Elephant in the room

Adam Oswell's Image

A group of visitors watch and take photos as a young elephant performs underwater at a zoo in Thailand.

Adam uses his photo to draw attention to the crowd watching, rather than the elephant itself, bringing into question these forms of tourist entertainment.

Around the world, animals are held captive and deprived of their natural way of life to serve as entertainment in zoos and touring shows. As Judge Staffan Widstrand pointed out, 'It could have been any one of us there in the audience, from anywhere in the world, at pretty much any zoo.'

The shows are promoted as educational and advertised as good exercise for the animals, but rights organisations are concerned for the welfare of the elephants involved. The training for this type of show usually starts with the removal of a calf from its mother and a life in captivity deprives the elephants of their natural environment and social structures.

An increase in elephant tourism over the last few years combined with the low birth rate of elephants in captivity has also driven a rise in poaching young calves from their mothers. There are now more captive elephants in Thailand (possibly 3,800) than wild ones (fewer than 3,600).

Since the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused tourist enterprises across every continent to grind to a halt, leaving many elephant owners without the income needed to keep the animals. Consequently, many sanctuaries have been overwhelmed with abandoned elephants.

How you can help

  • Question the places you visit as a tourist. Are the animals being looked after? Avoid visiting places that make money from exploiting the natural world.
  • Talk to your friends and family about their impact as tourists.
  • Support initiatives which are helping to protect elephants within their natural habitats.

We are trialling longer online captions for Wildlife Photographer of the Year 57. See all the images in focus or find out more about our tests.

Behind the lens

Adam Oswell


Adam is a photographer specialising in wildlife trade and protection, working in Asia for over 20 years. He is a contributing photographer to two new books, Photographers Against Wildlife Crime and HIDDEN: Animals in the Anthropocene. He also produced the book Black Market: Inside the Endangered Species Trade in Asia, the first of its kind to extensively document international wildlife trade, with an introduction by Jane Goodall.

Image details

  • Nikon D810
  • 24–70mm lens
  • 1/640 sec at f2.8  •   ISO 1250
  • Khao Kheow Open Zoo, Chonburi Province, Thailand
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