Tag Archives: Asian conservation

One Tourist’s Dream, An Elephant’s Nightmare

Thailand & Cambodia 2013 787

A retired elephant at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Elizabeth Matthews

The first reaction people have when told I spent my summer in Thailand is excitement and curiosity. But the first question I am always asked burns through my core, conjuring a memory that I will never forget. “Did you ride an elephant?” I see a line of elephants parading up a steep hill. Part of the tourist industry, these animals just finished giving rides to giddy vacationers, and are now out of their line of vision. On their backs now ride the elephant handlers; in each hand the herders carry a spear that is held just inches from the elephant’s eye. When the elephant is not moving fast enough, or their attention is strayed, the handlers elicit a sharp stab to their eye. Covered in scars and wounds from previous beatings, each elephant stared straight forward, the pain reflecting out of their gaze as sharply as the knives held in their periphery. Holding up the rear of the line was a small elephant, whose pain was unbearable to watch. As he passed by, his handler’s hook rested below his eye ready to strike, the elephant shot a quick glance at us as we stood silent, in shock. As he continued to march, our eyes were drawn to the elephant’s rump. With a badly broken hip, the elephant dragged one of his hind legs, clearly unable to move it. But despite his disability, his handler continued to yell and kick the creature while his body struggled to overcome the steep incline.

Riding an elephant is a dream come true for many unknowing tourists. It’s understandable; who doesn’t want to climb on the back of the largest terrestrial mammal on earth with their selfie-stick while parading around the jungles of Asia? Exactly. But with a little education on the industry, no animal lover would ever consider riding an elephant again. The training of elephants for elephant trekking is a long time Thai tradition called “phajaan,” which in English translates to “crush” [2]. It consists of ripping baby elephants at the young age of six-months from their families, entrapping them in a small cage with little room to even lift a foot, and beating them with hooks, spikes, and nails, forcing them into human submission. Each and every elephant that tourists eagerly climb onto for a ride has undergone this horrific process. Not only does this training regimen clearly result in significant physical damage, but mental and behavioral impairment as well.

Elephants are extremely social creatures; they exhibit a highly complex social structure that is key to their survival. Elephant society consists of a high degree of mothering, adult cooperation, and care and interest for ailing members of their families. In addition, raising offspring is at the central core of society, and is therefore vital for full cognitive and behavioral development [3]. But when young elephants are torn from their families at a tender age, they suffer dramatic developmental consequences. This lack of development results in abnormal behaviors, such as extreme anxiety, which is often illustrated by rocking back and forth and swaying their body. This extreme anxiety has also been shown to cause aggression, putting both elephants and humans at risk. And not only is the tourism industry harmful for Asian elephants mentally and physically, but their numbers are declining.

Once upon a time, the Asian elephant occupied the vast majority of Asia, with thriving populations occupying regions ranging from Thailand to Iran. Asian elephants have now almost entirely disappeared from Western Asia, Iran, and most of China. The surviving population of Asian elephants is estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000, only about one-tenth of the population of African Elephants [3]. Although the greatest cause for the species decline has been habitat loss and deforestation from anthropogenic forces, the tourism industry is only exacerbating the decline [1]. The ultimate solution to put an end to the horrific methods behind the elephant tourism industry is to spread awareness. The Thai people are not the source to blame for the treatment of elephants; phajaan is an age old tradition that is encouraged by the interest of tourists. With knowledge of phajaan, and spreading the awareness of its detrimental impacts on elephants, we can take a step forward towards the conservation and protection of the Asian elephant.

– Elizabeth Matthews

Here are some sources I used for this post:
1. http://www.elephantconservation.org/elephants/asian-elephants/

2. http://journals.worldnomads.com/responsible-travel/story/81053/Thailand/Why-Elephant-Riding-Should-Be-Removed-from-Your-Bucket-List

3. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/230242723_Social_structure_and_helping_behavior_in_captive_elephants

Caution – This is a video of phajaan, it is graphic but if you are interested, I would encourage you to watch it: http://youtu.be/SVckvi_gWVo

I volunteered at an elephant conservation center in Thailand that focuses on caring for “retired” elephants that were once in the tourism industry. The center works on providing the elephants with the best possible care for the remainder of their lives, assisting with mental and physical rehabilitation. Here is the website for the center: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/

Tigers and Territory: The Issues We See with Home Range Size and Conservation in these Big Cats

Many big cats have large home ranges or territories. Cats like mountain lions or pumas, tigers and bobcats don’t live in big groups like lion prides. Instead, they live by themselves most of the time, except when a mother is raising cubs or sometimes when a male and female hang out together around mating time. Many people think tigers are beautiful and majestic, but keeping them in the wild seems to be kind of difficult—they are currently listed as endangered because tiger populations have decreased by 50% in the last 30 years or so4. Tigers are native to Asia, and Asia has a lot of people (4.4 billion in 2014). When human populations get really big, it’s had for other animals to coexist with us.

