Elephant park in Bali left more than a dozen elephants to starve, and unpaid staff after plummeting ticket sales forced it to close when COVID-19 spread around the world and that the borders have been closed.
Bali Elephant Camp (BEC) is a safari-style park, a half-hour drive north of Ubud, the cultural capital of the Indonesian island, which offered a range of nature-based activities such as mountain biking. through rice fields and rafting.
In 2005, BEC joined a wildlife conservation program run by the Ministry of Forests that outsources private zoos and safari parks in Indonesia to care for critically endangered Sumatran elephants.
A 2007 study by the World Wide Fund for Nature found that only 2,400 Sumatran elephants remained in the wild, and their numbers are now thought to have halved due to poaching for ivory, human-elephant conflict and deforestation. Between 1980 and 2005 – the equivalent of just a generation and a half of elephants – 67 percent of the potential Sumatran elephant habitat was lost. In the wild, the animal was classified as “critically endangered” in 2012.
The elephants in the parks and zoos come from breeding centers established 30 years ago in Sumatra as part of a program supposed to help stabilize the population. In exchange for giving the animals a home, accredited companies were allowed to sell elephant tourism services that were hugely profitable before the pandemic. BEC was charging $ 230 for a half hour elephant ride for two people.
The birth of three baby elephants in the past 15 years suggests that the BEC not only met but exceeded its animal welfare requirements.
“Our conservation friends say we have some of the healthiest, happiest elephants they’ve ever seen! the company’s website boasts.
But photographs taken by a wildlife veterinarian at the park in May and shared exclusively with Al Jazeera showed several severely malnourished elephants.
“You can’t imagine a skinny elephant until you see one,” said Femke Den Haas, a Dutch veterinarian who has worked in the protection of wildlife in Indonesia for 20 years.
“They are big animals and you are not supposed to see their bones. But that’s what they were – just skin and bones.
Haas visited the camp as a partner of Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam Bali (BKSDA), the government body that oversees safari parks and zoos that have adopted Sumatran elephants.
“Many industries in Bali have collapsed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Agus Budi Santosa, director of BKSDA. “But the impact on small businesses like Bali Elephant Camp has been particularly severe. [When tourism stopped] they were no longer able to cover operational costs, especially the cost of feeding the elephants. The government had to help them by paying for food and electricity.
In July, the company told the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) that it was doing its best to take care of the elephants but was struggling to cover its monthly operating costs of $ 1,400 and that neither the forestry department nor BKSDA offered financial support.
BEC representatives were unavailable to answer Al Jazeera’s questions about elephants, and his phone numbers were disconnected.
“As a business, you can’t say that there are no more visitors, so I don’t take care of the elephants anymore,” Haas said.
“That’s what happened and it’s really disgusting because these elephants have been making money for them for 15 years. So I don’t believe it when they say they don’t have money. Elephants aren’t that expensive to care for anyway. It costs $ 200 a month to feed one.
Haas says BEC has also left its staff without pay.
“They have acted irresponsibly not only towards the animals, but towards the employees who have dedicated their lives to their work. When I got there some of the staff were gone and others were still there, working for free, trying to take care of the elephants, ”she says.
Santosa says BEC had two months to find new investors and restructure the business, during which Haas’ NGO, the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, fed their elephants and paid the salaries of the keepers.
When BEC failed to find a solution, the government seized the elephants.
“We had to solve the problem quickly because if we had delayed it could have resulted in the death of the elephants,” Santosa said.
Haas adds, “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 house
Three of the 14 BEC elephants were adopted by an unidentified zoo on the neighboring island of Java.
The remaining 11 were moved to Tasta Wildlife Park, a new modern zoo that opened in June in Tabanan Regency, a lush mountainous region in south-central Bali. When Al Jazeera visited Tasta Wildlife Park in September, all 11 animals had been successfully rehabilitated and had gained weight.
The chief elephant master, Ketut, is a BEC alumnus who has worked for the company for 13 years – the last 12 months with little to no pay.
He has no grudges towards his old employer, only gratitude towards his new one. He knows the name and age of each elephant in the herd and loves to share his knowledge with visitors, although they remain rare for now.
“Elephants digest very little of the food they eat. So they always eat, ”he said. “They can eat up to 10 percent of their body weight in a single day.”
With tickets between $ 2-4 and only a handful of visitors a day, Tasta Wildlife Park is operating at a loss, but it continues to ensure that all of its animals are well fed.
According to BAWA, three other elephant parks in Bali – Mason, Bali Zoo and Bali Safari and Marine Park – are also in financial difficulty but are feeding their elephants.
But they are concerned for the welfare of seven elephants at Bakas, a safari-style amusement park in east Bali that charges $ 25 for entry and $ 85 for washing an elephant in a swimming pool.
Bakas has long been pursued by accusations of undernourishing his elephants with complaints from visitors to TripAdvisor dating back a decade.
“Don’t go to Bakas Elephant Park. This park is mainly aimed at extracting as much money as possible from tourists, without worrying about animal welfare, ”a tourist wrote on the site in 2011.“ The elephants were clearly undernourished and the one we were on continued to try to stop and eat, resulting in a sharp blow to the head with the goalie’s stick.
Haas says the owners of Bakas mourn the poor too and ask for government help: “It’s pretty easy to say we don’t have money to feed their elephants, so hello government, come and take care of it. But those who are responsible are the owners.
Al Jazeera visited Bakas days after it reopened after a three-month closure during partial closures, and there were no visitors.
Staff said they still fed the elephants, but were unsure whether the food was paid for by owners or through donations. In the parking lot, they offered a “selfie” with an elephant for a fee, but refused to show the areas inside where the elephants were housed. Camp owners have not responded to Al Jazeera’s requests to respond to the allegations.
The plight of malnourished elephants amid talks about more sustainable tourism in the post-pandemic Bali has reignited calls to rethink elephant tourism on the island.
“There are no known ethical sanctuaries in Bali,” wrote Bali Elephant Paradise Hell, an advocacy group created before the pandemic by tourists who didn’t like what they saw in elephant camps. islands, on their website before the pandemic.
“Elephants are often kept in chains for long periods of time when they are not putting on hideous shows or being used for walks, living in fear of being stabbed with hooks and deprived of what is natural and important to them. them.”
BAWA expresses similar sentiments. The group referred Al Jazeera to comments it made even before the pandemic.
“Tourist elephants are often overworked and forced to work in the heat of the day with insufficient food, water or rest. They may not show overt signs of distress and can walk obediently, but the constant and forced proximity of humans with no choice of retreat is extremely stressful for elephants, ”BAWA said. “They are deprived of the opportunity to adopt natural behaviors because they are either confined, tied up or under the hook. It creates anxiety and frustration.
Haas says that all of these problems were created by tourist demand for elephant rides: some elephants are starving.
“I’m not saying these businesses should shut down,” the vet said. “But I hope that after the pandemic tourists will have a wake-up call and no longer ride on elephants or play with them in swimming pools.
“We are in 2021 and we should have ethical tourism where people who visit Bali on vacation should say, yes we want to see elephants, but in a sanctuary where they can graze and are not chained while waiting for people to see them. go up. You don’t need to get close to the wild animals, you don’t need to touch them or take a selfie, you just need to admire them from a distance.