- Following the collapse of tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Thailand’s 2,700 captive elephants used for tourism trekked back to rural villages alongside their keepers, where it was hoped they could forage naturally.
- Two years later, international visitors are beginning to return to the country and a new tourism model is emerging in locations where community-managed forests are available to the elephants.
- Under the new model, elephants are granted access to community forests, where they can forage and explore their natural behaviors. Meanwhile, tourists keen to learn about elephants in a natural setting are beginning to visit, enabling people in the villages to generate income.
- Adam Oswell, a photographer who has been documenting wildlife trade and protection in Asia for more than 20 years, spoke with Mongabay recently about his work documenting these projects and the fate of Thailand’s tourism elephants.
An Asian elephant supports itself on one leg, completely submerged in garish electric-blue water, while a keeper tugs painfully at its ear. The photograph shows bubbles rising from its trunk as it offers a stick of sugarcane toward a crowd of onlookers on the other side of the glass tank, enthralled by the performance. In contrast, the elephant stares blankly ahead.
The scene, captured by photojournalist Adam Oswell at Khao Kiew Zoo in Thailand, is representative of how animals are held captive for human entertainment at venues all over the world. “To me, the image is a powerful metaphor of our global relationship with animals and nature, showing just how exploitative and manufactured it can be,” Oswell tells Mongabay.
Thailand’s elephants have been a major part of the country’s tourism industry for decades, with revenues from elephant-based entertainment estimated at more than $500 million per year before the COVID-19 pandemic. Booming demand for tourism elephants during the 1980s led to poaching of live animals from the wild — a brutal and violent process — placing a strain on the region’s wild elephant populations, which were already suffering from habitat loss and poaching for skins and ivory.
Fewer than 3,500 wild elephants are thought to remain in Thailand, a figure comparable to the country’s domestic elephant population, which is estimated at 3,800, more than 2,700 of which were used in the tourism industry prior to 2020.
But with the collapse of international tourism due to the pandemic, hundreds of elephant owners were suddenly without the income needed to keep their animals. Many keepers were compelled to trek alongside their elephants back to their home villages, where it was hoped they could forage naturally.
In November 2021, Oswell visited several of these villages to document the fate of the captive elephants and their keepers who have merged back into rural communities. Some of the returning elephants initially raided village crops and were in some cases poisoned by the pesticides used to grow them. However, Oswell said he also observed instances of peaceful human and elephant coexistence, particularly in locations within reach of intact forests.
Villagers in some communities are granting their elephants access to community-managed forests, where they have the freedom to graze on natural foods and explore their natural behaviors. With Thailand now reopening to international tourism, these rural elephants are attracting paying visitors who wish to observe them and learn about the local culture. This emerging tourism model could lead to sustainable long-term benefits for the elephants and local people, according to Oswell.
“At a time when a lot of these communities are suffering from the economic downturn due to the pandemic, it is very empowering for them to develop their own independent businesses, while at the same time improving their elephants’ quality of life,” he says.
The presence of elephants in the community forests will also enhance overall ecosystem health: biologists consider elephants ecosystem engineers due to their role in nutrient cycling, seed dispersal and soil conditioning, all of which promote the growth of vegetation essential to maintain healthy forests.
Oswell has been documenting wildlife trade and protection in Asia for more than 20 years, contributing to several books that spotlight these issues, including Photographers Against Wildlife Crime, HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene and Black Market: Inside the Endangered Species Trade in Asia. His image of the elephant at Khao Kiew Zoo, titled “Elephant in the room,” recently won the photojournalism category in the 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. It is currently touring parts of the U.K. and internationally in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. (More details at the exhibition website.)
Adam Oswell recently spoke with Mongabay from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: How did your photography work in Southeast Asia start?
Adam Oswell: During the 1980s, when I was traveling in the region in my late teens, I noticed a lot of wildlife trade happening. At that time, it wasn’t a very well-known issue. So I started photographing what I saw and working as a photojournalist part time to fund my travels.
The volume of wildlife trade I was seeing really shocked me together with the brisk pace of change that I witnessed over just a 10-year period — biodiversity was disappearing really quickly. So I decided that wildlife trade was an issue that I felt strongly about and I began working on it. Later on, in the late 1990s, I started working with organizations like IUCN, TRAFFIC and WWF, and that was when I really started to specialize in documenting wildlife trade through photography.
Mongabay: How did you develop an interest in documenting the lives of Thailand’s tourism elephants?
Adam Oswell: I’ve been working on this issue for around 10 years now. I first gained insight into the wild elephant trade when I worked with TRAFFIC on a wildlife trade monitoring project. That project resulted in a report documenting the huge demand the tourism industry was placing on wild elephant populations, including how elephants were being traded into Thailand from Myanmar, the history of the trade, the people involved and the legislative loopholes that enabled it.
Now, with the pandemic, the demand for elephants from the tourism industry has completely collapsed, so the thousands of elephants and their owners involved in the tourism industry are now not working. Over the last two years, a lot of the elephant owners have realized that the business model was unsustainable and exploitative.
Mongabay: Does the tourism industry affect wild elephant populations in Thailand and neighboring countries?
Adam Oswell: Elephants are such a big part of Thai culture and such a big attraction and they’ve been integrated into Thailand’s tourism industry ever since the 1970s when mass tourism began to take off. But it has had a really devastating effect on wild populations across the whole region. There has been a domestic elephant population in the region for a long time, and traditionally, those domestic elephants would have been sourced from forests in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.