For tigers, population density depends upon the density of their prey, which may also be scarcer where human populations are expanding. Tigers commonly eat other mammals, like deer and other hoofstock which are known for being skittish and can be hard to catch. One model suggests that male Amur tigers must consume at least 25 prey per year, non-reproductive females consume 20 prey/year and mothers raising 4 cubs require 54 prey/year8. That is quite a lot when your prey is hard to find and catch, so it might make sense that tigers have a big home range. They have to search pretty far to find enough food when the food is also trying not to be found. Prey density is declining in native tiger habitat6. That makes getting enough to eat even harder. Sometimes people’s livestock are easier to get, which means that livestock depredation is one of the biggest reasons we see conflict between humans and tigers.

A tiger’s home range size can vary a lot depending on the place you’re looking at. One study in Thailand found that male tigers’ ranges were around 267–294 km and female’s ranges were around 70–84 km7. But a study in Bangladesh found that a couple females had an average home range of 14.2 km2, which is much smaller.

According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), some of the current conservation projects for tigers in the wild are focused around preserving their habitat and reducing tiger-human conflict10. Because tigers need so much habitat for those big home ranges, one of the first steps in their conservation is preserving enough habitat to support a good sized population. In order to do that, organizations like WWF are working to try to influence agriculture, paper and timber industries, among others, to use sustainable practices that minimize loss of forest land. To reduce conflict with local communities, organizations like WWF rely on innovative solutions and education. In regions where the conflict most often occurs, some strategies might include scare tactics, negative conditioning and capturing tigers to assess their condition because tigers in good condition are not usually the ones who are desperate enough to attack humans and livestock9.

So what do these big sizes and big differences in home ranges mean for conservation? A lot! We know that in order to conserve tigers in the wild, we need to conserve big enough patches of their habitat for them to move through, ideally without running into and having conflicts with people. Because the density of their prey influences their feeding behavior and potentially the size of their range, we might have to consider how to maintain those species at good levels (and figure out what those good levels are). In order to reduce conflict with humans and hence reduce killings by humans, we need to learn more about how tiger home ranges change around people, and how tigers move through populated areas. Helping people build safe enclosures for their livestock might be one thing to try. Do you have any good ideas? Leave them in a comment below!!

Here are some of the sources I used. If you’re interested in tiger behavior or tiger conservation, you should let us know what articles and papers you like, too!

– Leorah McGinnis


  1. Athreya, Vidya. et al. “Movement and Activity Pattern of a Collared Tigress in a Human-dominated Landscape in Central India.” TROPICAL CONSERVATION SCIENCE1 (2014): 75-86. Web.
  2. Barlow, Adam. et al. “Femalle Tiger Panthera Tigris Home Range Size in the Bangladesh Sundarbans: The Value of This Mangrove Ecosystem for the Species’ Conservation.” ORYX1 (2011): 125-28. Web.
  3. Bhattarai, Babu, and Klaus Fischer. “Human-tiger Panthera Tigris Conflict and Its Perception in Bardia National Park, Nepal.” ORYX4 (2014): 522-28. Web.
  4. Chundawat, R.S., Habib, B., Karanth, U., Kawanishi, K., Ahmad Khan, J., Lynam, T., Miquelle, D., Nyhus, P., Sunarto, S., Tilson, R. & Sonam Wang 2011.Panthera tigris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. <iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on11 February 2015.
  5. Miller, C.s., M. Hebblewhite, Y.k. Petrunenko, I.v. Seryodkin, J.m. Goodrich, and D.g. Miquelle. “Amur Tiger (Panthera Tigris Altaica) Energetic Requirements: Implications for Conserving Wild Tigers.”Biological Conservation170 (2014): 120-29. Web.
  6. Simcharoen, Achara. et al. “Ecological Factors That Influence Sambar (Rusa Unicolor) Distribution and Abundance in Western Thailand: Implications for Tiger Conservation.” RAFFLES BULLETIN OF ZOOLOGY62 (2014): 100-06. Web.
  7. Simcharoen, Achara. et al. “Female Tiger Panthera Tigris Home Range Size and Prey Abundance: Important Metrics for Management.” ORYX3 (2014): 370-77. Web.
  8. Soh, Yi Hui, Luis Roman Carrasco, Dale G. Miquelle, Jinsong Jiang, Jun Yang, Emma J. Stokes, Jirong Tang, Aili Kang, Peiqi Liu, and Madhu Rao. “Spatial Correlates of Livestock Depredation by Amur Tigers in Hunchun, China: Relevance of Prey Density and Implications for Protected Area Management.” Biological Conservation169 (2014): 117-27. Web.
  9. “Solutions.” Save Tigers Now. World Wildlife Fund. < http://www.savetigersnow.org/solutions>. Accessed 21 February 2015.
  10. “The Siberian Tiger Project: Managing Tiger-Human Conflicts.” WCS Russia. Wildlife Conservation Society, 2008. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.