BANGKOK (Reuters) - Hundreds of elephants used in Asia's tourism industry are kept in "severely cruel" conditions, animal welfare group World Animal Protection said on Thursday.
Animal tourism in Asia has drawn increased scrutiny over the past year, partly because of a scandal involving a tiger attraction in Thailand, where wildlife authorities discovered scores of dead tiger cubs.
Almost 80 percent of about 3,000 elephants at tourist venues in Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand endure poor living conditions and diets and are overworked, the non-profit said in a report.
Thailand alone has an estimated 4,000 domesticated elephants, many working in the tourism trade, along with about 2,500 wild elephants.
"We want to change the demand from elephant riding and elephant shows toward activities that are elephant-friendly, such as observing elephants," said Jan Schmidt-Burbach, a wildlife expert at World Animal Protection.
"If you can ride or have a selfie with the animal, chances are that is cruel to the animal," he told Reuters.
Thailand, which registered record foreign tourist arrivals last year, has seen a rise of 30 percent in new elephant tourism venues since 2010.
Ittipan Khaolamai, manager of the Royal Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok, which is home to around 90 elephants, defended the use of elephants as tourist attractions, saying caretakers treated the animals well.
"Most mahouts look after the animals well because their livelihood also depends on the welfare of the elephant," Ittipan added.
Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Clarence Fernandez