In the latest move in a fast-growing campaign against using animals as tourist attractions, the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reached agreements with six tour operators/wholesalers to stop offering elephant rides.

“We really believe we’re on the brink of this major industry shift, where we’re going to see it’s more common that tour providers reject these types of activities than affiliate with them and endorse them,” said Stephanie Shaw, PETA’s corporate liaison.

Six tour ops have stopped offering elephant rides on animals in captivity, such as this one in Nepal.
Six tour ops have stopped offering elephant rides on animals in captivity, such as this one in Nepal.

This latest effort by PETA was spawned by an incident in Thailand in February in which a Scottish tourist was trampled to death by an elephant after being thrown from its back while riding the animal.

PETA used the widely reported incident to launch a campaign intended to communicate to tour operators the harm the organization believes is being done to elephants being used as tourist draws, which can in turn harm the tourists.

“People know that elephants are highly intelligent animals,” Shaw said. “They are important to people.” But, she added, “People are not aware what these animals endure. All of these ritualized training sessions are designed to break these animals.”

Last week, PETA received confirmation from Costco Travel, the travel booking arm of the Costco warehouse-club chain, that it would be eliminating elephant experiences from its tours and packages as well, bringing to six the number of tour operators that have agreed to eliminate elephant rides from their tours in the two months since PETA launched this initiative.

In addition to Costco, PETA has received commitments from Alexander+Roberts, Butterfield & Robinson, Collette, First Festival Travel and Mayflower Tours, all of which have agreed to stop offering elephant rides.

The momentum comes amid mounting backlash against companies that use animals as an attraction. That backlash has resulted in major changes across the industry.

Last month, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment said it is ending its orca shows and shutting down its orca breeding program, three years after the release of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” a critical portrayal of the program that created a great deal of negative publicity.

Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, said that Asian elephants would no longer perform in its traveling circus as of May, two years ahead of the schedule to phase them out.

In addition to PETA’s latest push, 20 travel companies last fall agreed to stop selling elephant rides and shows, according to World Animal Protection, an animal-welfare nonprofit. Those companies included G Adventures, Intrepid Travel and the Travel Corporation (comprising tour and river cruise brands such as African Travel, Brendan Vacations, Contiki, Insight Vacations, Lion World Travel, Trafalgar and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection).

Animal-rights issues again came to the forefront last summer when news emerged that a U.S. dentist had paid $50,000 to hunt and kill what turned out to be a prized Zimbabwean lion named Cecil, sparking global outcry against the ongoing practice of big-game hunting.

“We are on the brink of this major shift and sea change of public opinion in what happens to animals when we exploit them for public entertainment,” Shaw said. “In captivity [elephants] don’t have a happy life. They’re hauling tourists on their back, beaten into submission. People who care about elephants should never ride one.”

As animal-rights groups are increasingly successful in raising awareness about animal-rights issues, which in turn will lead to diminishing demand from tourists for animal interactions, it is not clear what will happen to the creatures that will no longer be needed or wanted for entertainment.

Shaw said that, just as is the case with SeaWorld, where the orcas already in captivity will live out their lives and be placed in exhibits, the ideal scenario for elephants in captivity is for them to be placed in humane sanctuaries. The larger goal of the campaign is to ensure that future generations of elephants are not born into captivity.

As for whether the removal of elephant rides from itineraries will deter business, operators reported that they have not found that to be the case.

“We found that it didn’t actually impact the demand for any of our trips,” Intrepid’s director and co-founder, Geoff Manchester, said last year after the company removed elephant rides from its trips. According to Manchester, around 15% to 20% of travelers might be disappointed when they learn that they will not be experiencing an elephant ride. But after they receive an explanation, he said that number drops to about 5%.

Elephant rides, Manchester said, are “not one of the main reasons why people choose our trips.”

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