Tell Us How to Make It Better

Poor Treatment of Animals Around the World Needs to Stop

August 02, 2022 George Siegal Season 1 Episode 49
Tell Us How to Make It Better
Poor Treatment of Animals Around the World Needs to Stop
Show Notes Transcript

Episode 49
August 2, 2022
Poor Treatment of Animals Around the World Needs to Stop

Dr. Nikki Savvides has been exploring the best ways to protect Thailand’s captive elephants. They often suffer from serious welfare issues due to their use in tourism, including at tourist camps that offer elephant rides and shows.

Here are some important moments with Dr. Savvides from the podcast: 

At 3:46  What is the problem you have identified, and what are you doing to make it better?

 At 9:16 What exactly are they using these poor elephants for over in Thailand?

At 17:09 What are the biggest obstacles you face trying to help the elephants?

Here are some ways to follow and contact Dr. Savvides:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nikki-savvides-4762b120/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/aftertheforests/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aftertheforests

Sign up for Dr. Savvides free newsletter: https://nikkisavvides.com/

If you enjoyed listening to this podcast, please share it with your friends. Also make sure to like it and subscribe to become a weekly listener. And if you can leave a review that would be great too.

If you have ideas for podcasts or want to share your thoughts on what you’ve listened to, we’d love to hear from you: https://tellushowtomakeitbetter.com/contact

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Nikki Savvides:

Like the, the greatest sadness I have about elephants and captivity in Thailand and elsewhere is that because they are chained up for most of the day and night they're unable to perform their four natural behaviors being roaming, foraging, wallowing, and play, and socialization is hugely important for them. And they're denied many opportunities for socialization. Some really are chained up almost permanently, depending on the circumstances of their owner. So it is very much a tragedy when we look at the current conditions for captivity.

George Siegal:

I'm George Siegal. And this is the Tell Us How to Make It Better podcast. Every week, we introduce you to people who are working on real world problems and providing actual solutions. Tell Us How to Make It Better is partnering with The Readiness Lab, the home for podcasts, webinars, and training in the field of emergency and disaster services. Hi everybody. Thank you so much for joining me on this week's Tell Us How to Make It Better podcasts. Every. I tried to introduce you to somebody who has identified a problem and is doing something to try to make it better. I know there are a lot of people out there that love animals. And one of the most, I don't know if you would say majestic, but awe inspiring animals is the elephant. And there are parts of the world where they have it pretty bad. My guest today is Dr. Nikki Savvides, an Australian environmental ethnographer who studies the impact of tourism on animals. For the past decade, she's been researching the use of captive elephants in the Thai tourism industry and examining how more ethical tourism ventures might improve elephant welfare, Nikki, welcome.

Nikki Savvides:

Thanks for having me, George. Great to meet you.

George Siegal:

Now. Do you like Dr. Nicki? Dr. Savita, Nicki, what do you prefer?

Nikki Savvides:

Just Nicki is fine.

George Siegal:

Okay. Very good. I hate, hate to undermine the the, the doctor thing. So let me ask you this for people who don't know you, tell me something about you that most people probably would not know.

Nikki Savvides:

Well, I guess it actually comes to a surprise as a surprise to many people I know at home or I meet because I'm simultaneously a musician and an environmental ethnographer. So people often don't realize that I do both completely very different things. So my music people don't know so much about the elephant world and vice versa. So it's kind of interesting seeing people try and balance in their heads. Like how are you simultaneously an electronic music producer and an environmental ethnographer who's super passionate about elephants, but they're my two main main passions. And I'm really lucky that I get to explore both in my everyday life.

George Siegal:

So what do you do in music? What instrument?

Nikki Savvides:

So I do everything electronic. So I work with a program called Ableton live and I create everything within that. So I played in bands many, many years where I played bass and now I get to be all the instruments using the computer. So that's pretty awesome.

George Siegal:

That's fantastic. Two of my kids played instruments and it was it was something that was really good for them. And if you had to go out today to do something fun and it did not involve elephants, what would you go out and do?

Nikki Savvides:

Well right now I'm just trying to do more nature stuff. I've got a couple of horses, so I go and see them as much as possible. And that gives me a really good connection cuz I live in the city. And my horses live out in beautiful semi rural outskirts of Sydney. So I get to kind of have the best of both, both worlds living right near like really busy hubs in Sydney CBD, and then also having nature that I can get to as often as I can.

