Awareness of elephant rights – or, rather, the wrongs suffered by elephants – is on the rise in Asia. Which isn’t saying much. According to conservation charity World Animal Protection (WAP), there are more than 3,000 pachyderms, including calves, being held captive at tourist attractions in the region, many of which are treated poorly for the sake of entertainment. “The animals are beaten into submission when young and then forced to let travellers take rides on their backs and to perform confusing and sometimes painful tricks, including walking on tightropes, balancing on two legs on a small drum, painting pictures, and dancing,” says animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And in a terribly 2020 twist of fate, because the pandemic has essentially halted mass travel within Asia, and the venues at which these elephants are kept are funded almost exclusively by visitors from further afield, these captive animals are going hungry. But it hasn’t all been bad news. In Vietnam, where “the elephant population has experienced a precipitous decline over the past two decades and has reached perilous levels”, with an estimated 60 to 100 left in the wild and 38 “held in captivity for tourism”, according to animal charity Wild Welfare, authorities have called for an end to elephant-back tours of the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak. The move has been prompted by “accidents and animal protection concerns”, reports English-language news site VnExpress International. In May, a mahout, or handler, was killed by a captive elephant in Dak Lak. Then, in July, a tourist fell during a tour and was injured. Is social media to blame for unethical wildlife tourism in Asia? Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia reported that five elephants died from exhaustion due to overwork in Vietnam in 2015. According to VnExpress International, three captive elephants delivered stillborn calves in the past 30 years and only four calves have been born to the wild population of about 100 pachyderms, facts that Huynh Trung Luan, director of the Dak Lak Elephant Conservation Centre, blames on habitat loss, contamination of food and exploitation for tourism purposes. Speaking to VnExpress International, Dionne Slagter of Animals Asia called the elephant rides, during which the animals are forced to work for long hours under the sun, “one of the highest levels of animal cruelty, especially because it is for entertainment”. However, while a ban on elephant rides in Dak Lak is, without doubt, good news for those with trunks, it could be better. “Instead [of offering rides], Dak Lak, home to many of Vietnam’s surviving elephants, will consider other services such as bathing and feeding the animals to offer tourists new experiences,” Nguyen Thuy Phuong Hieu, the deputy director of the province’s Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said at a recent conference. As WAP notes in its guide to elephant-friendly tourism, “If a venue allows you to get close enough to ride, bathe or touch them, it’s because they’ve been cruelly trained,” adding: “Only visit venues where you can look, not touch.” At present, nowhere in Vietnam features on the organisation’s list of elephant-friendly venues, which means that any place in the country boasting pachyderm experiences should be omitted from future travel plans. That is, unless it is the tour offered by Dak Lak’s Yok Don National Park, which was created in conjunction with Animals Asia and at which there is no elephant interaction. There’s not even a guarantee participants will encounter any of the four, formerly chained animals that now roam freely, albeit under the watchful eye of their mahout, who is employed to make sure no elephant trespasses on private property. In 2018, when Yok Don launched the tour, Lonely Planet reported “Animals Asia hopes that it will become profitable” within five years, “encouraging elephant facilities around the country to follow their example”. Profits have no doubt been affected by the pandemic, but hopefully the move to more ethical treatment of Vietnam’s diverse wildlife will continue. Cher to the rescue of Kaavan, the ‘world’s loneliest elephant’ Perhaps Vietnam’s captive elephants could benefit from a celebrity endorsement – from someone like Cher , whose “wishes have finally come true” following the release of the “world’s loneliest elephant” from a zoo in Pakistan. Kaavan, “an overweight 36-year-old bull elephant”, according to The Guardian , recently left Islamabad in a metal crate on his way to Siem Reap, in Cambodia. The singer first found out about Kaavan’s plight – he had languished alone in a zoo and betrayed signs of boredom and misery since his mate died, in 2012 – on Twitter and started raising awareness, and funds, to rescue the elephant. The transfer to Kaavan’s new home, a sanctuary where he will roam free, is thought to have cost US$400,000, and it started with a song; CNN Travel reported, “Ahead of his trip, Cher travelled to Pakistan and serenaded Kaavan with the song A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes .” As if the poor beast hadn’t already suffered enough! Rumours of early Bali reopening quashed Bad news for anyone betting on an early December Bali reopening – not only has the proposed December 1 date been and gone without any border restrictions having been lifted, but rumours the Indonesian island might be welcoming international arrivals before the year’s end have also been quashed. Quoting Bali’s deputy governor, Tjokorda Oka Artha Ardana Sukawati, online news site The Bali Times reported that “it looks like it will be early next year” when foreign tourists are allowed back. Even that should be taken with a pinch of salt, since hopes of a September reopening – encouraged by local officials – were crushed by Indonesia’s central government, which ultimately calls the shots.