Elephants in tourism venues: Exploring elephant welfare and interactions with tourists in Thailand

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Burns, Georgette L
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Jones, Darryl N
McBroom, James
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Internationally, the interest and participation in animal-based tourism is increasing. Extensive research on welfare issues has been conducted in various industries involving animals; however, the number of studies concerning animal welfare in tourism are considerably less. Beyond the zoo setting, research into the welfare standards at captive wildlife tourism attractions, such as elephant tourism venues (ETVs), are further limited. The welfare standards at ETVs particularly warrant attention due to the mistreatment of elephants that is common in the industry and because of the high popularity of these venues. In south-east Asia, Thailand has one of the largest numbers of ETVs and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, experienced significant growth in international tourism likely due to the numerous opportunities for close interactions with elephants, which is a significant motivation for many tourists. Interest in animal welfare in wildlife tourism is becoming increasingly important beyond scientific and academic discussions, particularly as tourists are increasingly observant and critical of captive animals’ health and well-being. Tourists’ opinions and preferences may also have significant influence over the way venue operators manage their animals and represent their business, as consumer satisfaction and preference can be integral in influencing and solidifying change in user-driven industries such as tourism. Key gaps in knowledge exist in the above areas in relation to the elephant tourism industry in Thailand. The first stage in addressing these gaps involved assessing the welfare standards of 12 ETVs in Chapter 2 using information available online which allowed me to gain insights into the material available to prospective travellers, how they may use this information to choose a venue to visit, and, consequently, how their experience at the venue may not match their expectations. Based on these results, the ETVs were ranked from highest to lowest welfare standards. Next, I undertook a systematic quantitative literature review in Chapter 3 to gather and explore which indicators of welfare in captive Asian elephants have been investigated in recent years. This review further identified knowledge gaps, presented suggestions for future research, and explored in-depth the studies during the data synthesis. Twenty-three indicators of welfare were identified in this review, and others were notably absent from current research. Nine environmental, eight physical, four physio-psychological, and two behavioural welfare indicators were identified. Most research between 2015 and 2020 focussed on the diet of captive elephants and cases of elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, followed by research into the provision of elephant health care and the duration of work for elephants involved in tourism activities. Chiang Mai, Thailand was identified as an appropriate region to first establish proper management guidelines and find solutions for these issues, becoming an example for other Asian elephant range countries to follow. Many recent studies have assessed captive elephant welfare, involving invasive, time-intensive procedures, such as the collection of blood samples or urine/faeces for glucocorticoid metabolite analysis. However, few studies have proposed a method for assessing captive elephant welfare, and for those which have, their methods were either developed for use in zoos, or focussed on a single aspect or type of welfare indicator. Using the knowledge gained in Chapter 3, Chapter 4 developed the Rapid Elephant Welfare Assessment Method (REWAM) which involved the creation of specific welfare criteria to better represent the conditions found in elephant tourism venues. The REWAM is a new method for evaluating captive elephant welfare in tourism venues by exploring the relationships between living conditions (the factors contributing to welfare) and welfare indicators (the results or products of the living conditions). The REWAM differs from other welfare assessment methods as it is observation-based and does not require the collection of physical samples or laboratory analysis. This reduces cost and time spent in-field and does not require contact with the animal. Chapter 5 applied the REWAM in a case study at 12 ETVs in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and aimed to explore the relationships between living conditions and welfare indicators, and to rank the ETVs assessed in this study based on their overall scores. The three highest-ranking ETVs offered observation only activities or elephant walks and activities such as feeding and bathing. Areas requiring significant improvement, and which therefore should be the focus of future research, include enclosure size, stimulation of natural behaviours and provision of a social environment, and the presence (and, therefore, the cause) of stereotypic behaviour. Due to the increased demand and interest for animals in tourism, further research is required regarding animal welfare considerations by tourists. Chapter 6 found that participant age was the clearest indicator for the type of venue participants were likely to visit and that home location and welfare standards at venues had the greatest effect on attitudes post-visit. Results suggest elephant welfare can be an important factor for some tourists; therefore, efforts should be made to increase public awareness of the issues within elephant tourism venues which could lead to positive attitude and behaviour change. Chapter 7 found that tourists visited riding and non-riding ETVs for similar reasons, primarily due to recommendations from friends and reviews, and because the venue had a good reputation. Tourist preference for higher welfare standards was observed at venues where participants directly observed poor treatment of the elephants. Tourist satisfaction may be impacted by higher elephant welfare standards; therefore, tourists have the ability to influence the elephant tourism industry by demanding better living conditions for elephants and only financially supporting ETVs with higher welfare standards. Finally, the welfare standards at 12 ETVs were assessed in Chapter 8 using the REWAM developed in Chapter 4. Based on these results, the ETVs were ranked from highest to lowest welfare standards. The rankings from Chapters 2 and 8 were compared and, consequently, the data collection methods were compared. This highlighted the differences between the perceived versus actual welfare standards at each ETV which misleads consumers and can lead to low tourist satisfaction. Overall, the findings of this research further our understanding regarding the complex issues within the elephant tourism industry and provide important theoretical and practical implications to improve the welfare of captive elephants living in tourism venues.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Environment and Sc
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