Who doesn’t love elephants? These gentle giants are known for their intelligence, long memory span, close family bonds and playfulness. For many tourists, elephants are one of the greatest draws of travel to South-East Asia where you can pay to interact with them in a number of ways. And who wouldn’t want to get close to such magnificent animals?
But as we become increasingly aware of the cruelty behind animal experiences, and not just those involving elephants, we have to ask ourselves – is it ever OK to partake in this type of tourism?
During my travels, I had many encounters with elephants. I spent my birthday in Mudumalai National Park in south India, where I saw wild elephants feeding amongst the bushes. I saw endless elephants being walked along the side of the road. I also saw a chained-up elephant, which had been dressed and painted, being made to beg outside a temple in Puducherry.
Like many others, the idea of seeing wild animals was one of the things that most excited me about travelling. But I thought I was pretty well-informed about the cruelty of animal tourism, and there were certain things I would never have participated in. I wouldn’t have visited a circus where animals were made to perform tricks, or ridden an elephant with a wooden bench strapped to its back, or paid to cuddle a (suspiciously docile) tiger.
But I did think there was a way to interact with elephants that wasn’t cruel or harmful for them. So I paid for an elephant experience which involved feeding elephants fruit and walking alongside them to a river where they played in the water. At the time I didn’t think there was anything wrong with this and we were reassured by our guide that the elephants were happy and enjoying themselves. But now I look back and wonder, was even this too much?
The fact is it’s completely unnatural for elephants to carry people on their backs, let alone to carry two people sitting on a heavy bench, to paint pictures, beg on the street or perform dances. They only do so because they have been “broken in ” by humans. Many elephants are captured from the wild illegally, particularly calves, to be used in the tourism industry. They are often kept in chains, without adequate food and shade, and their behaviour is controlled by people who threaten them with sharp tools.
The problem is aggravated by the fact that many elephants and their “mahouts” or carers have been left without work since logging was banned in Thailand in 1989. They have been forced to turn to tourism with no other way of earning money to look after themselves and their elephants.
Aside from the cruelty associated with elephant tourism, there is also a very real danger that these incredibly strong animals can injure or kill people. There have been several incidents of local people and tourists being killed by elephants over the years. They may seem loveable, but they are wild animals and their behaviour will always be unpredictable.
Attitudes are slowly changing. Many travel companies have now stopped promoting elephant tourism or including elephant experiences in their itineraries. More and more “ethical” elephant sanctuaries are being created, where elephants live peaceful, healthy lives and tourists can watch them from a distance. Efforts are also being made to educate children in South-East Asia about the importance of protecting elephants, other wildlife and the environment.
But it’s equally important for tourists to educate themselves. When it comes to elephant tourism, or any animal tourism, the most important thing to remember is: what YOU want to experience should not come before the welfare and the natural behaviour of the animal.
If you are going to book an elephant experience, make sure you do lots of research into the facility. EARS Asia lists ethical elephant experiences and has lots of information specifically about elephant tourism, such as this guide of the signs of harm to look out for. Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) also has lots of articles about animal tourism in general.
What are your thoughts about elephant tourism? I’d love to know so please leave your views in the comments. If you’d like to share this post on Pinterest, feel free to use the picture below. xx