We are aware that elephant cruelty causes them to suffer at tourist attractions. Our research has revealed that elephant keepers and trainers, known as mahouts, are also suffering.
A mahout is an elephant rider or trainer. A mahout is usually a boy who works in the family business and gets assigned an elephant in its early years of life. They are bonded throughout their lives.
This is Wikipedia’s definition for a mahout. It will resonate with many tourists who see mahouts as romantic figures with elephants. The reality is quite different in the elephant tourism industry.
New research by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Chiang Mai University, Thailand shows that the popular perception of mahouts as idealistic and idealistic is not the case.
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This is the first comprehensive study on the socioeconomic status of mahouts in Thailand.
Due to a growing industry in animal tourism and a demand for elephant entertainment at venues that have lots of visitors, mahouts are being replaced by regular labourers who lack the necessary skills and training.
This is not to say that mahouts do not exist in traditional terms – I saw them on a recent visit to Thailand. They are the exception and not the norm.
Many mahouts choose it because they can’t find other employment or think it will be easy.
While they may not be ‘bonded together throughout their lives,’ many elephants who are exploited for entertainment will have at least four mahouts over their lifetime.
Elephant tourism poses a risk to elephants and mahouts.
Elephants live in harsh conditions and are often forced to carry others on their backs. Mahouts have low salaries for high-risk jobs, many of which result in injuries, and little financial security.
Mahouts as well as tourists who interact with elephants while they are under their supervision, do not receive adequate training. This puts them and anyone else in danger of serious injury.
The travel industry must take seriously the danger of injury to humans, in addition to animal welfare concerns.
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What motivated us to do this research?
Our research on elephant tourism has focused largely on the unfavorable living conditions that elephants have to endure every day in order to entertain tourists.
However, our research into wildlife entertainment venues in Thailand revealed that the role of mahouts was unclear and out-of-date. We now have a better understanding of the lives of elephant mahouts.
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Elephants and humans are better off with higher-welfare
The welfare of elephants in captivity is a key concern for mahouts. They are also an integral part of our efforts to make elephant-friendly entertainment venues.
Contrary to what is happening in Thailand’s entertainment and riding camps, elephant-friendly venues have higher welfare and are more beneficial for both elephants and humans. They encourage venue owners and mahouts to care for elephants as well.
Our study revealed that 65% of mahouts use a bull-hook, or a stick to control their elephants at riding or entertainment camps.
These tools and control are not necessary at truly-elephant friendly locations, except in emergency situations. Tourists are not allowed to come into direct contact with elephants in higher welfare areas. They can instead watch the elephants freely roaming, grazing, covering themselves in mud, and socializing.
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These mahouts also have training in the management of elephants without resorting to force.
This has been demonstrated at elephant-friendly Thai venues such as Elephant Valley Thailand, Mahouts Elephant Foundation(MEF), and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES). They are doing amazing things for elephants captives, as shown in our Taken for a Ride report.
Visitors can observe elephants at elephant-friendly locations from a safe distance, and then quietly follow them.
The bottom line is that elephants are happier and safer when they’re not in direct touch with tourists. This also makes it safer for mahouts, who don’t have to resort to cruel methods of controlling them.
An elephant can only truly be free in the wild. However, in order to make the lives of the more than 3,000 elephants in Asia’s tourism industry better, we must see more elephant-friendly attractions and less cruel ones.