George Siegal:

That is awesome. That is fantastic. Okay. So let's talk about what is the problem that you've identified and tell us what you're doing to make it better?

Nikki Savvides:

Yeah, so I kind of fell into learning about the issues with captive elephants in Thailand more than 10 years ago now, actually in 2008 when I first visited elephant nature park, which is a sanctuary in Northern Thailand. And I soon learned that there are about three and a half to 4,000 elephants living in captivity in Thailand, and many of well, most of them are suffering from serious welfare issues. So I started to become interested in finding ways to solve those issues, or at least overcome them to some extent. And that led me down a very long, very complicated rabbit hole that ultimately led to me writing a book, but in the early stages that I never thought I'd be writing a book. I just knew from the moment I met my first captive elephant that I was meant to help them.

George Siegal:

That's interesting. So what is it that got you into doing that? It doesn't seem like that's something that connects with music and especially being over in Sydney. So how did you, how did you get into that whole thing?

Nikki Savvides:

I well, my background, my academic background is in animal studies and cultural studies. So at the university of Sydney, I did a master's in animal studies in the mid two thousands. And that was around horses and ethics, like the ethics of riding excuse me. And I'm mainly focused on dressage and natural horsemanship, which are two different disciplines that kind of have many interconnected principles. And after I finished doing that I rewarded myself with a trip to Thailand and I wanted to volunteer with animals while I was there. So I'd already had great experiences volunteering with animals in Europe, but I'd never been to Asia. So I firstly volunteered at a dog rescue in Bangkok, which was an amazing experience. And then not long after that I discovered elephant nature park. Went for a week at first, ended up staying a month, volunteering at sanctuary. And that was a really pivotal moment that sort of has shaped the next more than decade of my life.

George Siegal:

Now you hear about all the, you, you were telling us about all these elephants in captivity there and how poorly they're treated. Are they indigenous to that area where they're, how are they ending up captive there?

Nikki Savvides:

Yeah, so they are native to Thailand and native generally across south and Southeast Asia. Captivity for elephants has been a thousand year process around at least that long by indigenous tribes and the issue isn't so much how they're treated. I mean, it is, it is that as an issue, but it's the culmination of ongoing environmental, economic social changes that have meant that once we what we're more kind of for indigenous people anyway spiritual connections with elephants and a way of life based around elephants has been corrupted by industries such as logging and tourism being two of the most profound. So people who may once have been able to care for their elephants in a more kind way, have found that due to declining resources, which includes both natural resources for elephant food and their own income are not necessarily able to provide the best life for elephants, even if there are some people who aim to do that and aren't able to. There are some people who, you know, like everyone in many people in life don't care so much about animals and might be shackled to an elephant as a way of making an income. So there's sort of a broad range of treatment around elephants, all related to the different conditions of captivity.

George Siegal:

Well, we see that a lot here in the United States. I mean, maybe not, I can't speak to how they're treated, but I can sure speak to how they look when they're in a zoo. And it looks like a pretty miserable existence in that small area that they're given. And I, I have context for that as I was telling you before we started recording. I went on a safari with my wife in South Africa and we saw elephants in the wild and they, the guide would talk about the amount of territory they would cover, how they would rub their trunk on trees and how they would do all these different things out in the wild that we never think about because you certainly don't see that in a zoo. And so it seems like any animal in captivity is, is gonna be hugely unfair for them.

Nikki Savvides:

Yeah. And the main, like the, the greatest sadness I have about elephants and captivity in Thailand and elsewhere is that because they are chained up for most of the day and night they're unable to perform their four natural behaviors being roaming, foraging, wallowing, and play, and socialization is hugely important for them. And they're denied many opportunities for socialization. Some really are chained up almost permanently, depending on the circumstances of their owner. So it is very much a tragedy when we look at the current conditions for captivity.

George Siegal:

And when they're chained up, is it, is it because how they're using them? I mean, are they using them for rides? I mean, what are they doing for the, to these poor elephants that they're so confined like that?

