This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
Finally heeding the calls of environmentalists everywhere, the Cambodian government is now putting an end to elephant rides in the country’s famed temple complex Angkor Wat, an official said yesterday.
Fourteen elephants used as attractions for tourists will soon make their journey to their new home.
According to officials from the Apsara Authority, a government agency that oversees the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first two elephants are on their way to the Bos Thom community forest, where they can happily live the rest of their lives “in their natural surroundings.”
“In early 2020, our association plans to end the use of elephants to transport tourists,” Oan Kiry, director of the Angkor Elephant Group Committee, said.
He added that those who visit the community forest can still interact with the elephants, but from a distance.
“They can still watch the elephants and take photos of them in our conservation and breeding centre. We want the elephants to live in as natural a manner as possible,” Kiry said.
The operation started yesterday and is set to be completed early next year.
Angkor Wat’s elephants have been working in the tourist spot since 2001, painfully transporting tourists that reach up to 2 million a year. Although not all of the tourists want a ride, they’re still very much overworked.
In 2016, an elderly female elephant named Sambo died of heart failure after shuttling tourists around in the dry heat. The elephant had reportedly just finished a 45-minute long tourist shuttle when it succumbed to the heat and high blood pressure.
This inspired a change.org petition that called on the Apsara Authority to end elephant riding within the complex; it garnered over 180,000 signatures.
Moving out Angkor’s elephants is an important first step to end wildlife tourism in Cambodia, but there are still an estimated 70 domesticated elephants in captivity.
Research by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found that there are still 550,000 wild animals worldwide suffering from irresponsible tourism attractions. The wildlife tourism industry is still attracting up to 110 million visitors every year, the South China Morning Post reported.
Cambodia is home to 400-600 wild elephants, many of them under threat from poachers, the destruction of habitats, and conflict between animals and people who live around them.
But attitudes about wildlife tourism have slowly been shifting, with many tourists now understanding the suffering animals go through, all for the sake of their selfie.
“More and more tourists no longer want to pay to see animals in chains or captivity, and attractions where elephant riding continues, need to ban these rides if they are to stay in favour with tourists and animal lovers,” said a spokesperson from the campaign group Moving Animals.