Elephant rides on holidays have been deemed unacceptable by new British Travel Association (ABTA) guidelines, the trade body has announced.
Wildlife charities have for some time campaigned for the “cruel” practice to stop, as elephants are routinely “broken in” by being beaten and abused before being offered to tourists for rides.
Over 3,000 elephants are currently used as tourist attractions in Asia, according to World Animal Protection, with many of these being held in inappropriate conditions including being tethered day and night to three-metre chains.
The trade body, which encompasses most of Britain’s travel companies, said that in its new guidelines, due to be released in November, activities that include interacting with an elephant without a barrier will be deemed unacceptable.
This includes washing and touching elephants as well as viewing shows where the animal is forced to do tricks such as playing football or painting pictures.
It will also be advising its members to check the general welfare of elephants at attractions – including ensuring they are fed the correct diet instead of an inappropriate food such as bananas, which can cause diabetes in the animal.
The British Travel Association writes the Animal Welfare Guidelines used by most of the travel companies in the UK, and companies abroad also look to their guidelines for advice on the issue.
An ABTA spokesperson said: “The strong weight of evidence suggests that often harmful training methods are used to be able to control the elephants, in order for them to then engage in various activities.
“ABTA believes strongly that elephants should not be subject to punishment and cruelty. The existing guidelines currently list elephant riding as a discouraged practice – with many ABTA members choosing to stop selling such activities. By classifying these activities as an unacceptable practice, it sends a clear message to suppliers and holidaymakers that the UK travel industry does not support them.”
The trade body hopes to encourage holiday destinations in other countries to move to activities “where the animals are viewed from an appropriate distance while providing them with as much access to their natural habitat as possible, and ensuring they are not subject to any punishment and cruelty.”
International Environment Minister, Zac Goldsmith called on British travel agents to cut ties with companies that sell experiences which are harmful to young elephants.
He said: “Anyone who has seen videos exposing the way young elephants are cruelly ‘broken’ to be made ready for tourist experienced will have been heartbroken and appalled. So I strongly urge the Association of British Travel Agents to encourage its members not to work with holiday companies who sell these experiences.”
“I would also urge tourists to only visit welfare-friendly attractions and report any concerns they have about the treatment of elephants to their UK tour operator or travel agent once they return home,” Mr Golsmith added.
Dr. Chris Draper, Head of Animal Welfare & Captivity, Born Free Foundation, welcomed the new guidelines.
He told The Telegraph: “This is an overdue but promising and welcome step by ABTA, encouraging a move away from exploitation of wild animals towards viewing them where they belong – in the wild.
“It is vital that we stop thinking of direct contact with elephants, such as riding them or washing them, or watching elephant performances in captivity, as harmless fun: in reality such practices are unnatural, unnecessary and riddled with cruelty. Similar problems of captive animal exploitation exist for many other animal species, and we encourage ABTA to continue to advance their standards accordingly.”
A spokesperson for World Animal Protection said: “We consider ABTA’s strong stance for elephants in their upcoming guidelines as a breakthrough. This update to ABTA’s elephant guidelines is further proof that the travel industry can look to a future where animals are not exploited and abused in the name of tourism entertainment. Elephants are wildlife. Not entertainers.”
Harriet Barclay from the Humane Society International added: “We are delighted that the British Travel Association has listened to the evidence we and other groups submitted and is updating its’ animal welfare guidelines to recognise that elephant riding, shows and other activities are unacceptable. Elephants are intelligent wild animals with close family bonds, who suffer greatly in captivity.
“Sadly, many well-meaning tourists are unaware that that the elephant they pay to meet will likely have started life as a baby ripped from its mother in the wild, and brutally ‘broken’ with beatings and bullhooks. We hope that ABTA’s strong stance against captive elephant interactions will educate operators to drop these so-called attractions and stop the cycle of suffering. We’re also watching closely to see how ABTA will adjust its guidelines for facilities keeping dolphins in captivity, if animal welfare science and ethics prevail then they too will have ABTA’s endorsement removed – the only way to see these animals without causing suffering is on their terms, in the wild.”