Tui Care Foundation and World Animal Protection have joined forces in an effort to protect about 1,500 Asian elephants in captivity by 2020.

They aim to support “welfare-friendly” venues for tourists to experience wildlife responsibly across Thailand and five other countries in the region.

The two organisations hope to establish a benchmark for best practices in the region and enable the expansion of these models to other venues.

While focused mainly on Thailand, the initiative is aimed at five other key countries covering the largest part of the population of captive Asian elephants – Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka.

A new accreditation system is being trialled to enhance demand-based rewards of welfare improvements.

Guidelines will be created to foster best practices and eventually put a stop to demand for and supply of cruel elephant entertainment.

Tui Care Foundation and World Animal Protection are also working with the travel industry and policymakers to define minimum welfare requirements for elephant venues and give recognition to those genuinely offering higher welfare for the animals.

Raising awareness is another key goal to establish a best-practice benchmark in the region.

Many tourism companies have already acknowledged the importance of the matter and are working towards more sustainable and responsible offerings in tourism.

More than 100 travel agencies had pledged not to include elephant rides and shows in their itineraries by last year.

Tui in the Netherlands was the first tour operator in the world to openly stop offering elephant rides and shows.

A sustainable business model will be developed in conjunction with animal experts and the best local venues to promote
demand from the tourism industry for truly elephant-friendly sites.

Resources will be provided to help existing elephant venues to achieve high animal welfare standards.

Around 4,000 elephants are estimated to be in captivity in Thailand, and an additional 2,000 to 3,000 live in their natural habitat.

But the Asian elephant population in the wild has experienced a rapid decline over recent decades and they are classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature list.

Tui Care Foundation board of trustees chairman Thomas Ellerbeck said: “In the tourism industry, we have seen positive change towards the protection of elephants as well as a growing interest for further information from tourists.

“This reflects the fact that protecting elephants and their well-being is actually safeguarding a fundamental part of the natural heritage that makes these countries such outstanding destinations.

“Tourism can be a driving force for positive change, and we are proud to work with World Animal Protection to support an elephant friendly future in Asia.”

World Animal Protection CEO Steve McIvor added: “Alternative travel options are available and public demand for elephant rides is slowly changing, but there is still work to be done.

“Many tourists see elephants as the highlight of their holiday. However, this wish often stems from a lack of awareness of the abuse involved. As soon as they become aware of the suffering caused by elephant rides and shows, their enthusiasm quickly wanes.”