Thousands of elephants kept in 'cruel' conditions across Asia due to tourists' demand to see them

An elephant performs tricks on a wooden plank. Credit: World Animal Protection via AP

Thousands of captive elephants across Asia are "mistreated and exploited" due to tourists' desire to ride them and watch them in shows, new research has found.

These rides and shows are "inherently cruel and stressful for the animals involved", according to World Animal Protection (WAP).

The non-profit organisation looked at 3,000 Asian elephants in six countries across the continent and found that three out of every four were living in poor and unacceptable conditions.

It also reported that many of the highly sociable animals had been separated from their mothers at a young age and are then "restrained and subjected to cruel training to break their spirits".

WAP found animals being kept chained day and night when they were not working, receiving inadequate diets and unsatisfactory veterinary care, as well as undergoing harsh initial training, "that breaks their spirits and makes them submissive enough to give rides and perform".

Somsak Soonthornnawaphat, Head of Campaigns at WAP explained how some elephants had been found with "both front legs... shackled with chains no longer than half a metre (1.6ft)", while those used in shows "have to perform unusual poses to entertain tourists".

He continued that repeatedly giving tourists rides "fatigues" the animals: "One group of tourists finishes the ride, getting off the elephant and soon after the other is getting back on to start their ride."

Somsak Soonthornnawaphat described how many elephants are kept shackled. Credit: AP

While the report surveyed elephants in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India, the work is part of a broader campaign entitled "Wildlife. Not entertainers", to expose the living conditions of other animals used to entertain, including tigers, macaques and bears.

Of the 3,000 elephants surveyed in the report released on Thursday, three-quarters of them live in Thailand.

WAP conducted the research in a bid to make tourists more aware of the conditions the animals they visit are kept in, allowing them to make informed choices about where they visit.

This does not mean that all animals are kept in poor conditions and that none can be visited.

WAP reported finding 13 venues in Thailand where "elephants are offered the best possible care and are free to be elephants".

A head wound suffered by an elephant in captivity. Credit: World Animal Protection via AP

WAP Chief Executive Officer Steve McIvor explained: “Alternative travel options are available and public demand for elephant rides is slowly changing, but there is still work to be done.

"Many tourists see elephants as the highlight of their holiday. However, this wish often stems from a lack of awareness of the abuse involved.

"As soon as they become aware of the suffering caused by elephant rides and shows, their enthusiasm quickly wanes.”

In the aftermath of the report it is hoping more tour agencies will shun abusive venues, adding that it has already convinced 160 travel companies to end the sale of tickets to, and promotion of, venues which offer elephant rides and shows.

Mr Soonthornnawaphat explained what WAP was hoping to achieve: "If the tourist venues can say 'no' to the torture of the elephants, to the use of chains and metal hooks, and say that they will take good care and learn more about elephants, we would know that the welfare of elephants in those places has improved. Then we can make decision to visit those places."