Thailand elephant
Tourists ride elephants in the ancient Thai city, AyutthayaReuters

Thomas Cook is allegedly refusing to stop promoting animal abuse by offering holiday packages that include elephant rides, an animal NGO has claimed. World Animal Protection said it had a "dossier of evidence" to prove its claims and urged the travel agent to follow the steps of 63 other tour companies worldwide that stopped selling similar packages.

According to the NGO, elephants used in the tourism industry in places such as Thailand and India are subjugated to both physical and mental torture until the animals' spirit are broken so that they allow human beings to ride on their neck, something they would not normally do.

Kate Nustedt, director of Wildlife at World Animal Protection, told IBTimes UK: "Baby elephants are taken from their mother and put through a barbaric process. They are kept in very confined spaces, often chained up. They are starved and repeatedly beaten with tools that have a sharp pointy head.

"This happens at least once a week until finally they submit and allow their trainer to sit on their neck, and that's when their spirit is broken. From there, it's just a repeated cycle of abuse." Nustedt said World Animal Protection repeatedly contacted Thomas Cook to discuss the issue but has not received a response from some of its offices.

"We know for a fact that within northern Europe, agencies stopped selling them and that's fantastic, but in the rest of Thomas Cook Global, we had no response after repeated attempts to contact them. We know for a fact they are selling these tours," Nustedt said. She added that the NGO managed to speak with Thomas Cook Group's head of corporate social responsibility (CSR), who "did not deny offering elephant rides and shows".

The travel agency has denied the allegations made by the animal charity (see box below for the statement). The company added that it previously sold "only a very limited number of excursions involving elephants with selected partners". However, World Animal Protection said the travel agency's claim is "completely fabricated" (see box below for the statement).

Among the evidence, the animal charity said Thomas Cook did not remove images of elephants being ridden by tourists from its websites. The NGO also warned the trend of elephant rides is also spreading across south Africa. Nustedt said: "If the travel industry doesn't do something about it now, it's going to get worse and worse. It will get to a point where we are going to have only elephants in captivity rather than in the wild where they belong."

Thomas Cook's statement in full

"Thomas Cook Group is not selling elephant rides or shows in any of its markets. We are surprised to learn of the accusations made by World Animal Protection against Thomas Cook Group as we have been in talks with the Charity and believed they were aware of our responsible animal welfare policy. Thomas Cook Group stopped offering elephant excursions to our UK and Northern European customers some time ago, and our businesses on the Continent, including Germany, have also removed elephant excursions from their programmes*.

"Although some excursion details featured in earlier printed brochures, we can confirm that these trips are no longer available to customers. We are proud to be an industry leader in animal welfare, having been instrumental in the development of the ABTA Animal Welfare Guidelines for suppliers of excursions involving animals, and an accompanying checklist which allows tour operators to assess suppliers. Thomas Cook Group is an active member of ABTA, and in particular its sustainability working group.

"It sits on the Travelife steering group, an audit we advocate all hotels to adhere to. We continue to work closely with industry partners and NGOs to improve animal welfare and we are currently planning an audit programme with external auditors to ensure we meet our own standards as well as those set by ABTA. We would encourage World Animal Protection to deal with tour operators as responsible partners."

* Thomas Cook Group previously offered only a very limited number of excursions involving elephants with selected partners. In Thailand they say were working with one well-reputed partner, Siam Safari, and offered only one excursion involving elephants in India, at a national wildlife rehabilitation centre for wounded and abused elephants.

World Animal Protection's statement in full

"Thomas Cook Group's claim is completely fabricated. We have a dossier of evidence gained over the last three months that proves that Thomas Cook Group is still selling cruel elephant rides and shows to customers in the UK, Belgium and Thailand.

"Sadly, despite our repeated attempt to work in partnership with Thomas Cook to end the barbaric use of elephants for entertainment they have, until now, ignored our six calls and emails over the last three months and refused to take action on the issue.

"It was only yesterday that Thomas Cook Group's Head of CSR spoke to World Animal Protection, and, despite the opportunity to do so, he did not deny offering elephant rides and shows. He even admitted he was struggling to get buy-in on this issue from the company board. In contrast, after nearly two years of dialogue with our Swedish office, Thomas Cook's Northern Europe companies (Spies, Ving, Wing, Tjareborg) finally agreed this week that they will remove elephant rides and shows from their upcoming winter program.

"This inaction by Thomas Cook has left us with no choice but to call on animal lovers around the world to put pressure on the rest of the company to end this cruel trade for good across all their markets.

"Elephants held captive for the tourist industry don't choose to entertain, they are forced to. Taken from their mothers when young, they are isolated, starved and beaten until their spirits are broken in a barbaric training method known as 'the crush'.

"World Animal Protection has worked with over 60 travel companies globally to end their promotion of elephant rides and shows, including, most recently The Travel Corporation, which includes Contiki and Trafalgar. As responsible players within the travel industry know, our first approach is always to work with industry partners to end animal cruelty."