(CNN) — An Asian elephant struts into the pool and dips its head beneath the surface, using the tip of its trunk like a snorkel.
Standing on its hind legs as the water relieves the gravitational burden of its body, the animal wades between two men offering bananas at either end of the pool.
In a room down below, awestruck children watch through wide glass windows.
Some of the people who have attended this elephant swimming exhibition at Khao Kheow Open Zoo southeast of Bangkok are surprised that it has been criticized as an example of animal cruelty and exploitation.
But a recent controversy over an award-winning photo of a swimming elephant at Khao Kheow illustrates the friction that exists between some animal rights activists and people who manage, appreciate and profit from the tourism roles that elephants fill in Thailand.
The thorny debate touches on issues of animal welfare, media representation and what some see as cultural bias.
'Elephant in the room'
The latest outcry began in October 2021 after a photo by Australian photojournalist Adam Oswell won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) award for Photojournalism. Run by the Natural History Museum (NHM) of London since 1964, the annual WPY is a prestigious contest.
Taken at Khao Kheow and titled "Elephant in the Room," Oswell's photo shows an elephant with its head and body submerged while a trainer, or mahout, swims above in what looks to be a relatively small tank. People of various ages, all with Asian features, are pictured watching the elephant.
Some reactions to the photo on social media were harsher, often deploying adjectives like "sickening," "vile" and "barbaric."
Visitors to Thailand's Khao Kheow Open Zoo view elephants through underwater windows in November 2021.
Many Thai people countered that NHM's presentation of the photo was misleading or lacking adequate context. One Thai-language tweet that defended Khao Kheow was retweeted nearly 40,000 times.
"Care was taken in the drafting of the captions not to single out this particular attraction nor the individuals watching but to provide wider context to this industry from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on tourist enterprises to the international demand for animal tourism from international tourists," an NHM spokesperson told CNN Travel.
"For example," they continued, "in the online caption Judge Staffan Widstrand says, 'It could have been any one of us there in the audience, from anywhere in the world, at pretty much any zoo.'"
But Khao Kheow is the only zoo in Thailand, and one of only four in the world, according to Khao Kheow's website, where elephants can be viewed through underwater windows. It is the largest of seven zoos operated by the government-run Zoological Park Organization of Thailand (ZPO).
Khao Kheow has been certified by the South East Asian Zoos Association (SEAZA), which is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). The ZPO maintains that all of its zoos are guided by the principles of conservation, research, education and recreation.
Plunging into controversy
Oswell's photo was not the first case of media documentation sparking outrage over Khao Kheow's elephant swimming exhibition.
In 2018, an online petition demanding that "officials shut down this zoo and hand over their elephants to a sanctuary" collected over 130,000 signatures. "Exhausted elephants are being forced to perform underwater tricks for tourists in Thailand," wrote British news outlet The Sun at the time.
Elephants are natural-born swimmers, but critics view Khao Kheow's swimming exhibition as a forced performance. More broadly, they see it as an example of how animals are exploited for the amusement of humans.
"The training for this type of show usually starts with the removal of a calf from its mother and uses fear and pain-based punishment," says one of the captions accompanying Oswell's photo on the NHM website.
Tourists ride elephants in Ayutthaya, Thailand.
Pictures From History/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
"We don't use any hooks or any type of force to get the elephants to enter the pool," Dr. Visit Arsaithamkul, a veterinarian who works at Khao Kheow as an assistant director under the ZPO, told CNN Travel. "We say, 'it's feeding time, you get a bucket of bananas,' and they voluntarily get into the pool."
Visit said the elephants are trained through reward-based positive reinforcement, not fear and pain. Unlike at many of Thailand's elephant facilities, tourists cannot ride or swim with elephants at Khao Kheow.
The zoo's lab analyzes elephant feces for cortisol levels, potentially alerting staff to mental stress that the elephants might be experiencing. Visit said he can gauge how the elephants are feeling as they swim through observation alone.
"They don't show any stress," he said. "They look happy."
Visit denied that elephants perform tricks at Khao Kheow. However, past footage appears to show a mahout provoking a swimming elephant to repeatedly dive and surface to entertain the audience.
When CNN Travel anonymously observed the exhibition from above and below the water in November 2021, the elephant entered the pool alone after a word from a mahout. Once in the water, it ate many bananas. No tricks were performed, and no humans went in the pool.
One of Khao Kheow's eight elephants enters the pool for 30 minutes at set times twice per day. At other times, all of the elephants dwell in an eight-acre enclosure with a pond and a hillside dotted with trees.
Thailand's elephant camps have suffered greatly due to the lack of tourists during the pandemic.
Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images
The elephants are only chained, said Visit, when males become aggressive due to a rise in reproductive hormones, a natural state known as musth.