Nikki Savvides:

So some are used for rides. Most of the elephants that I worked with and the people I worked with were in traditional villages that have experienced over the past 40 or 50 years rampant deforestation. These were places that were. Heavily forested and where people indigenous people kept their elephants as kind of spiritual kin and part of their family. There's still an element of that culture that still exists, but the forests have been completely destroyed. So as soon as that started to happen the circumstances you have several hundred elephants that once used to be tethered or monitored within a forest area. Now suddenly being in, you know, surrounded by roads and rice fields and farmers who, you know, don't appreciate elephants wandering onto their land and can shoot and kill elephants as a result of that. So one reason they're chained up is for safety. Another reason they're chained up is because they're used in tourist camps to give rides and perform in shows and to be kept on site, to stop them roaming due to the conditions of deforestation, which means there's no natural food and no natural habitat. Sadly, this is, this is the lot of most elephants in Thailand.

George Siegal:

So how do you make this better? What do you have to do?

Nikki Savvides:

So my focus has been on ethical tourism, so both elephants and their handlers who no hoops, hoops rely on tourism to survive and they have for sometime. Long story that starts with the logging industry and then the ban in logging and both Mahouts and elephants needing to find employment in tourism to make ends meet, to provide food for elephants, with income, for Mahouts, so that they can provide for their families and their elephants and traditional tourism camps are, you know, a lot leave a lot to be desired in terms of their conditions. Over the past 20, 30 years, there's been a gradual shift to low impact tourism, sanctuary tourism and volunteer tourism, which are allowing elephants to experience more freedom in the form of the behaviors, their ability to roam and forage and wallow and dams and rivers and socialize and play with one another. So my real interest has been in primarily volunteering on and studying more ethical tourism ventures and exploring how those ventures are helping elephants to have more freedom. And a lot of that relates to removing elephants from their chains. A lot of it involves rescuing elephants from situations where their welfare is threatened and moving them to areas and working on deforestation and rehabilitation projects aimed at potentially well at this stage, small numbers, but potentially in the future large number of, of elephants being rewilded. So that's real focus.

George Siegal:

Yeah. That's that's a huge task. I mean, you really have to approach this from so many different ways it sounds like yeah. You know, not just finding that the elephants are treated better, but the whole thing about the forestation and, you know, what's happening to the forest around the world. I mean, That's a tough one. Do a lot of these elephants end up getting shipped to places around the world and end up maybe worse off than they are, where they are now?

Nikki Savvides:

Yeah, there are some weird exchanges of elephants from certain places to other places. I know that here in Sydney to Taronga zoo bought a bunch of elephants from Thailand probably about 10 years ago. Apparently pay paid three times as much as they were worth. So it's arguable. I dunno. I find it tricky to draw a comparison that that zoo life is better kind of, as you were suggesting earlier, because you know, maybe there's a little bit more space to Rome. You might not be on a chain, but you're still there as a, a spectacle for entertainment. And your world is tiny. Like when you, as you were saying, like, when you think about the range area for elephants being, you know, hundreds of kilometers square, And then you've got them in a tiny space in a zoo. So something like that for me is potentially not as good for elephants as even places where at least they're allowed to. They might be chained up for part of the day, but at least they're, you know, they get a chance to go for walks. They can go to the river and swim in the river and swim in dams and, you know, forage in the forest. Even if this only happens for a couple of hours a day, at least they're getting a change to their environment. So, yeah, it's very complicated.

George Siegal:

Yeah. When you talk about bad deals for animals, okay. The circus horrible place for any animal, that's just, that's just awful. And a zoo. I mean, there's some zoos that, that seem to get it right. There's some zoos that it's just horrible, what they end up having to put these animals through. So as you're dealing with this, what are you seeing that actually gives you hope that you are making a difference? Because it seems like it's a total uphill climb for something that many people may not think about, but it's actually pretty important.

