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Video shows 'shocking cruelty' towards elephants at Jungle Book themed resort sold by top UK travel agencies

Exclusive: TUI and Thomas Cook allegedly booked UK tourists on trips to attraction, where elephants are kept chained up and forced to give rides to as many as three people at a time

Adam Withnall
Monday 23 July 2018 04:51 BST
Elephant in the water appears to be stabbed with a stick in Goa

Leading travel agencies have been booking UK tourists on trips to a Jungle Book themed resort in India where the treatment of elephants amounts to animal cruelty, according to a leading welfare charity.

A video taken by The Independent shows a captive adult Asian elephant being forced to shower tourists with its trunk, driven to do so each time by a handler wielding a large stick.

Elephants at the resort in Kulem, eastern Goa, were kept chained by both their front and back legs, and tourists were also offered rides on the animals, which were expected to carry as many as three people at a time.

Kartick Satyanarayan, the founder of Wildlife SOS, said the video captured by The Independent was “shocking”.

Describing what happens in the video, he said: “He’s poking [the elephant]. It’s a long stick with a pointed end to it – you can see he’s consciously trying to hide it.”

Wildlife SOS, the largest animal welfare charity in India, campaigns to raise awareness of the brutality involved in training captive elephants to be used for rides, tourism, processions or manual labour, with beatings and restraints used to break the spirit of the animal. “It’s a very vicious, very brutal [process],” Mr Satyanarayan said.

“[The handler] has conditioned that elephant, saying every time I’m going to poke you, and if you don’t do this I’m going to poke you harder. The elephant has realised, the minute I get a slight poke I’m going to do [what he wants] because I don’t want more pain.”

Stays at the Jungle Book resort can be booked through TripAdvisor, despite the company’s introduction of a ban in 2016 on sales for attractions involving elephant rides and other physical contact with wild animals.

Multiple reviewers writing on TripAdvisor said they had been booked on a trip to Jungle Book by TUI, formerly Thompson’s, and at least one reviewer said they were offered the experience by a Thomas Cook rep.

The reviews are generally more positive than negative, with only some UK tourists describing what they saw as “animal cruelty”.

Luke C from Birmingham visited this April, writing in his review that the resort “poorly treat[s]” the elephants. “The elephant that did the ‘showers’ had open wounds on its head and a rope tied around its neck that dug into it to allow tourists to climb on,” he said. “Overall an awful experience.”

Elephants are a national icon and an endangered species in India, numbering only around 22,000. They are named as a Schedule 1 animal in the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act – meaning those who abuse them can face up to seven years in prison.

Yet the fate of around 3,500 captive elephants remains a grey area in India’s laws. Licences to keep them can be obtained from the state’s chief wildlife warden, and in 2016 the Supreme Court observed that the animals could be kept as long as owners are not “unkind to elephants”.

Mr Satyanarayan said international tourists and the public in general “need to understand what goes on behind the curtain, the ugly, vicious, evil trade that this whole thing inculcates”.

Commercially successful elephant attractions “create a demand that drives more poaching, more brutality, more illegal elephant trafficking and more captive elephants”, he said.

“Every person who rides an elephant must know that, for a few minutes of their joy, it’s a life of nightmares for that elephant.”

In a statement to The Independent, TripAdvisor said its 2016 policies to improve animal welfare standards in the tourism industry “focused on the experiences sector”, while Jungle Book was classified as accommodation on its website.

“We do not have a direct booking relationship with all accommodations on our site, the booking options are often provided by partners, and therefore we are not currently in a position to vet them in the same way,” a spokesperson said.

“That said, our commitment doesn’t stop with experiences. We are always considering the evolution of this policy, including exploring ways in which TripAdvisor can drive positive change in the tourism accommodation sector too.” Travellers who were unhappy with animal welfare standards at their accommodation should “write a review to warn others”, the spokesperson said.

Thomas Cook said the review mentioning its rep was from 18 months ago and that the agency “does not sell that excursion and has not for some time”.

A TUI spokesperson said at the time of publication that they would not be able to provide a full statement until they can “investigate this thoroughly with the resort”.

The company that operates Jungle Book, Goa Ecotourism Adventures, did not respond to multiple requests for comment by email. A person manning the phones at the resort said they were unable to comment on the elephants’ welfare, and that director Joseph Barreto was out of country. Calls to a man identified as the manager of the hotel went unanswered.

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