Partner, Duncan McNair, has been the driving force via his charity Save The Asian Elephants behind one of the most influential items of animal welfare legislation ever seen in the UK.

Duncan McNair & Ian McDowell
4 December 2023

Duncan McNair, Partner specialising in litigation and dispute resolution, has been the driving force via his charity Save The Asian Elephants (“STAE”) behind one of the most influential items of animal welfare legislation ever seen in the UK.


The Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Act – which prohibits the sale and advertising in the UK of animal-themed experiences abroad in which the animals are abused – received Royal Assent in September 2023.



Duncan, you were very much the originator of the Act. Who else was instrumental?


It’s been in my heart for some time to disrupt this cruel trade, but to develop actual legislation is another thing. Ultimately DEFRA, the environmental ministry, helped in drafting the Bill.  I had conceived the idea following a visit to India where I was appalled by some of the abuses I saw. I recognise that the UK doesn’t have direct influence over these matters. But I believe we can use law to steer consumer habits and influence social norms. Peter Stevenson OBE from Compassion in World Farming, who is also a lawyer, and now a director of STAE, has been amongst many stalwart supporters and helpers.


I drafted the first law with Peter at the request of Zac Goldsmith MP, Minister of State at DEFRA, back in 2018.  It was called the Asian Elephants (Tourism) Bill. We’ve had a turbulent time in UK politics since then. This new Bill became possible in early 2023. DEFRA responded positively to our appeal that the Bill should impact all creatures including primates, big cats, bears, dolphins, orcas, ostriches, equines, and numerous other species vulnerable to abuse in tourism.  


Have you ever had moments of despair?


I’ve certainly felt frustration at various stages. But the vagaries of politics must not overwhelm the principle of change, which commands huge public support. At bottom, I fully believe that in a functioning democracy a meritorious cause will prevail over time. One simply must not relent. 



Can you foresee case law starting to emerge as a result? 


This is enabling legislation, which means it requires the Minister to give effect to detailed Regulations which implement the legislation. I am helping co-ordinate some 200 charities to make submissions to Government on activities which should be proscribed. We are listing those activities and urging the Secretary of State at DEFRA to ensure these are included for prohibition.


This already amounts to legal precedent, but these are early days, because the Minister will consult with all stakeholders, including the more unscrupulous end of the industry. Elephant riding is one example of this because of the fragility of the back of the elephant and the extreme brutality used to “train” it to accept people on its back. It is reputationally dangerous for companies to have a record of abuse in this new environment, and we will shine a bright light on those who persist in breaching the new law.



Will there be a list created of companies you regard as more acceptable than others? 


Unfortunately, both venues and those advertising them can change quite quickly, so this is difficult. We have lists of companies and venues as part of the painstaking work of building our evidence base. We have compiled a list of 1200 companies selling elephant-based holidays which are unethical which we constantly review. We are in the process of expanding this to include all vertebrate species. Most charities in the sector are also very supportive, with just a few exceptions.



It’s gathered support from all sides of the political spectrum, hasn’t it?  


Yes, latterly awareness has grown enormously. Historically Labour has been good on animal welfare issues, but there are many excellent Conservative supporters too, for example the late David Amess MP. I knew him well, he was a good man with a huge heart for animal welfare issues. We’ve had great support across the political divides from all parties represented in the Westminster Parliament. Scottish MPs from the SNP have been very good for this cause. My team has been meeting the Scottish Government urging them to implement such legislation. We’re also in communication with the Welsh Government and Senedd members.


Has it brought people together? 

Up to a point it has, but huge commercial interests are at play, and so there are, regrettably, many legislators who still oppose what we are doing. There were some limited murmurings in the House of Commons, but fortunately these made no headway. 



What about the faith communities?


Engaging religious and faith leaders to the cause has been very important, for several reasons.  One is that some people and even temples who perpetrate the extreme cruelty on for example elephants in South East Asia, claim their brutal activities follow ancient lore and tradition, and even religious teachings.  I have sought out authoritative figures in all the main religions represented in South East Asia.  They denounce such claims as preposterous or point to their tenets of non-violence and respect for the whole of Creation.  They denounce these extreme abuses to other species as a repudiation, rather than a manifestation, of their beliefs.  All faiths and religions with whom STAE has engaged both here and abroad most strongly support the new legislation.



You must be very proud.


This legislation results from the support of numerous influential people and, crucially, of millions and millions of the public at large.  It’s not a magic wand, but it’s definitely a step change.


Public awareness and support must be sustained at this enormous level to ensure political will does not wander or wilt, and that this law is implemented and enforced robustly.  Then, if it helps these poor animals, so many at risk of extinction, I will be so pleased.


Thank you Duncan




Duncan McNair
Partner – City/commercial disputes; and Wills/Estates/Inheritance disputes resolution
Duncan McNair is a Partner Solicitor at Spencer West. He specialises in litigation and dispute resolution, acting highly successfully for companies, unincorporated associations, partnerships and individuals.
Ian McDowell
ESG Director
Ian McDowell is the Community Engagement Director at Spencer West.