6 June 2024

Khao Kheow Open Zoo, in Thailand’s eastern province of Chon Buri, will continue holding elephant swimming shows for tourists despite social media criticism, alleging cruelty to animals, after a picture, titled “Elephant in the Room”, taken by Adam Oswell of Australia, won the best picture in the photojournalism category at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards 2021, organized by Natural History Museum in London.

In an exclusive interview with Thai PBS, the zoo’s director, Tewin Rattanawongsawat, said that this is not the first time that elephant swimming shows have been described as torture. He argued that swimming is natural behaviour for elephants as they, by nature, love to be in water for several hours at a time and they can swim long distances.

He also said that the elephants on show are not forced, because there is no mahout riding them. Instead, he said, the animals are allowed to swim freely in the glass room and, after each show, they are given food as a reward.

When asked why they perform in a glass room, Thewin explained that putting an elephant on show in a glass room, as suggested by the award-winning picture, seems to be a misunderstanding, because the zoo is spacious enough for animals to roam freely and for elephants to exercise, accompanied by mahouts, to ease stress.

He explained that getting an elephant to swim in a glass room is intended to allow children to learn their behaviour, to love them and to inspire awareness for conservation of the pachyderms.

The zoo organises two shows a day, each lasts about half an hour, with one elephant at a time. Two elephants, named Khao Kheow and Jim, perform the shows.

Thewin claims that every animal in the zoo is treated in full accordance with World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) and Southeast Asian Zoos and Aquariums Association (SEAZA) standards.

Meanwhile, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Chatchote Thitaram, of the Faculty of Veterinary MedicineChiang Mai University, pointed out that the name of the picture “Elephant in the Room” does not literally mean an animal in a room, but is a metaphorical English idiom denoting a major issue about which nobody is prepared to talk. In this case the illegal trade in wildlife, torture and unethical treatment of wild animals.

He recalled that the same show, which drew flak from the animal protection lobby in October 2018, eventually prompted the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand to issue a clarification via Facebook.

He said that elephant swimming at Khao Kheow Open Zoo is regarded as positive reinforcement, allowing the beasts to demonstrate their natural behaviour, as elephants and water are inseparable. Swimming shows, he added, are in line with animal welfare standards and within the scope of the Five Domains Model, namely nutrition, environment, health, behaviour and mental state.

He claimed, however, that such information has not reached the “western world” or they are not open to a different viewpoint, with their predetermination that wildlife must remain in the wild and cannot live with humans.

Thai people are familiar with elephants and have been raising them for centuries, but still there are “animal-loving westerners” who consider the training and use of elephants, with the use of a hook by mahouts to tame them, to be an act of torture.

Thailand’s best defence against the allegations of cruelty or torture is effective management, to ensure good welfare and treatment of the animals and good laws to protect them, said Dr. Chatchote.