An elephant park in Bali allegedly left more than a dozen elephants in a malnourished state and staff without pay after plummeting ticket sales forced it to close during the pandemic.
Bali Elephant Camp (BEC) is a safari-style amusement park half an hour’s drive north of the island’s spiritual capital Ubud that offers a range of nature-based activities like bike-riding through rice fields and white-water rafting.
In 2005, BEC joined a wildlife conservation program run by the Ministry of Forestry that entrusts privately owned zoos and safari parks in Indonesia with the care of critically endangered Sumatran elephants.
A 2007 study by the World Wildlife Federation found there were only 2400 to 2800 Sumatran elephants left in the wild, and the number now is thought to have halved as a result of poaching for ivory, human-elephant conflict and deforestation.
Between 1980 and 2005 – the equivalent of only one and a half elephant generations – 67 per cent of the potential Sumatran elephant’s habitat was lost.
The elephants for the parks and zoos are sourced from breeding centres established 30 years ago in Sumatra to help stabilise the rapidly disappearing species. In exchange for giving them a home, accredited businesses are permitted to sell elephant-tourism services that were wildly profitable before the pandemic. BEC was charging $230 for a half-hour elephant ride for two people.
The birth of three baby elephants over the past 15 years suggest BEC was not only meeting but exceeding its animal welfare requirements. “Our friends in conservation say we have some of the healthiest, happiest elephants they’ve ever seen!” reads information on the company’s website, which is still live.
But photographs taken by a wildlife veterinarian at the park in May, show several severely undernourished elephants.
“You cannot imagine a skinny elephant until you see one,” says Femke Den Haas, a veterinarian from the Netherlands who’s been working to protect wildlife in Indonesia for 20 years. “They are big animals and you’re not meant to see their bones.
“But that’s what they were – just skin and bones.”
Hass visited the camp as a partner of BKSDA (Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam Bali), the government body that supervises safari parks and zoos on the island that have adopted Sumatran elephants.
“Many industries in Bali have collapsed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Dr Agus Budi Santosa, director of BKSDA. “But the impact on small companies like Bali Elephant Park has been especially severe. [When tourism stopped], they were no longer able to cover operational costs, especially the cost of feeding elephants. The government had to assist them by paying for food and electricity.”
BEC’s telephone numbers are no longer active. But in July, the company told the Bali Animal Welfare Association it was doing its best to take care of the elephants but struggled to meet its monthly $1400 operating costs. They added that the forestry department and BKSDA had not offered any financial support.
“You can’t as a company say there are no more visitors so I am not taking care of the elephants anymore,” says Hass. “That is what has happened and it is really disgusting because these elephants have given them profits for 15 years. So I don’t believe it when they say they don’t have any money. Elephants are not that expensive to take care of anyway. It costs $200 a month to feed one.”
Hass says BEC also left its staff without pay. “They have acted irresponsibly not only to the animals but to employees who committed their lives to their jobs. When I first got there, some of the staff had left and others were still there, working for free, trying to take care of the elephants,” she says.
Santosa says BEC was given two months to find new investors and restructure the business, during which Hass’s NGO, the Jakarta Aid Network, fed their elephants and paid the keepers’ wages.
When BEC failed to come up with a solution, the government seized its elephants. “We had to solve the problem quickly because if we delayed, it could have resulted in the death of the elephants,” Santosa said.
Hass added, “They didn’t want to let them take the elephants. They wanted to keep them to put them back to work after the pandemic.”
A new home
Three of BEC’s 14 elephants were adopted by an unidentified zoo on the neighbouring island of Java. The remaining 11 were relocated to Tasta Wildlife Park, a modern new zoo that opened in June in Tabanan Regency, a lush mountainous region in south-central Bali.
After a visit to Tasta Wildlife Park in September, all 11 elephants had been successfully rehabilitated and regained their natural form.
The chief elephant handler, Ketut, is a former BEC man who worked for the company for 13 years – the last 12 months with little to no pay. He does not bear any ill will to his former employer, only gratitude to his new one.
He knows the name and age of every elephant in the herd and loves sharing his knowledge with visitors, which are rare. “Elephants digest very little of the food they eat. So they’re always eating” he says. “They can eat up to 10 per cent of their body weight in a single day.”
With tickets at $2 to $4 and only a handful of visitors per day, Tasta Wildlife Park zoo is running at a huge loss yet all of its animals are well fed.
Three other elephant parks in Bali – Mason, Bali Zoo and the Bali Safari and Marine Park are also struggling financially but feeding their elephants, according to the Bali Animal Welfare Association.
Yet they are concerned about the welfare of seven elephants at Bakas, a safari-style amusement park in east Bali that charges $25 for entry and $85 to wash an elephant in a pool.
Hass says Bakas’ owners were also crying poor and demanding government assistance: “It’s quite easy to say we have no money to feed their elephants, so hello government, come and take care of it. But the ones who are responsible are the owners.”
During a visit to Batas, a few days after it had reopened following a three-month closure during partial lockdowns, there were no visitors at all. Staff said they still feed the elephants but do not know if it comes from the owners or donations. We were not allowed inside to see where the elephants are housed, only offered the opportunity to take a selfie with an elephant in the car park for $15. We turned the offer down.
Changing the ride
Reports of underfed elephants amid Bali’s purported pivot towards sustainable tourism after the pandemic have reignited calls for a rethink of Bali’s elephant-tourism industry.
“There are no known ethical Sanctuaries in Bali,” says Bali Elephant Paradise Hell, an advocacy group created by tourists who did not like what they say at the islands’ elephant camps. “The elephants are often kept chained for prolonged periods of time when not performing hideous shows or used for rides, living in fear of being stabbed with bullhooks and denied what is natural and important to them.”
The Bali Animal Welfare Association voices similar sentiments. “Tourist elephants are often overworked and forced to work in the heat of the day with inadequate food, water or rest.
“They may not show overt signs of distress, and may be obediently plodding along, but constant, forced proximity to humans without choice of retreat is extremely stressful for elephants,” it claims.
“They are deprived of the opportunity to perform natural behaviours, as they are either confined, tethered or under the bullhook. This creates anxiety and frustration.”
Hass says all of these problems were created by demand from tourists for elephant rides. “That one ride, that one selfie, it means a life sentence for these animals and now that Covid has hit it’s even worse because no more money is coming in and some elephants are starving,” she said.
“I am not saying these businesses should close,” the veterinarian says. “But I am hoping that after the pandemic, tourists will have a wake-up call and not ride elephants or play with them in swimming pools anymore.
“It’s 2021 and we should have ethical tourism where people who visit Bali on holidays should say, yes, we want to see elephants, but in a sanctuary where they can graze and are not tied up in chains waiting for people to ride them.
“You don’t have to come close to wildlife, you don’t need to touch them or get a selfie, just admire them from a distance.”
This was originally reported by Al Jazeera.
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