Nikki Savvides:

Yeah. Well, I think what's been amazing and what's given me hope is the proliferation of the ethical tourism ventures. And to see how much, how much of a difference they've made to elephants pre COVID and I'll get to COVID in a minute, cuz that's made things a lot more complicated, but pre COVID, we are seeing a huge uptick in the number of ethical tourism ventures. So this includes sanctuaries has been a number of new sanctuaries, really, really great sanctuaries who really put effort into things like deforestation, which is a massive thing and rehabilitation and providing you know, a huge amount of enrichment for elephants, which is really what they need. They need to be walking every day. They need to be swimming every day. They need to be foraging every day and socializing. So they're doing amazing work and there's also community based projects. Including one I'm really passionate about which sadly went defunct during COVID. But that was the one that I spent most of my time studying and working. And that was based in a small village in Northeast Thailand home to the indigenous goi tribe who'd been working with elephants for a thousand years, ancestrally and who have potentially been most affected by deforestation. But this ethical tourism project that I was part of and ran for a short while was really focused on enrichment and that being really the primary way, especially in a small village of improving elephant welfare. So my time on that project some of the best days of my life, it was such a positive program working in really hard conditions, but making a tangible difference. And the success of that project and the feeling that I got from, you know, the sense of hope and the sense of connection within the community and amongst the volunteer tourists who came to volunteer their time. And, you know, obviously also their funds, their funding to help the elephants made a massive difference. And so eventually I'll go back to Thailand later this year. And I wanna look into resetting up that project and bringing it back to life because it had great potential and it could be replicated and it could work really, really well. And it just has to, it has to come back. Yeah.

George Siegal:

What are the biggest obstacles you feel you face, you feel like you're running into a wall?

Nikki Savvides:

It's been really tough because that obviously cut off all tourism to Thailand. So when you have both animals and humans completely 100% reliant on tourism and that shuts down you know, I've been very concerned about the elephants facing starvation, and I was talking to a conservationist the other day about you know, this issue, things are likely getting a bit better now. And he said, yeah, yeah, but it's, you know, the people facing starvation too. So it moves down the line. You know, the elephants are, are gonna be next in line as much as people wanna provide for them as well. If you've got kids and the family, and you've lost your job and, you know, Thailand is so reliant on tourism for a lot of people, not just elephant people. So that's, that's been massive. I haven't been able to get back for the past two years. My friends over there have been struggling to keep their ethical tourism projects, afloat, relying a lot on donations and really hoping that the industry PA picks up again, which I think it will. I think it's gonna take a while, especially for projects that have been underfunded for a while to to kind of find their feet again.

George Siegal:

And when a good part of your life's work is, is working on a cause like this. I imagine it's a lot more challenging when there are so many other problems in the world. And not to take anything away from yours, because I think this, I agree with you. I mean, I, I, I admire what you're doing. Does it make it tougher to get people's attention? Does some people just look at you and go really? That's what we have to worry about?

Nikki Savvides:

I think people really love elephants. Like I think if I was trying to say snakes or I don't know some, you know native rodent or something like that, I would have people who might be less interested, but because it's elephants, people really connect with them. Like there's such charismatic, intelligent creatures. Like the, the moment you meet an elephant up close, you get that sense of, you know, That, that level of intelligence, the beauty, the, the humor in their eyes or the, sometimes the sadness or the anger or anything else that they might be going through. And I think people kind of inherently connect with that, even if they haven't even met an elephant. So I think that that has helped. I mean, I know when I first started in animal studies, I definitely got a lot of the like, oh, well, there's so many problems you know, that humans face. Why are we focusing on elephants? Or why are we focusing on animals? I should say. But I do think it's all interconnected. I mean, especially now when, you know, we're so focused on climate change and the effects that humans have had on the planet. We're we're affecting animals. We're affecting nature. We're affecting indigenous people who, you know, marginalized and don't have a voice and we're also affecting ourselves. So it is all interconnected. And I think a story about deforestation and the destruction of natural habitats. It's, it's, you know, it's the habitat of humans as well as animals. Plus I just think, you know, animals deserve our kindness and our attention because we're not doing a very good, good job to look after them on the whole.

George Siegal:

Absolutely. And we won't even get into anybody that could actually go out and hunt one of these things. I mean, that just makes me sick. Yeah. When I, when I hear those stories, so what would be deemed success for you? How will you be able to sit there and go wow. I, I mean, it sounds like you're trying to make a difference in it and, and you had some great inroads. What would be considered success for you?

