Selfie warning for Aussie tourists heading overseas: 'Brutal'

As tight Covid-19 restrictions ease, and Australians begin to travel overseas again, they’re being reminded to avoid animal exploitation.

Thailand’s multi-million dollar elephant tourism industry was impacted by a sharp decline in business when international flights were halted due to the pandemic.

As a result, many of their owners, known as mahouts, returned to their hometowns, allowing elephants to live a more natural existence.

A tourist being carried by an elephant in Thailand
Tourists are warned to do their research before indulging in an elephant experience in Thailand. Source: Adam Oswell / We Animals Media

Sydney-born photojournalist Adam Oswell has had roots in Thailand, where he now lives, since the 1980s and has documented elephant tourism for over 20 years.

While his images are used to spread a conservation message, he’s reminding tourists looking to take a happy snap with an elephant for their Instagram to do their research first.

That means not taking for granted that the elephant they’re paying to take an Instagram selfie with was sourced sustainably.

Brutal process once used to capture elephants for tourism

Despite their calm demeanour, many of the animals have been inflicted with “significant trauma”.

A mahout in the water with elephants. One is spraying water upwards.
Elephants have returned to live a more natural existence since the coronavirus pandemic began. Source: Adam Oswell / We Animals Media
A mahout stroking an elephant's trunk.
Elephants will often form strong bonds with their owners. Source: Adam Oswell / We Animals Media

“In the 70s and 80s there was a huge demand for elephants, which drove the capture of wild elephants,” Mr Oswell said.

“It’s a very brutal process in itself. It involves pit traps and killing the mother and the family just to get a wild calf.

“It was then laundered through the system here with surrogate mothers to introduce them into the domestic population, and then they would be used in the tourism industry.”

Sustainable elephant tourism on rise in Thailand

While there are still many “cruel” operators, Mr Oswell, who was crowned 2021 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, believes the growth of social media is driving home the conservation message in Thailand.

A crowd watches an elephant submerged in a tank.
Adam Oswell was crowned Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2021 for this image. Source: Adam Oswell / We Animals Media

The nation even adopted animal welfare laws in 2014, however domestic elephants are considered private property and categorised as “draught animals” along with donkeys, oxen and horses.

Visitors from China and Europe continue to indulge in exploitative elephant tourism, and Mr Oswell expects that to continue as the industry is worth “so much money”.

Giving him hope are more sustainable experiences that have flourished during the pandemic and continued to maintain popularity as tourists return.

He encourages visitors to investigate community-based projects where elephants are able to live sustainably alongside villages.

“They’re becoming very popular now, which is great,” Mr Oswell said.

“I think we're seeing a good transformation of the industry… hopefully.”

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