Notorious for being practically everyone’s favourite animal, elephants even have their own ‘day’ (World Elephant Day).

Although many of us claim to love these majestic animals, treatment of elephants throughout the world is disturbingly poor. Elephants are threatened by poaching, trophy huntingcircuses, tourist attractions and economic development.

In July this year, the NGO World Animal Protection (WAP) issued a report that in horrifying detail described how thousands of elephants worldwide – particularly across Asia – are exploited and mistreated in unfathomable conditions. A key example of this is tourist elephant rides – they seem like a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, but the reality is that those elephants are most likely, in the WAP’s assessment, treated appallingly.

The WAP estimates that over 3,000 elephants used for entertainment in Asia are now all in captivity, most living in deplorable conditions. All of these places which ‘home’ the elephants offer elephant rides. It might not appear obvious why elephant rides are a threat to elephants; most people do not realise that these animals – animals who are known to establish strong social connections, mourning when a family member dies or is taken away – are stolen from their mothers at a very young age. Not only this, but juveniles are subjected to cruel training – whipping, being hit with spiked rods – in order to ‘break their spirits’ and ensure control is kept. This only adds to the trauma of the elephants being raised in unnatural, often lonely, conditions and forced to perform tasks irrespective of their health or ability.

And this will only escalate, unless we take action now: in just five years, there has been a 30% rise in the number of elephants at Thai tourism venues alone. In Africa, while there were as many as 5 million elephants in the wild in the early part of the 20th century, there now remain 415,000.

The destruction of elephants and their habitats is not only pushing these irreplaceable creatures into extinction, but also greatly threatens the way of life of local citizens. One study in particular has shown that across southern African countries, eco-tourism opportunities offered by elephants could help more communities thrive (although, some might oppose this, as it may be seen to view animals as a commodity humans are able to use to their own advantage). French NGO, Des Éléphants & Des Hommes for instance, has worked since 2003 to help humans and elephants coexist for both economic and environmental developments.

But, the protection of elephants is ultimately a race against time. The United Nations recently affirmed that threats, including the illegal ivory trade, have increased elephants’ premature deaths and are now outpacing the rate of natural deaths across central and west Africa.

World Elephant Day is intended as a reminder that we must do all we can to protect and conserve these animals – and their natural habitats – before it is too late.

Here’s what you can do:

  1. AVOID IVORY: While there have been developments in poaching prevention – drones are being used to monitor poachers – the trade will continue so long as there is demand. Never buy ivory, and be cautious to check if you cannot tell what the item you are buying is made from.
  2. DON’T RIDE: Never accept an elephant ride! If you want to get up close and personal to elephants, find an ethical elephant sanctuary instead.
  3. PLAN AHEAD: Think about which countries to travel to. Thailand has by far the highest number of elephants used in tourism, so if you really don’t want to see elephants being mistreated, take your tourism elsewhere.
  4. SPEAK UP: Report any cruelty, and seek out places where there isn’t any. TripAdvisor announced that they would phase out sales for any attraction in which humans can come in close contact with wildlife, including elephants, so they might be a good site to plan your travel with.
  5. SHARE KNOWLEDGE: Spread the word. Educate your friends about protecting elephants – there more people aware of the threats, hopefully the less perpetrators there will be.
  6. DONATE: There are an abundance of NGOs which work to protect elephants, but they can’t do it without the funds. If you have any cash spare, think about donating it to a really worthwhile cause, such as the Elephant Crisis Fund.

Finally, if you need any encouragement to do your bit to help save the elephants, here are a few fun facts about the beautiful creature that is the elephant:

  1. There are many reports of elephants showing altruism toward other species, such as rescuing trapped dogs at considerable risk to themselves!
  2. Elephant herds are matriarchal; this may be linked to the fact that an elephant hers is considered one of the most closely knit societies of any animal, with females leaving their herd only if she dies.. or is captured by humans.
  3. Elephants have been known to induce labour by self-medicating with certain plants.
  4. Homosexual behaviour in elephants is common and well-documented.
  5. Baby elephants are born blind, and suck on their own trucks for comfort in the same way humans suck their thumbs! Mothers will also select babysitters to care for their calf while she takes some time to eat for herself!
  6. There are reported cases of elephants burying dead humans: they care for us, and now we need to care for them too.