Responsible Tourism & Ethical Elephant Experiences

Mother and calf - ethical tourismOn World Elephant Day, Trunks & Leaves is challenging travelers and travel companies alike to commit to responsible tourism practices when it comes to viewing and interacting with Asian elephants.

 For the first time in recent history, the world has slowed down, the travel industry is on hold, and humankind has a chance to reflect on the way we’re doing things and how we can improve in the future – for both humans and wildlife.

What is Wildlife Tourism?

Wildlife tourism refers to the part of the travel industry that focuses on animal experiences, from going on a safari to volunteering with an organization. The industry is fueled by people’s love for animals, and when it is run ethically, can provide tremendous benefits: financing conservation in protected areas, providing livelihoods for local communities, and paying for upkeep of endangered species that cannot be released into the wild. Wildlife experiences also have an important role in instilling public appreciation for the species and spreading awareness around the issues they face.

But if done irresponsibly, it can actually be very problematic for many species around the world. In many places, the demand for wildlife tourism has led to exploitative, cruel and dangerous practices. Wild animals are captured and drugged to pose for photos with tourists, confined in tiny spaces, or subjected to grueling workloads. At many facilities, the demand for cute baby animals can also spur unsustainable breeding or illegal captures.  

 Asian Elephants and Tourism

Asian elephant safari.

Seeing wild elephants can be an incredible experience, so long as people are respectful of their space and allow them the right of way.

Asian elephants are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with only 40,000 individuals left in the wild. The biggest threats these species face are habitat loss and human-elephant conflict.

With human activities taking over more and more land, elephant habitats are slowly being reduced around the world. As this happens, elephants find themselves in the middle of landscapes heavily dominated by human activity, which presents grave dangers for both elephants and people. The Coexistence Project, supported by Trunks & Leaves, looks to understand how elephants and people can both thrive in the same landscape.

 Over 1.5 million people visited Sri Lanka last year, and one of the biggest draws for tourists is having the chance to experience unique wildlife, like leopards in Yala National Park and Asian elephants in Udawalawe National Park.

However, there are many facilities around Asia that act under the guise of “sanctuaries”, “orphanages”, or “rehabilitation centers”. These places offer hands-on experiences with animals for profit and in reality play no role for conservation. Telling apart the genuine from the fakes can be challenging. There are also irresponsible safari tour operators that are more interested in profit than safety. Below we spell out the ways you can take charge of your experience and ensure that it is ethical.

 How to Make Ethical Travel Choices

Trunks & Leaves supports wildlife tourism, if done properly. There’s nothing that compares to seeing a wild Asian elephant in the wild, and it’s this experience that will inspire others to join the fight to protect this species for generations to come.

 Here are 5 things to remember when booking an Asian elephant experience (or any wildlife experience):

  1. Don’t participate in hands-on experiences.

It’s become a dream of many to touch, bathe and feed elephants. While often called a ‘life changing’ experience from the human perspective, few stop to consider the impact it has on the elephants themselves. Although mature ex-working elephants may need a sanctuary, there is no need for interaction with tourists. In situations where captive elephants have the opportunity to mingle with wild elephants, such as for breeding purposes, contact with visitors (and human care-takers who have contact with visitors) also creates a dangerous opportunity for the transfer of novel diseases and pathogens that could easily decimate wild elephant numbers. Trunks & Leaves recommends that visitors follow a strict no-touch policy and support facilities that maintain a clear separation between guests and animals.

  1. Don’t seek interaction with baby elephants.

Baby elephants are cute and cuddly, so naturally people want the chance to handle them. Young calves, especially those that originated from the wild but were orphaned, have the best chance of being rehabilitated and released back into the wild. However, experience has shown that baby Asian elephants will not be able to become fully independent in the wild if they are heavily socialized with humans. Hands-on experiences with babies, such as bottle feeding and playing with tourists, means that they will never be releasable. Facilities that genuinely serve as rehabilitation centers minimize contact between people and calves for all but necessary, routine care.

Such situations also create a perpetual demand for calves, incentivizing the continued breeding of elephants for a life of servitude. Baby elephants eventually grow up, and can live for over 60 years. As long as babies are in demand, they will continue to perpetuate an industry that profits from captive elephants under the guise of serving animal welfare. More importantly, since captive elephant populations to date are not viable, the question arises how these facilities can survive without periodic influx from wild populations.

