephant Projects — took place this month in Chiang Mai, Thailand's elephant capital, and brought together operators of ethical elephant tours and tour agencies.
"Elephant tourism in Asia has traditionally relied on elephants being used for riding, street begging and performing demeaning tricks for tourists," says Ry Emmerson, projects director at the Save Elephant Foundation. "Visitors to Asia should understand that behind the scenes, the elephants are suffering at many camps and circuses."
When we speak, Emmerson has just returned from a five-day mission in remote northern Thailand, where he helped a wild baby elephant who had lost his herd and needed urgent medical care.
He explains that elephant tourism is widespread in the region, from elephant tours and zoos to circuses and street performances in which the animals perform tricks and paint pictures.
Often-unwitting tourists help perpetuate the industry, which campaigners say is still tainted by cruelty, despite efforts to bring about change.
"Tourists need to know that elephant riding and performing tricks comes at a high price for the elephants in terms of their suffering," Emmerson says.
Baby elephants are often separated from their mothers at a young age and subjected to a process referred to as "elephant crushing," or breaking the baby's spirit.
This involves a series of barbaric measures carried out across several weeks, including keeping them in small cages, tying their feet with ropes, and repeatedly beating them with bullhooks.
Once the elephant is broken, its dedicated mahout releases it and offers it food and water, becoming its "saviour." Violence and the threat of it continues to be used throughout the elephant's life.
Elephants are often mistreated, Emmerson says, with bull hooks and other sharp objects used to coerce the animals into performing. They are also commonly kept on short chains in the sun, with little food or water.
Constantly carrying the weight of tourists takes its toll on their spines over time, and not allowing these intelligent animals to socialise, play in water, roll in mud, and amble through the jungle also causes mental stress.
"Most elephants suffer from both physical and psychological injuries as a result of this daily trauma," Emmerson says. "Traditional forms of elephant tourism such as riding and shows continue to be funded by tourists who do not know the dark truth behind these practices.
"We believe education is the key to changing the future of elephant tourism across Asia."
Tourists are being encouraged to play their part in the overhaul. Emmerson recommends doing research before visiting an elephant attraction by reading newspaper articles and checking independent reviews and photographs posted online by visitors and elephant tourism operators.
It is also advisable to check with tour operators what sort of elephant activities are planned, whether bull hooks or other objects are used, and group sizes — intimate tours are better for the elephants.
Emmerson also urges visitors who witness cruel practices while on a tour to post online reviews and social media comments to help others avoid them.
"Travellers have the power to influence positive change for elephants in captivity by withdrawing their support from elephant tour operators offering elephant riding and shows," Emmerson says. "This sends a strong message that these traditional forms of elephant tourism are no longer considered acceptable.
"When demand for elephant riding and performances is diminished, the widespread transition to a more compassionate form of elephant tourism is inevitable."
Elephant Travel Mart, which took place at the Khum Kan Toke cultural venue in Chiang Mai, is the brainchild of Sangduen Chailert, founder of the Save Elephant Foundation. Its aim is to raise awareness of the plight of the Asian elephant while supporting ecotourism initiatives to protect the species.
Award-winning conservationist Chailert, also known as Lek, has dedicated her life to saving Thailand's elephants. Her tireless work was the focus of the critically acclaimed documentary Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story, which was released in April 2018.
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"The success of this event holds the potential to positively impact the welfare of elephants in Thailand, protect and improve the environment, and provide support to local communities," Chailert says.
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