Social Media & Wildlife Tourism: Powerful Tools for Good and Bad

Earlier this month, we launched the Ethical Elephant Experiences campaign to shine a light on the issues that irresponsible wildlife tourism can present and to encourage travelers and travel companies to commit to responsible practices.

Before COVID-19 halted travel, wildlife tourism was becoming increasingly popular, and elephant experiences were at the top of many people’s bucket lists. Wildlife attractions account for 20-40 percent of all tourism worldwide, with up to 6 million people visiting these sites each year. In Asia, there are over 3,800 elephants living in captivity. This is a significant number when you take into account that there are only 40,000-50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.

One of the catalysts for the Ethical Elephant Experiences campaign were the numerous photos we continually saw on social media that propagated irresponsible behavior. When travelers, bloggers and influencers share photos of their experiences with elephants – touching, bathing, riding, and playing with calves – they can influence millions of people around the world. This gives a single post the power to encourage other travelers to seek out similar experiences, starting a dangerous cycle. 

As part of the campaign, we made information and resources readily available and shared information around the do’s and don’ts of viewing elephants in the wild. Now, we want to show some different examples to provide further clarity around what is considered good and bad behavior.

The Good List: Role Model Behavior

We commend these influencers for using their platform to promote responsible wildlife tourism. By sharing images that encourage people to view elephants safely in the wild, these people are making a positive impact on the travel industry.

 The Bad List: What’s Wrong with These Pictures?

The influencers listed below (faces hidden for privacy) have posted photos that encourage irresponsible elephant experiences, like bathing, feeding, or riding elephants. Even the simple act of touching can have detrimental consequences for the individual elephants in the photo, or even wild elephant populations. These are the types of photos that give wildlife tourism a bad reputation and can ultimately contribute to the demise of endangered elephants. 

This is a classic picture that suggests emotional communion between person and animal. In reality, contact with humans creates a dangerous opportunity for the two-way transfer of diseases such as tuberculosis or novel pathogens that could easily decimate wild elephant numbers as well as hitch-hike back to cities.

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. In this picture, the elephant is being ridden on the neck, where a mahout or handler would sit. But there’s only space for one up there – photo ops like these, without the handler present to guide the animal, creates a huge safety risk for both rider and elephant no matter the assurances that may be made.

The unedited version of this photo has a wire fence between the humans and the wild elephant. Editing out these barriers make it look like this is a reality, inspiring others to partake in dangerous and irresponsible activities, like approaching a wild elephant on foot, which can result in injury or death of the person and consequently lead wildlife authorities to take fatal control measures against the animal. If you love elephants, don’t endanger their lives or yours.

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, 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 ensure their lifelong future in captivity. Moreover, the allure of cute baby elephants continues to incentivize unsustainable breeding of animals that cannot survive without tourism revenue, and can also drive capture from the wild. Remove the economic incentive to keep breeding captive elephants in their native countries by NOT seeking out experiences with baby elephants.

This glamorizes and idealizes the feeding of elephants, conjuring some sense of Eden. Those who copy this by feeding wild elephants, encourage them to seek out the same foods in villages and croplands, driving conflict that can eventually lead to the deaths of elephants, people, or both.

Though this photo may have been taken at a sanctuary, those who emulate it by feeding wild elephants encourage animals 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. Some animals can become a local nuisance, willfully obstructing traffic on roads to demand food from passers-by. 

All elephants 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. Although mature ex-working elephants may need a sanctuary, they do not benefit from being touched or played with by people.

Read our Guidance and Take the Pledge

Our page on responsible tourism lays out some simple guidance and a wealth of resources to help you be an ethical traveler. Remember our golden rule: keep your distance from elephants! Loving a wild animal does NOT mean you need to cuddle up, handle or interact with it, even when it is in captivity.

The more people who commit to responsible wildlife tourism moving forward, the better off elephants will be around the world. Add your name to the growing list of people who have publicly committed to Ethical Elephant Experiences, and help us protect endangered elephants for future generations.

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