The Consequences of Irresponsible Tourism

By Salik Ansar & SdS

Tourist feeding elephants.

September 27th is World Tourism Day, so today we offer some more reflections based on the Udawalawe experience.


Until the recent COVID-19 epidemic halted travel around the globe, the island of Sri Lanka thrived on tourism. A big part of the country’s GDP is attributed to tourism. According to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Association, 783,000 tourists visited Sri Lanka’s national parks in 2018, which is roughly 38% of the travelers who entered the country. The parks earned over 2 billion rupees (over $11 million USD) in entrance fees alone. Clearly, elephants have a huge economic value (more about this here).

It’s great to see the popularity of Sri Lanka and its national parks, but has it been good for the animals themselves? Are people properly educated on how to experience wild animals? Unfortunately, the rules are not well-displayed and the penalties for breaking them are nil. But the park is home to many endangered species, like Asian elephants, so care and awareness is essential.

There have been many mishaps caused by tourists visiting these national parks, mainly because it appears tourists aren’t aware of the consequences of their actions. According to Kumara, of the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project field team, one of the main issues is tourists feeding elephants. This can have many grave consequences.

Physical and Behavioral Changes

When tourists feed elephants with fruits obtained outside the park, their usual eating pattern and routine is disrupted. An elephant’s typical diet consists of plants that are native to the park, and naturally occurring fruits in the forest environment are extremely rare. When elephants are suddenly given sweet, cultivated fruits that they have never experienced, this new taste becomes much sought after. Elephants that become accustomed to being fed line up along the fence line, begging for food from passerby. This creates an attractive spectacle, and tourists are happy to oblige, which reinforces such behavior.

Ultimately, an herbivore that is physiologically built to consume a rough, fibrous diet becomes addicted to calorie-rich sweet foods. As in humans, this can lead to health problems in and of itself. However, it gets even worse. Some people, out of negligence or carelessness, actually feed the elephants with the polythene wrapper still intact. This can cause choking or internal damages, like blockages in the gut. Alternately, animals may seek out garbage with that same familiar smell, with similar consequences (see Feeding Our Waste To Wildlife).

Plastic bags in elephant dung.
Plastic bags and garbage in elephant dung.

There is also indirect harm that spurs from these behaviors. Human-elephant conflict in Sri Lanka is on the rise, largely due to habitat loss and other developments. It doesn’t help that rampant corruption and short-sighted government land-use policies facilitate the placement of fruit and sugar-cane plantations right alongside elephant habitat. An elephant that has become used to a steady diet of fruits can become further emboldened to enter a villages in search of these sweet things.

Rambo – A Cautionary Tale

Rambo being fed along the reservoir edge, where he placidly and photogenically accepts all manner of handouts. This roadside attraction has occasionally caused traffic accidents.

There is one individual, known as Rambo, who highlights this problem (more about Rambo herehere) . Having stubbornly resisted repeated attempts by authorities to be chased back into the part, he has been a fixture at the fence for around two decades. He appeared so docile, people forget he is a wild animal. Some years ago, a drunken visitor made the nearly fatal mistake of crossing that thin electric line.

Miraculously, Rambo spared this foolish man’s life, but he nearly paid with his own. Authorities planned to capture and move him to the elephant prison known as the Horowpathana Elephant Holding Ground. Public outcry fortunately saved him -after all, Rambo was INSIDE park boundaries and it was the person who was at fault. Drunken fatalities are unfortunately all too common.

However in recent years, Rambo seems to have switched to an even higher-risk strategy – breaking the fence and raiding the sugar cane plantations nearby. The villagers, trying to protect their livelihoods, then resort passive and non-passive approaches to chase the elephants. Elephants are killed, either by gunshots or accidental electrocution on high-voltage fences. Especially tragic was the case of our young tusker T212, who was shot at nearly point blank range inside the park, meters from the fence line. Twice Rambo had to be treated by the vet for life-threatening wounds. And now, again, there are calls to move him to a holding facility. Rambo’s story does not seem destined to end well – humans turned him into a problem elephant.

How can we stop these consequences?

For a start, the tourists have to be more strictly educated on the do’s and don’ts inside the park. Stern action must be taken against the tourists and tour guides who feed, with on-the-spot fines. Ideally, wildlife managers should spend adequate resources in setting up boards indicating the rules and regulations of the park and instruct their personnel to strictly enforce them.

However, what the authorities do is out of our control. If we want to see change, we have to ask the public to take responsibility for their actions and exercise common sense! The simple act of feeding a wild animal merely for a photo op results in disruptions with ripple effects for both the humans and the elephants. If tourists behave responsibly while visiting the beautiful national parks of Sri Lanka, they can enjoy the magnificent wildlife without doing lasting harm.

Learn how to be a  responsible traveller and take the pledge today!


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