Warning: Material in the video and written article below may be disturbing.
The cruel training processes many elephants go through before interacting with tourists - including Kiwis - in places like Bali and Thailand have been revealed in a new video supplied to Newshub.
In the disturbing video captured between 2018 and 2020, young elephants appear to be made to undertake a series of horrific acts designed to make them fear the pain that can be inflicted by humans.
The most graphic footage has been edited out and in some parts the audio has been removed to protect the identities of the source.
World Animal Protection is releasing the footage to reveal what happens behind the scenes at popular venues featuring captive elephants. The animal welfare organisation wants New Zealanders to boycott these places when international travel resumes.
Eight young elephants are shown in the footage being forcibly taken from their mothers, tied to wooden structures and beaten repeatedly.
In the video, an elephant named Gintaala is seen being separated from her 16 month-old baby, Boonshoo. Off-camera, Gintaala breaks free from her chains and tries to chase after her baby, but she is recaptured and tied up, while showing obvious distress.
Boonshoo is then taken to a new location and chained up alone. She pushes and pulls against the restraints and begins to cry.
The young elephants are said to experience both physical and psychological trauma. Without their mothers, the vulnerable and terrified elephants are hit violently. They are said to quickly learn that misbehaviour leads to painful punishment, often using a bullhook or a stick covered with nails.
World Animal Protection head of campaigns Ben Pearson said the elephants face a life of abuse all in the name of entertainment.
"Elephant riding and other interactions, like shows and bathing, support acute animal cruelty," Pearson said.
"We want to expose the true suffering elephants endure for a lifetime just so travellers can have their 'once in a lifetime' holiday experience."
Pearson said COVID-19 has given the travel industry a one-off chance to change the industry for the better.
"Tourism has come to a halt, but it will rebuild, and this is the ideal opportunity to create a responsible and resilient future for wild animals.
"We are calling on the travel industry to revise their wildlife policies and stop offering exploitative experiences to their customers."
Why are these attractions still being sold in NZ?
Flight Centre NZ told Newshub they have conducted an audit of 10,000 suppliers and travel products to assess their animal welfare practices in accordance with globally recognised guidelines, and promotes the concept of being a 'responsible traveller' with a 'look but don't touch' approach to wildlife activities.
However, the company still sells tickets to parks and attractions that are linked to the poor treatment of animals.
"If we remove ourselves from the relationship, we no longer have any influence over change in that park/property thus removing the ability to effect change for good. For smaller businesses, we also need to consider the social and economic impact that our decision might have on a small, local community/family business," a Flight Centre spokesperson told Newshub.
They said the loss of income from that business would mean operators would no longer be able to afford to feed their families and the animals in their care, which could have a "detrimental impact on them and very bad outcomes for the animals in question."
A 2018 report by World Animal Protection documented numerous venues in Bali - one of the most popular overseas holiday destinations for Kiwis - all of which had poor welfare practices while offering elephant rides and interactions to tourists.
It is reported that in Thailand alone there are approximately 2800 captive elephants that have undergone cruel training.
World Animal Protection wants all captive breeding of elephants to be banned as part of a sustainable, long-term solution to the controversial element of the tourism industry, and to ensure future generations of elephants are spared the trauma.
The organisation says that change has the potential to end elephant cruelty in captivity, doesn't need government intervention and can happen simply by people choosing to experience elephants in a different way, such as in their natural habitat or certified elephant-friendly venues.
Elephant-friendly venues work on an observation-only model, not allowing direct interaction between elephants and tourists, but still providing jobs and a valuable income to locals.
For the elephants already in captivity, a life in the wild is no longer possible, but being transferred to an elephant-friendly venue could mean an end to their alleged abuse.