August 12 is World Elephant Day, a day designed to bring attention to the plight of the Asian and African elephant and the numerous threats they face, and raise awareness of how close we are to losing these magnificent creatures to extinction forever. Unfortunately the travel and tourism industry plays a huge role in the negative impact on the elephant population, and it is up to us as travellers to make sure that we play our part in having a positive impact instead.
Elephants are awe inspiring, beautiful animals that are literally revered around the world. They are gentle, kind and self aware animals that truly display some of the highest and admirable emotions that we ourselves as humans aspire to. This isn’t just simple anthromorphisation either, the social intelligence of elephants is well known and documented. Yet despite this, these magnificent creatures have been subject to horrible abuses and mistreatment by the mass travel industry on a scale that is truly horrific to comprehend. Abuse in captivity, being held, chained or caged in inappropriate envioronments, being exploited for entertainment or profit and tortured and abused with manual labour and elephant treks. Couple this with the challenges of hunting almost to the point of extinction, ivory poaching, the ivory trade in the tourism industry, habitat loss and destruction.
If these charges were leveled against a human population they would be considered war crimes. Attempted genocide.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The travel industry can have a positive effect on the treatment of elephants, not only by shunning and actively opposing the negative aspects of the industry, but by openly supporting the positive ones.
Thankfully the word is starting to spread about how and why people should never ride elephants on their travels and the activity is becoming less and less popular amongst well informed backpackers and travellers, but unfortunately there are still a huge number of tourists who still have riding an elephant as part of their bucket list.
The travel and gap year industries aren’t helping much in this matter, although parts of the industry are starting to remove elephant trekking from their activities list and advertising material, many aren’t.
The facts are that elephants backs – despite their large, powerful build – are not made to withstand having constant weight and pressure put on them, and carrying tons of heavy tourists day after day does irreparably harm the elephants, both to their spines from the weight and their skin from the large wooden platform, ropes and hobbles used to secure them. There is also the use of the infamous bullhook to control and steer them, which I have seen first hand draw blood from an elephants ear. Not to mention the abuses they suffer as a result of the training they have to go through – known as the crush – and the daily hell of being worked every day and kept in unsuitable conditions.
The crush is an abhorrent practice that is used to break the elephants spirit and train them to be compliant. Exact techniques differ slightly, but in general it involves immobilising the elephant by placing the poor animal inside a small wooden cage or frame and tightly binding them with rope so they cannot move. sharp objects are positioned carefully around their eyes, face, ears, trunk and torso so that if they do move they will get hurt, and then they are systematically beaten, whipped and stabbed over a period of days, where they are starved and deprived of sleep or rest.
This is the crush. This is the ‘accepted cultural practice’ which provides tourists with compliant elephants for their amusement and their once in a lifetime trekking opportunity.
There are never, I repeat, NEVER any circumstances in which it is okay to ride an elephant.
For those that have ridden an elephant or been on an elephant trek, and I do include myself in that number on my very first gap year before I learned of the abuse and changed my behaviour, this is not about blaming you for what you did in the past, and it isn’t about blaming those industries and communities that rely on elephant tourism for income. It is about showing everyone that there is a better way.
Travellers can choose to end the abuse of elephants in the tourism industry, they can choose to stop elephant trekking altogether and they can choose to make a positive difference for the elephants in the future.
There are more ethical and responsible alternatives out there. For those who still would love the experience of getting up close to an elephant, then why not go on one of the many ‘walk alongside’ treks that are becoming more popular in Thailand now?
These ‘walk alongside treks’ are where you quite literally walk alongside these beautiful animals on a gentle trek through the hills and jungle, but you don’t ride them and cause them harm as you do it. It isn’t a perfect method of course, as the perfect way is always as far away as possible. However, if this replaces elephant trekking completely and satiates the desire to get up close and personal in tourists who would otherwise still ride them regardless of the abuse, then I’ll take it.
Some rescue and rehabilitation centers such as the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai in Thailand are beginning to emphasise responsible alternatives like this. These are true rehabilitation sanctuaries (not ones which simply greenwash their practices with an ethical title), where elephants are not ridden in any way shape or form but are instead kept in large, suitable compounds and general policies of view from a distance are being upheld as much as possible. Elephant treks are the walk alongside variety and any other interaction is kept to a minimum and usually involves helping to bathe or care for them in a way that is humane and responsible.
It is up to each and every traveller to do their research beforehand and ensure an facility they visit conforms to these new standards. It is a better way. The local communities and tourism industry responsible for elephant trekking activities can still earn a living – perhaps even a better one – from the tourists and travellers who do want to see and interact with elephants, but truly want the option to do so in a way that will help and care for them. It is all about raising awareness, education and retraining the current ideology where elephants are just seen as a means to earn money, and profit is more important than the animal’s welfare. By using the power of consumer demand, travellers can show these providers that it can be in their best interests to provide activities that care for the elephants in a humane way. Travellers can show those responsible for elephant trekking that it will be much better for everyone involved if they switch to a more responsible method.
Elephant safaris and sightseeing tours.
Safari’s and sightseeing tours to view elephants ‘in their natural habitat’ is a huge multi million pound industry. There are regulations and laws in place to protect wildlife from the intrusion and impact of tourism in some areas, but certainly not all. But these laws and regulations are not always adhered to.
The problem with this is the increased encroachment onto their habitat and the stress and strain of being ‘chased’ by hordes of safari operators are significant stress factors for elephants, for any wildlife in fact, and can cause both physical and mental distress. This is especially true if their are young nearby, as adult elephants will feel significantly more threatened and take action, putting both wildlife and the tour group at risk.
