How to Recognize the Difference Between Helpful and Harmful Animal Tourism
Time spent with elephants is an incredible experience.
When you are up-close and personal with elephants, you can see that their eyes are big and deep, their lashes are long, and when you make eye contact with them, they seem to look right into your soul. They sense your emotions, are curious about you, and they wonder if you have more cucumbers for them in your bag. Their playfulness and intelligence reminds me so much of puppy dogs, except these are much, much larger animals.
This past weekend we celebrated World Elephant Day, and in light of all the elephant posts and hashtags celebrating these incredible creatures, I wanted to give voice to those who plan to travel to elephant-populated countries and seek opportunities to interact closely with elephants.
I encourage every person who has an opportunity to engage with these gentle giants to do so. Learn about them, feed them, look into their eyes, and scratch their sides and shoulders!
But how do you know which elephant sanctuary is actually a good place for the elephants to live and not just a tourist trap that abuses the elephant when the foreign visitors have gone?
Without knowing it, travellers pay for experiences in “sanctuaries” that are anything but.
Interacting with elephants is incredible. It most definitely makes your heart swell and gives you all the warm “feels”. But how do you know the elephant you are feeding, bathing or scratching is getting all the “feels” from you?
A few weeks ago Sam, one of my past Thailand program participants, messaged me a little disheartened because a friend of hers was making travel plans to visit an elephant rehabilitation center that was not as elephant-friendly as it seemed.
Sam was a little worried because she wanted to speak up and give her travelling friend her opinion about visiting elephant sanctuaries responsibly, but didn’t want to be one of “those people”.
By that, I think she meant offering up un-asked-for advice, or potentially coming across as too judge-y, or a bit of a travel know-it-all.
But Sam was none of those things. She was worried about the welfare of the elephants. It’s so important that tourists are educated so that they can make responsible choices on their travels. Most people who engage in unethical animal tourism don’t fully understand the negative impact of their dollar, or why riding an elephant is one of the worst things you can do to the species. It’s not entirely because the elephant can’t handle the weight of us on their back, but because of the torment and torture elephants go through to ensure they are submissive enough to offer rides to humans. That’s right, they are tortured. How else can anyone domesticate an 8-ton animal? It’s not with doggy treats.
Why it’s a Problem
For centuries, elephants were used in the logging industry, and when logging became banned, elephant owners needed to come up with a way to turn their very expensive elephants into money-generating machines, and found a way to do this through tourism. Elephants became circus performers, they were paraded down busy urban streets and forced to pose for photos and perform silly human tricks, such as play basketball or paint. It was all for a laugh for tourists and an opportunity to take entertaining vacation photos. Recently, however, tourists began to more fully understand why an elephant performing in the circus or giving rides to tourists is part of a cruel and inhumane practice.
Elephants perform because they were physically abused into submission. I won’t relate the gruesome details here of how young elephants are domesticated, but the process is called “the crush” and it is where the elephant’s spirit is broken into so many pieces the exhausted creature stops resisting, stops fighting back, and submits to a fearful life of servitude. You can search for details about what “the crush” entails on youtube, or Wikipedia, or here, but the point is that these intelligent, emotional, and beautiful creatures suffer at the hands of irresponsible and unethical tourism.
As tourists and travellers, we have the power to turn that around so that domesticated elephants can find a healthier and happier role in educational tourism. As animal-lovers, we can help spread awareness to other travellers and give our support to legitimate sanctuaries where elephants are genuinely treated humanely.
But that takes time. And it takes people like Sam speaking up and saying something to ensure that travellers seeking one-on-one’s with elephants do so in responsible ways.
A “sanctuary” isn’t always a sanctuary. The term could be misused, just the same way that “eco” is applied to places or things that aren’t exactly eco-system friendly. It’s misleading and the reason why we travellers should always do our homework and find out more about a sanctuary, how it operates and how it treats its elephants before supporting them with a visit.
It may not always be obvious to the inexperienced traveller, but here are a few things to look out for before you sign up.
Good Signs to Look For
- Space to roam. At a true sanctuary, it’s recognized that big creatures need big spaces, and the elephants will have plenty of acreage to roam free, to bathe in rivers and to feast on sugar cane.
- Mahouts (the elephant’s owner) are kind to the elephants. The elephants respond to the voices of the Mahouts, who have likely been their owners for years, rather than respond to a sharp and painful hook jabbing their sensitive ears and heads.
- Elephants have access to water and shade. These are basic needs, but something that you’ll immediately notice is lacking if you’re visiting a location where elephants are chained to posts in the hot sun, far from any waterhole.
Bad Signs to Look For:
- Rides are promoted. Any true elephant sanctuary with the animals’ interest at heart will never, ever promote rides. Bottom line.
- Both feet of the elephant are chained. While in some places you will see an elephant chained by one leg, this is okay. It’s similar to putting your dog on a leash, especially if the elephant is being housed where there are many Mahouts living with many elephants. It’s just a way of keeping their elephants home, and one leg chained doesn’t hurt or inhibit the elephant.
- Elephants acting like people (playing basketball, etc). This is not the behaviour of free elephants and is part of a performance you shouldn’t pay for.
- Swaying elephants. This is a characteristic often found in zoo animals and is a sign of anxiety and nervousness, and poor treatment.
If you’re a fan of these beautiful creatures, whether you’ve had the chance to see one in person or not, it’s still important to understand what you can do that legitimately helps these creatures live a life without harm.
To keep it simple, just observe the elephants and their Mahouts. Hooks + rides = abused elephants. Every time.
Back to Sam’s request for advice, I told her to definitely be one of “those people” because the world needs more of us. She can kindly suggest places such as The Surin Project in Thailand so that other travellers can choose to support true sanctuaries and learn to recognize the difference.
It’s okay and important to encourage the support of legitimate elephant sanctuaries and responsible elephant tourism. It’s okay to speak up and advise fellow travellers who wouldn’t otherwise know what a “good” elephant experience is vs. a “bad” one. Most people would appreciate knowing.
And the elephants are worth speaking up for.