International experts and animal welfare campaigners urge Nepal to end elephant abuseNepal should not endanger its reputation by continuing elephant abuse, safaris and games for Visit Nepal 2020 campaigns, experts warn.
As many as 50 international elephant experts and animal welfare campaigners have urged the Nepal government to stop the possible elephant abuse during Visit Nepal 2020, a campaign Nepal has launched with an aim to attract two million tourists over the year.
The group of experts and campaigners, in a joint letter to Forest and Environment Minister Shakti Bahadur Basnet, has said they are alarmed by the promotional activities involving animal abuse as part of the tourism campaign.
They have also expressed concerns over the campaign, while the focus should have been on climate change, community tourism and Going Green as main commitments.
“However, the year has hardly started and we are already deeply concerned about the promotion of activities that involve animal abuse,” reads the letter, a copy of which was seen by the Post. “Chitwan Elephant Festival featured abusive elephant games, and Banke National Park announced elephant back safaris, introduced especially for Visit Nepal 2020.”
The call from animal welfare campaigners comes amid criticism of Suraj Vaidya, the national coordinator of the Visit Nepal 2020 Secretariat, for tweeting a video of elephants playing football and an image of him touching a rhinoceros in Chitwan.
Abuse of elephants for tourism activities has long derived international criticism from animal rights activists and tourists as well. Ill-treatment of elephants by the tourism sector has been well documented by several studies over the years.
Use of elephants for safari and games has been familiar sight in and around the protected areas—mainly in Chitwan National Park. Tourism entrepreneurs have been offering elephant rides in Sauraha—a popular tourist hub of the country.
“Across the world, animal abuse in tourism is exposed and addressed. Global tourism operators have removed unnatural activities such as riding, bathing and games involving elephants from their itineraries,” read the letter. “Although we respect Nepal’s age-old traditions, we believe the tourism industry fails to respond to the needs of the elephant, a highly social and intelligent animal.”
A survey conducted by Animal Nepal showed that the welfare of Sauraha-based captive elephants is significantly compromised. The study of 42 privately owned ‘safari elephants’ in Sauraha found out that conditions of these animals fall short in many areas—restricted movement, shelter conditions, nutrition, health and healthcare, safari management, as well as mahout welfare. A whopping 82 percent of surveyed elephants live under ‘unsuitable conditions,’ concluded the study.
Over the years, Nepali tourism entrepreneurs have taken a significant step by introducing non-contact elephant tourism.
As part of its bid to ensure responsible tourism, Tiger Tops in 2017 started an ethical camp, where elephants are allowed to live chain-free, and stopped elephant back safaris. Elephant polo was also called off after its final game in December 2017, after hosting the event for 35 years, in a bid to promote responsible tourism.
At a time when most global travel agencies have omitted elephant rides and games from their itineraries, Nepal seems to be failing to learn from them.
However, the Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) has revived the annual International Elephant Polo Competition, with support from the Nepal Tourism Board and the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.
In 2018, Banke National Park, the youngest national park of the country, started elephant back safari.
With the reintroduction of these activities, which involve elephants, the international experts say they are worried about the possibility of cruelty these animals could be subjected to, which would threaten the country’s hard-built reputation for conservation.
“Nepal has built its reputation as a conservation nation, with noted successes in elephant, tiger, rhino, snow leopard and red panda conservation. The nation is also praised for its policies and practices in community forestry and national park/area management,” read the letter. “Nepal should not endanger its reputation by continuing elephant smuggling, riding and games.”
After six years of the campaign led by Animal Rights Club Nepal (ARC) against abusive activities in Chitwan Elephant Festival, the ARC and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a video in 2019 to make people aware of the continued abuse of captive elephants in Sauraha for the purpose of entertainment. Since then there has been a drop in elephant riding in Sauraha by international tourists.
However, the beginning of the country’s mega tourism campaign has brought back the appalling treatment of elephants, according to the experts and campaigners, representing various institutions and animal welfare promoting organisations across the world.
“We trusted the Nepal government to follow suit and promote humane elephant tourism in 2020. Sadly the contrary is happening. It’s ‘business as usual’ in the Tarai,” said the experts. “Brutally trained, old and sick elephants are illegally smuggled across the border in both directions, the abusive sport of elephant polo is reintroduced, and elephant back safari is expanded to other parks.”
Animal rights activists have been urging the government and the tourism industry to promote humane elephant tourism and end the abuse of one of Nepal’s most majestic animal species—the elephant. Most of these concerns were raised by visiting tourists to end ‘outdated practices which harm animals and with them the image of Nepal’.
With a view to offering an alternative business model for elephant-dependent tourism community, the World Animal Protection and Jane Goodall Institute jointly released a viability study for ‘elephant ride-free community alternatives at Sauraha, Chitwan’ in 2018. The study suggested that a sustainable new business model and creating an elephant-friendly sanctuary was possible.
The campaigners have urged the forest minister to promote responsible activities and events that support the welfare of Nepal's endangered animals and reflect the good intentions of the nation, without affecting the tourism year.
“It is not too late for Nepal to join the worldwide movement for better conditions for elephants,” said the statement. “2020 can still be a good year for animals, and a year in which tourism activities that tackle climate change, involve communities and are truly ‘green’ get promoted.”