Cruelty Debate Over Zoo Exhibition Highlights Complexities of Elephant Tourism in Thailand
December 21, 2021
Standing on its hind legs as the water relieves the gravitational burden of its body, the animal wades between two men offering bananas at either end of the pool. In a room down below, awestruck children watch through wide glass windows. Some of the people who have attended this elephant swimming exhibition at Khao Kheow Open Zoo southeast of Bangkok are surprised that it has been criticized as an example of animal cruelty and exploitation.
But recent controversy over an award-winning photo of a swimming elephant at Khao Kheow illustrates the friction that exists between some animal rights activists and people who manage, appreciate and profit from the tourism roles that elephants fill in Thailand. The thorny debate touches on issues of animal welfare, media representation, and what some see as cultural bias. The latest outcry began in October 2021 after a photo by Australian photojournalist Adam Oswell won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) award for Photojournalism. Run by the Natural History Museum (NHM) of London since 1964, the annual WPY is a prestigious contest.
Taken at Khao Kheow and titled "Elephant in the Room," Oswell's photo shows an elephant with its head and body submerged while a trainer, or mahout, swims above in what looks to be a relatively small tank. People of various ages, all with Asian features, are pictured watching the elephant.
Some reactions to the photo on social media were harsher, often deploying adjectives like "sickening," "vile" and "barbaric." Many Thai people countered that NHM's presentation of the photo was misleading or lacked adequate context. One Thai-language tweet that defended Khao Kheow was retweeted nearly 40,000 times. "Care was taken in the drafting of the captions not to single out this particular attraction nor the individuals watching but to provide a wider context to this industry from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on tourist enterprises to the international demand for animal tourism from international tourists," an NHM spokesperson told CNN Travel.
But Khao Kheow is the only zoo in Thailand, and one of only four in the world, according to Khao Kheow's website, where elephants can be viewed through underwater windows. It is the largest of seven zoos operated by the government-run Zoological Park Organization of Thailand (ZPO). Khao Kheow has been certified by the South East Asian Zoos Association (SEAZA), which is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). The ZPO maintains that all of its zoos are guided by the principles of conservation, research, education, and recreation.
Elephants are natural-born swimmers, but critics view Khao Kheow's swimming exhibition as a forced performance. More broadly, they see it as an example of how animals are exploited for the amusement of humans." The training for this type of show usually starts with the removal of a calf from its mother and uses fear and pain-based punishment," says one of the captions accompanying Oswell's photo on the NHM website. Some Thailand-based animal rights activists think that Western criticism of the treatment of captive elephants in Thailand, while often warranted and usually rooted in compassionate intentions, can come across as arrogant, inflexible, and lacking a contextual understanding of the country.
Elephants are sensitive animals with high intelligence. Generally, elephants need a large area to live in more than the zoo can provide. Elephants used for entertainment usually involve cruel practice and training without sufficient health and nutrition supply. For specific cases, however, whether the animals are harmed during the training and animal show should be evaluated carefully. The photographs can tell a story but the truth may be different. The AZA provides guidelines for the management and care of elephant welfare. Read more here.