In 2017, World Animal Protection, along with various travel industry leaders, presented a business case to a group of about 15 elephant camps in Thailand.
The international animal welfare organization and travel leaders sought to demonstrate the growing demand for “observation-only,” “elephant friendly” tourism.
In addition to detailing the public’s growing desire for such humane attractions, World Animal Protection added one more important point to their presentation: that the organization was ready, willing and able to support any existing elephant venues that stepped up and permanently banned elephant rides, thus putting the needs of the elephants at the forefront of their operations.
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One camp took World Animal Protection up on that offer.
Happy Elephant Valley, in Thailand’s touristy Chiang Mai region, signed on for the program and has officially stopped allowing visitors to ride, bathe or directly feed the elephants, all of which are activities that involve an inhumane existence for the elephants.
For those unfamiliar with the backstory, such interactions not only put incredible stress on the elephants, but they require cruel training methods to make the animals perform, according to World Animal Protection and several other organizations.
In order to make elephants submit to elephant rides and other human interactions, the animals are taken from their mothers when babies and forced through an age-old and horrific training process known as Phajaan, or “the crush,” which involves physical restraints, inflicting severe pain and withholding food and water.
By the time tourists show up to ride elephants or interact with them in various other ways at camps throughout Southeast Asia and beyond, the animals may appear to be at peace, but this is only because their spirits have been broken.
The formerly named Happy Elephant Valley (an ironic name given the bleak existence of the elephants) was among the camps that took part in this brutal industry.
But with the help of World Animal Protection and others, Happy Elephant Valley has taken the bold and groundbreaking move of becoming the world’s first truly elephant-friendly commercial venue. The camp, which has since changed its name to ChangChill, (the translation of which is “relaxed elephant”) now offers a vastly better life for elephants, while still offering a truly unique experience for visitors.
“ChangChill offers interactions with elephants that do not stress the animals and do not put visitors or mahouts in harm’s way,” Ben Williamson, the U.S. programs director for World Animal Protection US, told TravelPulse.
“For example, visitors can spray wash elephants from the safety and comfort of an observation deck by turning on a newly-engineered sprinkler system. ChangChill also offers guests the opportunity to feed elephants indirectly through a feeding tube system, which can be stuffed with elephant treats such as sugarcane, corn and bananas for the elephants to find later. From a safe distance, guests can watch the elephants burrow inside the holes and tubes with their agile trunks to find their snacks.”
During a recent, exclusive interview with TravelPulse, Williamson talked in great detail about how significant this accomplishment is and what it means for the elephants at the camp and the industry as a whole.
To begin with, the newly engineered feeding stations at ChangChill have already proven popular with the six resident female elephants who quickly learned how to use the tubes, and watching them do so has proven to be an engaging experience for visitors to observe.
“There’s nothing better than seeing elephants just be elephants, so visitors are by no means missing out,” continued Williamson. “We believe these indirect activities are crucial and what gives ChangChill its unique identity.”
While ChangChill’s accomplishment is incredibly significant in its own right, Williamson and others are hopeful that this will be the first of many elephant camps in Thailand, (and beyond) to move from elephant riding to an observation-only format.
The broader goal is to inspire other commercial elephant camps to replicate the ChangChill model, thus helping to meet the growing demand from travelers for truly responsible travel experiences.
Triggering such a domino effect, however, will largely rely upon showing other venues that the ChangChill model can be financially successful.
“The amazing thing is that we haven’t put a cent into this,” Williamson said with regard to ChangChill. “We want it to be completely self-sustaining so that we can show other venues that if you build it, the tourists will come because the reality is that consumers do want higher welfare activities.”
The alternative, no change at all in the industry, would mean a continued, bleak existence for the elephants. And the cruel reality of an elephant’s life in such venues is quite real. One need only review the reports over the years of elephants collapsing and dying of exhaustion in such facilities and more.
In May, disturbing footage emerged from a facility in Thailand that showed an exhausted baby elephant that had been tied to its mother at a tourist attraction, collapsing and dying.
“Thousands of elephants still live in unacceptable, captive conditions in Thailand and elsewhere,” said Williamson. “They endure harsh training regimes to become submissive enough to carry tourists on their back and perform tricks.”
It’s equally important to note that the reality of such elephant riding venues is that they are also dangerous for tourists.
A five-year monitoring of published incidents regarding captive elephants in Thailand showed 15 fatalities and 24 serious injuries of mahouts and tourists, according to World Animal Protection. Just this February an Italian tourist was stabbed through the stomach by a riding elephant and a Thai college student barely avoided getting killed or seriously injured by another riding elephant.
“Placing tourists at a greater distance to the elephant not only reduces risks for tourists and allows elephants more opportunities to express natural behavior it also lowers the risks of mahouts getting injured as they don’t have to intervene as often,” added Williamson. “Indeed, the mahouts at ChangChill no longer have to carry bullhooks as the elephants no longer pose a threat to their safety or their guests.”
While World Animal Protection acknowledges the sobering reality that it may not necessarily be practical to create sanctuaries for every elephant, the non-profit continues its efforts working with the travel industry, elephant communities and venues, with the aim of increasingly shifting demand away from the dominant model of direct contact activities to observation-only offerings.
“Every venue could have this model and could be high welfare and self-sustaining,” said Williamson. “We want to show that this is a sustainable operation, one that others can mimic.”
“The best place to see elephants is in the wild,” Williamson added. “But if you’re going to visit an elephant venue, make sure it allows elephants to be elephants, does not allow breeding or touching, and provides education on elephants’ complex needs.”
ChangChill’s groundbreaking transition to the world’s first truly humane elephant camp is thanks to the Coalition for Ethical Wildlife Tourism, which includes: TUI Group and the TUI Care Foundation, Intrepid Group, The Travel Corporation, G Adventures, DER Touristik Group, Thomas Cook Group, QYER, EXO Travel, among others.
Altogether 226 travel companies have committed to stop selling and promoting cruel elephant entertainment.