  1. Avoid riding elephants on private properties, beaches, etc.

This picture-perfect experience involves elephant calves being ridden and posed in an unnatural setting. Horses are a domesticated species that can be ridden on beaches; elephants are not.

Some hotels, resorts and private enterprises continue to offer elephant ride packages that are especially popular with families, wedding parties and honeymooners. However, elephant rides and trekking have largely fallen out of favor because unlike horses, the skeletal structure of Asian elephants is not well-suited for back riding. Carrying loads for extended periods of time can cause physical harm, infections and permanent spinal injuries. There have also been numerous issues raised with the training practices, general treatment and workloads of these animals.

There are a few instances in which the funds derived from rides in national parks, which are sensitive ecosystems, can benefit conservation efforts by supporting overall park management and allowing visitors to view wildlife without the creation of destructive road networks full of vehicular traffic. The same animals may also be used for other non-tourism related purposes, such as anti-poaching patrols or research, so safaris might contribute to the upkeep of a needed workforce. However, the welfare conditions of these animals are highly variable. In such instances, visitors must weigh these potential benefits against welfare concerns in deciding whether or not to support the practice.

  1. Don’t get too close and don’t feed wild animals.
Do not feed wild elephants.

Elephants “begging” for food can become quite the roadside attraction. But habituating wild elephants to hand-outs can have dangerous consequences.

All elephants, wild or captive, should be viewed at a distance, with a clear separation between people and animals. Animals should be allowed to engage in natural behavior without human guidance or direction for the benefit of tourists. Trunks & Leaves suggests keeping a distance of at least 20 meters from the elephant you are observing.

Some people are tempted to feed animals, attracting them closer for photo ops. This seemingly innocuous act can actually be extremely detrimental to their health and safety. Feeding wild elephants encourages them to become dependent on human hand-outs. The high-calorie items they are fed, often sweet things like fruit, may be far more preferable to natural foliage. This kind of interaction also provides plenty of opportunities for the transfer of toxins, pathogens, and contaminants that can cause sickness or death. Some animals become a local nuisance, willfully obstructing traffic on roads to demand food from passers-by.  Others might eventually become crop or home raiders, severely escalating the human-wildlife conflict and forcing authorities to implement control measures that ultimately harm the animal.

  1. Don’t edit photos to misrepresent reality.

It’s become far too common for tourists to edit out fences or barriers in their photos with elephants, making it appear that they are standing closer to the animal. This is especially problematic with people who have a large following, like influencers and bloggers. These viral photos have the power to inspire others to partake in dangerous and irresponsible activities, like approaching a wild elephant on foot. If such a close encounter results in the injury or death of a person, authorities would likely be forced to destroy the animal as well. Please follow common sense, and model behavior that encourages others to do the same so that animals and humans alike can remain safe.

How Can You Help?

  • Educate yourself!

We’ve assembled Do’s and Don’ts and offer guidance on how to be an ethical tourist. The first step is to educate yourself with our resource page.

  • Ethical Elephant Experiences graphic 2 - Take the pledge.Take the pledge!

Declare your commitment to being a responsible and ethical tourist or tour operator by taking the pledge.

  •  Share with others!

There is strength in numbers, so help us get the word out! The more people and companies who sign in support of responsible tourism, the better off the world will be, for both elephants and people. Share the campaign on social media and tag @trunksnleaves and #EthicalElephantExperiences. Contact us to get access to campaign graphics to use!

  •  Speak up for elephants!

If you see a facility or tour operator engaging in irresponsible activities, don’t be afraid to speak up. Communicate with them directly or report it to the relevant authorities. It’s also important to leave reviews on travel websites and forums, like TripAdvisor and Expedia, to help other travelers make responsible choices.

Stay tuned in coming weeks for more posts on this topic, when we will take a deeper look at some of the specific issues raised.

Ethical Elephant Experiences Pledge List

View the list of public figures and organizations that have signed the pledge here. We will update and extend this list as it grows. By signing the pledge, they commit to holding themselves accountable for encouraging and working with those that do the right thing – and they also hold themselves accountable to YOU. Join in the fight for ethical elephant experiences!

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