Nikki Savvides:

Well, publishing the book has been massive. I mean, even finishing, writing the book was massive and publishing it. It's been amazing. It's the first book on the topic. There's been academic articles written about it, but I've brought together elements of academia with my own story and the stories of the elephants and people I met. So that's sort of offering something new, both to the field of elephant conservation and elephant captive elephant management. So that for me has been, you know, success that's this book has been. You know, in the works for such a long time. So to see it physically and know that people are reading, it is amazing, but I think the whole point of the book is to obviously educate people and get them interested in the topic. And Also to raise the story of the Mahouts, which is the, you know, the indigenous Mahouts that I worked with who are very politically underrepresented. So the next step is, you know, to hopefully engage with people who have read the book and connect with some, you know, new people in the area, which I already have and, you know, organize some new conversations and discussions about what we can do to help and get back to Thailand and, you know, have the book under my belt and, you know, walk into it as a, as someone who is an expert in the field, which is an amazing feeling.

George Siegal:

Yeah, that's great. I think you would be igniting, you know, P people that love animals are very passionate people that that will get very involved. So I imagine they're gonna be very excited when they pick up your book. When you how can people get the book? Where's it gonna be available? Where, where is it out that people can get their hands?

Nikki Savvides:

So it's available on Amazon. Best thing is just to search my name, Nikki Savvides or search for the book's name, which is After the Forests. It's also available by a book depository and apple books. I'm also selling by my publisher's website and my own website. So you can also pop over to nikkisavvides.com and I've got purchasing information there too.

George Siegal:

Are you on other social medias that people could could get ahold of you or follow you?

Nikki Savvides:

Yeah, so I have a really great community on Facebook, which is at, after the forests or one word got about 3000 people. 3000 followers. Everyone's very, very engaged with conservation and animal welfare topics. So that's yeah, if you're anyone who's interested in animal stuff generally would love that page loves sharing latest news about conservation wins . And beautiful pictures of animals and, you know, kind of anything that's taking my fancy from the news or, you know, potential future re research projects or other researchers who are doing amazing work, who I wanna high. I've also got an Instagram at, after the forest, which is pretty low key at the moment. It's mainly just the sharing. Photos that kind of compliment the book. Because in my dream I put, you know, 20 color plates in the book. I've always wanted to have a book where, you know, you have those beautiful color plates in the middle. And the publisher said, do you know how much that will make the book cost? Thought okay. Not doing that. so I've got an Instagram which has all the photos, all the best photos from my trip. There are about 3000 photos in, in total. So I just chose the best ones for the Instagram. Excellent. Well, all this will be in the show notes.

George Siegal:

Now, one last question. What advice would you have for people who, who see something? You saw something that a lot of people might think, oh, that's an obscure thing and look at what you're doing and, and, and what you've made outta this. What advice would you have for people that see a problem and wanna try to make it better?

Nikki Savvides:

Well I think for me the main thing was finding other people who were passionate because even though writing a book is quite solitary a lot of other people helped out with the book. So one of the amazing things of working on those ethical tourism projects is that I met a lot of passionate people. And so I think anyone who wants to do something in their community can reach out and find other people who are passionate. You know, whether that's Facebook or community groups or volunteering with something that's similar. I think, yeah, there's such a huge power in connection and sharing resources and all that kind of stuff. Like I definitely couldn't have written the book without the input of so many people and yeah, I definitely wouldn't have finished it. A lot of the motivation to finish was thinking, well, all these people told me these amazing stories and helped me along the way. So I owe it to them as well as the elephants to, you know, finish the book and get it out there.

George Siegal:

Yeah. It's also that thing, that mentality of just not complaining or feeling bad about something, but actually stepping into the game and doing something about it.

Nikki Savvides:

Yeah, totally. Mm-hmm yeah. And it's possible as well. Yeah. It's highly possible to make a change. Yeah.

George Siegal:

I think you're a great example of that now that, like I said, this will all be in the show notes. I hope a lot of people will take this to heart and go check it out. I, I appreciate your time today and continued success on all your great work.

Nikki Savvides:

Awesome. Thanks so much for having me. It's been a great discussion.

George Siegal:

Thank you for joining me on this. Week's Tell Us How to Make It Better podcast. As I mentioned in the show notes, you'll find all the information to get in touch with Dr. Savvides, get her book and follow her on social media. And there's also a link to a contact form. If you have any questions about any of the episodes you've listened to, or if you have any ideas for future podcasts, I would love to hear from you. Thanks again for listening. See you next time.