As the director of Wild Welfare, a UK-registered charity that works to improve the welfare of captive animals worldwide, Simon Marsh spent time at Khao Kheow in 2019 and advised it, in his words, "on many animal welfare practices including the management of their elephants."
"Wild Welfare believes that Khao Kheow Open Zoo is committed to allowing the animals in their care the opportunity to live a full and meaningful life in captivity by providing good animal welfare," Marsh told CNN Travel. The charity deems "animal demonstrations that are detrimental to the physical or psychological well-being of the animals" unacceptable, he added.
'Always a negative thing'
One of the many people who thinks the elephant swimming exhibition is not in the best interests of the animals is Edwin Wiek, founder and director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT). Among the 850 rescued animals under WFFT's care are 26 elephants that freely roam the roughly 95-acre Elephant Refuge near the beach town of Cha-am.
"Forcing an animal to do an act, whatever act that may be, is always a negative thing," he told CNN Travel. "To say that the animal does it out of free choice is absolutely not true."
But Wiek's two decades of experience in wildlife rescue have given him a broad perspective on Thailand's captive elephant situation.
"I'm not saying (the elephant swimming show) is okay. But if I measure the harm done on the elephants, when you look at it from an animal welfare perspective, I think those elephants probably have better care and are under better living conditions than most of the elephants at the camps around the country."
A more pressing problem, according to Wiek, is how a prolonged downturn in tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted severe suffering on some captive elephants. A few of the elephants that WFFT has rescued during the pandemic "were basically starving," he said. Citing a gorilla that has been held in a small enclosure above a Bangkok shopping mall for three decades as an example, Wiek added that he wants the most flagrant examples of animal cruelty to get the most attention.
'We may end up losing our Thai-ness'
Some Thai people see a double standard in how Khao Kheow, and Thailand in general, have become lightning rods for animal-related criticism from the West. They wonder why, for instance, the elephant swimming exhibitions held at zoos in Germany and Switzerland have drawn minimal criticism despite appearing to share similarities with the one at Khao Kheow. "White perspective" and "whitesplaining" are two of the ways that Twitter users described NHM's presentation of Oswell's photo. Others accused the WPY awards of a Western-centric bias.
"Whilst the (WPY) competition received entries from 95 countries, there is more work to do in encouraging more entries from photographers in the Global South," explained the NHM spokesperson. "As a step to further encourage entries from around the world, entry fees for the 58th competition will be waived for photographers who live in 50 selected countries."
An elephant walks among vegetation at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary on September 6, 2021 in Phuket, Thailand.
Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images
Some Thailand-based animal rights activists think that Western criticism of the treatment of captive elephants in Thailand, while often warranted and usually rooted in compassionate intentions, can come across as arrogant, inflexible and lacking a contextual understanding of the country.
For example, some Westerners insist that all of Thailand's roughly 3,800 captive elephants should be moved to sanctuaries where interaction with humans is limited to veterinary care and observation from a distance. Enacting a shift of this stature would likely require changes to multiple Thai laws and huge amounts of funding, making it unrealistic in the foreseeable future.
In a country where people have been living with elephants for many centuries, some Thais interpret calls for fundamental changes to captive elephant training and management as threats to Thai traditions and sensitive notions of cultural identity.
"If we listen to Westerners too much, we may end up losing our Thai-ness," wrote Chatchote Thitaram of Chiang Mai University's Center for Elephant and Wildlife Health in an opinion piece that explains some of the steps Thailand has taken to improve the situation for captive elephants.
But some Thais agree with the Westerners who want to see more fundamental shifts in captive elephant welfare. As they see it, Thai nationalistic views are being used to justify and perpetuate cruelty towards elephants.
'Where do you draw the line?'
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many elephants were forced into hard labor in Thailand.
Paolo Koch/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Historically, Westerners have played pivotal, if indirect, roles in expanding Thailand's captive elephant market.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Colonial entities like the British Bombay Burmah Trading Co. fueled a logging boom that forced many elephants into hard labor.
Later in the 20th century, demand among Western tourists for elephant riding provided a new financial incentive for wild elephant poaching.
As awareness of cruelty towards captive elephants has spread among Westerners more recently, many Thai elephant camps shifted to focusing on tourists from emerging markets, such as China and India.
Meanwhile, Western travel agencies and animal welfare organizations are imposing their own strict guidelines on Thai elephant facilities, steering tourists away from those that don't fully comply.
According to Wiek, these standards are "way too high" for most of Thailand's captive elephant facilities to meet. Though he supports long-term shifts favoring the sanctuary model, he worries that without a "step by step" approach, good intentions can inadvertently cause more suffering.
"Some camps stopped riding elephants, but they were still (letting tourists) feed and bathe them, and immediately these animal organizations said, 'You can't do that either!' We did not create an alternative and the elephants in the camps are worse off now than they were before. Where do you draw the line?"