However, since the tourism industry kicked in, demand for tourism elephants couldn’t be met by the domestic population. Even in the late 1980s, when logging bans were introduced and elephants used in the logging industry entered the tourist industry, it still wasn’t enough. So when tourism ramped up, suddenly wild elephants were being sourced from neighboring countries and from the national parks in Thailand.
Mongabay: Are many elephants still captured from the wild?
Adam Oswell: Catching elephants from the wild still goes on in some countries, but it is not very common anymore. Since we released the TRAFFIC report a decade ago, Thailand focused on closing many of the loopholes in legislation that enabled laundering of wild-caught elephants into the domestic population.
With stronger legislation and the increased capacity of enforcement agencies, the trade in wild elephants has now decreased considerably. It’s far more difficult now for corrupt officials to get involved, and transporting wild elephants is very difficult logistically without gaining attention. The increased monitoring and surveillance of borders since the pandemic started has also been a significant deterrent along with the collapse of tourism, which was the main driver of demand.
Mongabay: You won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award with your photograph “Elephant in the Room.” What’s the story behind that image?
Adam Oswell: I’d visited that zoo before, but I wasn’t expecting to witness that scene — I’d never seen anything like it! It was pretty shocking and was very clearly exploitation. The elephant was being forced to do tricks. Sometimes, claims are made that those practices are conservation-based, or that it’s positive reinforcement-based training, but this was clearly just a profit-driven performance. The elephant was forced to dive down to pick up some sugarcane that had been dropped to the bottom of the pool and to then present it to the crowds behind the glass. It might have been forced to do that for a long time, possibly hundreds of times every week.
To me, the image is a powerful metaphor of our global relationship with animals and nature, showing just how exploitative and manufactured it can be.
Mongabay: How was the image received? Has it spurred any response within the tourism industry in Thailand?
Adam Oswell: I’ve since heard that the venue has stopped or at least modified that practice, so it’s good that the photograph has created some change. And it has received a lot of attention, including from the younger generation who are becoming increasingly aware and concerned for their future through social media, which has brought these issues into their daily lives.
Attitudes towards animals are changing compared to what they were several decades ago. For example, Thailand introduced its first animal welfare law in 2014, so there is a lot more awareness on conservation and animal welfare issues.
Mongabay: Your recent project documented how the pandemic has affected tourism elephants and their owners, in particular those that have returned to rural villages. How are the elephants faring?
Adam Oswell: There is a new tourism model emerging in those communities in the sense that owners who brought their elephants back to rural areas are letting them live and graze in community forests. They’re starting to be less dependent on elephant camps, which in some cases exploit not only elephants but also the mahouts, who are mostly from the Karen ethnic group. They are starting to reject the old, exploitative business model and to develop their own tourism models, which is really good.
When the elephants first returned, there was a bit of human-elephant conflict. Of course, you can’t just bring 200 elephants into an area and not have them impact the local community and the local farms: some elephants died of starvation and malnutrition because they couldn’t get enough food, and others have raided crops and been shot in retaliation or been poisoned by pesticides that are used on cash crops.
So to avoid these problems, the communities had to quickly think of ways to keep the elephants safely away from the human community. What has happened in some villages is the elephants have been released into areas of land that are managed as community forests. These community-managed lands serve as a space where the elephants can graze naturally on the forest vegetation.
Now, tourists are beginning to visit and the elephant owners and villagers are able to generate some income.
Mongabay: Do you think the elephants are better off back in the villages within reach of forests rather than in the tourist venues?
Adam Oswell: They are far better off. In the forest, they can get a better diet through a mix of different types of natural food sources, which leads to better health outcomes, rather than being fed the same thing all the time. And they’re less stressed because they can explore their natural behaviors: for example, they can play in rivers and creeks. So their quality of life is far better.
Also, the owners are much better able to care for them in the forests. I noticed young elephants learning to be in their natural forest habitat, learning about different food sources. That is something they could never do in a fully domestic situation.
Mongabay: How have the people living in these locations reacted to having domestic elephants living nearby?
Adam Oswell: If the elephants are properly managed and kept away from crops, people do appreciate having them around because they bring income into the community in the form of tourists staying in the villages in homestays and paying for activities to learn about Karen and Thai culture.
At a time when a lot of these communities are suffering from the economic downturn due to the pandemic, it is very empowering for them to develop their own independent businesses while at the same time improving their elephants’ quality of life. So in the long term, it’s looking much better for all.
Mongabay: As the tourism industry begins to reopen, it sounds like some tourism operators and elephant owners in Thailand are switching toward observation-only and more humane approaches. Do you think tourists will get on board with this?
Adam Oswell: The elephant camps that operate under the old business model and still offer elephant riding are now a lot more aware that the majority of tourists don’t want to see those practices. And they have been so affected by the pandemic that they are now reassessing how they do things.
If tourists just do some simple research before they visit an elephant camp and choose more ethical and sustainable elephant businesses, then more pressure will be applied on elephant camp owners to change and meet that demand. The best way to effect change is to support ethical and sustainable models and avoid camps that are exploitive and don’t have good business models or the appropriate facilities to care for the elephants.
Mongabay: Are you planning to do some more work in Thailand?
Adam Oswell: Thailand is really unique, there is no other country that has such a huge industry based around wildlife and animals. These natural assets have been turned into a massive industry and that’s why it’s become such a huge hub for wildlife trade as well. So I will keep documenting the domestic and wild elephant situation, but I’m also looking at the impacts of the pandemic on other species and our relationship with and impact on them.
Banner image: Mae Beepoh, a 52-year-old elephant, eats grass from the community forest at the Elephant Freedom Village project in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Image by Adam Oswell / We Animals Media
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