Safaris can be a good way to see elephants, but travellers should be careful to do their research and choose the right operator.
Choose a safari company that puts back a significant percent of its profits to the conservation efforts of both the elephant (and other wildlife) and their habitat too. Many good operators do this, you just have to find which ones. The good ones will be open and upfront about it, if they are evasive then it’s a strong sign to go elsewhere.
Choose a company that views elephants from a distance and from the safety of a vehicle. Walking tours are becoming more and more popular but evidence is emerging that this form of safari is having an increased detrimental effect on the wildlife and their habitat. Put quite simply, you are encroaching too far onto the animals territory and this has a knock on effect to their health, wellbeing, mating patterns, feeding patterns and many other factors.
Choose a company that have experienced, qualified and knowledgeable guides, and a long list of restrictions that they will stick to religiously. If the restrictions say the jeep sticks to a specific route, they shouldn’t be going off that route to get you a closer look at the elephant for your all important selfie. Just make sure that your actions when viewing elephants in the wild have as minimal an effect as possible.
Captive elephant shows.
Unfortunately there are many places around the world that still have elephants performing for tourists amusement. This can take the form of elephant shows where they perform tricks on command, elephant painting, even being walked around busy tourist areas so tourists can pay to feed the elephants or have their photo taken with them. It is easy as a tourist to fall into the trap of thinking this is okay. Many of these shows take place in what are outwardly very caring and responsible places. Toursist attractions like zoos or sanctuaries, where as a tourist or a traveller you would expect a high standard of care to be the norm. Unfortunately this is not always the case, and there is a lot of misinformation and greenwashing that has fooled so many people. To perorm in any kind of show like this, elephants have to go through the same horrendous process of training known as the crush to enable them to do this, and have to endure daily torture, stress and abuse.
The exploitation of any wildlife in this way for profit or entertainment is wrong.
Many of these shows often have elephants that have been forcibly taken from their mothers at a young age and shipped internationally to perform. There is a huge problem with international poaching and trafficking of elephants to be sold into performance servitude, and according to a report by TRAFFIC the wildife trade monitoring network, this demand is being fuelled by the tourism market and the demand by travellers to commune with elephants and see them up close.
This is a slave trade in all but name, is it really any different because it is an elephant and not a human?
But as above, tourists and travellers can make a difference by shunning these practices. Quite simply don’t go to any show where elephants are performing, don’t give any money to street elephants, don’t support the abusive industry that mistreats these beautiful animals for profit. It isn’t a direct action I know, but if there is no demand, there will be no supply.
Coupled with the increasing amount of travellers flocking toward ethical and humane elephant tourism practices like the ENP, shunning these attractions will force those involved to move toward a more humane form of elephant tourism. They will learn that travellers want to see and interact with elephants in a humane way, a responsible way, a way that cares for them not harms them. Put very bluntly, the industry will eventually go where the money is and the demand for the negative sides of the industry will wane.
The ivory trade is still a huge multi million pound industry despite numerous international laws and regulations against it, and with numbers obtained from the Born Free Foundation, it is horrifying to think that every year tens of thousands of elephants are brutally killed for the sole purpose of harvesting their tusks.
There is a whole industry of merchants, dealers and hunters who – often illegally – kill entire herds of elephants at a time. It is truly sickening.
There are a number of international initiatives and campaigns combating this trade that are ongoing, but there are also very simple ways in which tourists can make a difference. It should really go without saying that boycotting any trade with peddles goods made from ivory should be the norm, whether that comes in the form of carved ivory, ivory jewellry, ground up ivory for traditional medicines or anything similar, anything that includes ivory in any way shape or form is wrong.
The ivory industry is only so lucrative because there is a sickeningly high demand for it, and whilst there are many educational advertising drives for the general public in China and elsewhere, travellers can play their part in making sure that at the very least they can minimise the profits the industry makes in the tourism sector.
It is only by showing that there is no demand for the products, can we stop the supply of them. So stay away from anything which is sold as ivory and definitely don’t purchase any souvenirs or products made from it. You could even be breaking the law if you try.
On a wider scale, many African and Asian economies are dependent on tourism, and this is being affected as the elephant population is decimated and hunted to the point of extinction for its Ivory. Again, by showing that responsible tourism can be as profitable if not more profitable than the ivory trade, and by showing that there is a vastly profitable appetite for responsible and ethical elephant tourism with responsible safari’s, conservation camps or rehabilitation centres, then governments and industries should finally begin to see that it is in their best interests to protect and look after elephants humanely. Realistically there will always be people who do not care about the welfare of elephants or any other wildlife and that is just an unfortunate reality, but if they can be convinced that exploiting them and harming them for profit is no longer lucrative, but caring for them and protecting them is, then at least they will make the right decision regardless of their motives.
The ethical and humane treatment of elephants in the travel industry can be as – if not much more – profitable than the traditionally exploitative and abusive practices that have been the norm up until now, and it is up to us as travellers to ensure that those involved in the industry see that.
We can all work together to ensure that elephants are kept and viewed in non exploitative environments that care for and protect them. Tourists and travellers can still see and experience these magnificent creatures in a truly holistic envioronment, and operators can see it is in the best interests, and the interests of their profit margins, to ensure that elephants are treated ethically, humanely and sustainably. So please, if you want to experience elephants on your travels, I urge you to do your research and support those operations that are getting it right, and shun those that are still using exploitative practices for profit and personal gain.
And use today, World Elephant Day, to spread the word as much as possible about ethical and humane elephant tourism, and give your support to the responsible care of captive and wild elephants.
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