The Consequences of Irresponsible Tourism

CoBy Salik Ansar & SdS

Tourist feeding elephants.

Elephants along the fence being fed by tourist and tour guide, despite signs posted against it.

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/polythene pieces in the 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 here, here) . 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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Baby tantrums

We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!


August 22 2012

Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…

Continue reading

Old Acquaintances

By SdS

Join us for An Evening With Elephants at EVE Encinitas on November 2nd, 5-7:30pm for a special in-person event to learn more!

A page from our original ID catalogue from 2005, with a female ID’d as [047] on top.

[047] 2008

[047] in 2008.

When I was starting the project in 2005, learning to recognize individual elephants was tricky. Building the photo catalogue was laborious, we went through videos frame by frame trying to distinguish an ear flap here, a tiny hole there. But even then, there were a some who looked so unique that it was enough to see them once – they were difficult to forget. Continue reading

Call Combinations Differ Among Living Elephants

The living elephants – Asian elephant, African forest elephant and African savannah elephant.

Guest post by Michael Pardo

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I visited Udawalawe in 2014 to work with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, and was especially fascinated by these combination calls. Combining meaningful units into sequences with an additional meaning is a key component of human language, but there are relatively few examples of this phenomenon in other species. Listening to the Udawalawe elephants, I was struck by the fact that they nearly always produced combination calls in the same order: a single roar followed by a single rumble. Why was this? Could it be analogous to grammatical rules in human language? Or could it be as simple as an anatomical constraint that made it difficult for the elephants to produce a rumble before a roar? Continue reading

The Folly of Fences

Electric fences that split forested habitat are all too common. As a result, occurrences like this are frequent.

Sri Lanka is part of the ancestral home of Asian elephants and a skeleton traced to this population now serves as the definitive “type” specimen. They existed before settlers colonized and cultivated, before the ancient tanks were built, before the kings and kingdoms, colonizers and governments. This was their land long before humankind set foot on it to set about defining visible and invisible boundaries for ourselves and everything else. Yet here we are, and we are here to stay, so our fates are now linked. An elephant is more than a mere animal or symbol. It is the most un-ignorable occupant of a swiftly vanishing world that harbors an infinitely old and precious natural heritage. It is also a force of nature that annually claims human lives. Therein lies the crux of the difficulty. There’s just one question we need to ask ourselves: do we want elephants (and their bretheren) to persist on this little island, or not? I pose this question on World Elephant day because we are at a juncture that will decide the outcome. Continue reading

Mind Over Matter

Those sneaky sneaks!

It was a perfectly framed shot of a young elephant breaking the electric fence, perhaps even looking a little gleefully smug about it. Still this was a relatively common incident, and while it was nice to catch at least one culprit in the act, the observation was hardly a breakthrough (pun intended). But as we watched on, it was what came next that was so beautifully, endearingly meaningful that we couldn’t help watching again, and again, and again. Continue reading

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Guest post by Nandini Shetty

A group of elephants visit the grasslands surrounding the Kabini Reservoir in Southern India. Photo: Kabini Elephant Project

India includes some of the largest populations of Asian elephants in the world: an estimated ~26 000 to 28 000 elephants distributed across four regions. Of the four regions, southern India includes the single largest population of Asian elephants in the world (~14 000) and elephants are distributed across the Western and Eastern Ghats.

I studied the ecology and behaviour of Asian elephants as part of an ongoing long-term project on elephants, the Kabini Elephant Project, which was started in March 2009 to study the social life of elephants. Continue reading

The Secret Life of Elephants

We have the pleasure of watching elephants in broad daylight in precious few places like Udawalawe, where they are habituated enough to be placid and tolerant of onlookers. Indeed, one can get rather spoiled in this particular Park, because even the birds are unafraid and will happily sit and pose for your clumsy photograph from inches away. At times, certain exhibitionist pachyderms even appear to put on a show for the gawking crowds:

But all is not paradise. Continue reading

The Buzz about Elephants and Bees

An elephant family rests under a tree in the hot midday heat. Situations like this were perfect for the playback experiments.

by SdS

In October 2007 Lucy King and colleagues first made a splash by reporting that African elephants seemed to be rather put off by bees.  I was still in Sri Lanka during my big “data collection year” as a graduate student, trying to figure out the social relationships among Asian elephants and recording vocalizations whenever I got a chance. Lucy’s first paper was a curiosity, but then three years later she followed it up with the even more intriguing finding that African elephants even produce alarm calls specific to bees. This got the attention of my advisor at Penn, Dorothy Cheney, who having expended considerable time thinking about such things as monkey alarm calls, dropped me a one-liner: “Have you seen this?” Continue reading

Sumedha’s Epic Musth

Sumedha shows all signs of musth as he consorts with Indika (Sandamali) in 2011, which include secretions from the temporal glands on the sides of his head and urine dribbling.

Of all the iconic tuskers that have passed through Udawalawe over the years, Sumedha is the one I’ve known longest. All tuskers are distinctive, because they’re so rare in Udawalawe, but Sumedha additionally had a nice big hole in his left ear and an awkward  tail with no hair. He wasn’t as regal as my beloved Raja, nor as old and wise as the Kalthota tusker, both of whom would have been easily dominant over him in the early years. But he was younger than either of them, and built like a tank. So if he survived, eventually his time would come. Continue reading