Our Stance on Elephant Tourism – Sustainability Story of the Week
The animal lover in me tells me that using elephants for tourism is wrong. The realities on the ground however, show that it is not as simple as that. Here’s where Eco Companion stands on this somewhat thorny issue.
A cruel start in life
Thanks to numerous awareness raising campaigns, the cruel truth behind elephant tourism in Asia is not so hidden anymore. The story of every elephant in captivity has the same beginning: the Phajaan, a horribly violent process used to crush an elephant’s spirit. In other words, elephants destined to work in the tourism industry are tortured into submission. They are starved, beaten and shackled until they lose the will to live.
Elephants are wild animals, not entertainers
Once elephants have submitted to the will of their captors, they will entertain tourists day after day in elephant camps around Asia. Don’t gawp in awe at the sight of an elephant kicking a football around or painting a pretty flower. Those behaviours are as unnatural as they come. To learn them, elephants suffer intense physical and mental abuse. Their mahouts, traditional elephant trainers, will always be there to keep them in line if their wild instincts resurface. Using bull hooks, nails and sticks, mahouts use pain and the fear of pain to control the elephants.
Elephant rides bring additional pain to captive elephants. Despite their imposing size, elephants are not built to carry people on their backs. The weight of the saddle and people on their back causes permanent spinal injuries and skin wounds.
We can all agree that using elephants in tourism is wrong on many levels. However, as is often the case when it comes to human-wildlife interactions, there isn’t a straightforward answer to the problem. The ever-shrinking natural habitat and the very real threat of poaching render the release of captive elephants into the wild virtually impossible. Therefore, until we find a solution to safely release captive elephants into the wild, elephant tourism will remain a reality.
However, it doesn’t have to be just any type of tourism. We believe that ecotourism can offer solutions to put an end to the cruel treatment of elephants. One of the cornerstones of ecotourism is the respectful treatment and protection of animals. It therefore strictly condemns the cruel practices in the elephant camps offering rides and elephant performances.
In recent years, a different type of elephant tourism has emerged that abides by ecotourism principles. Organisations are rescuing elephants and providing them with a safe and caring environment.
These sanctuaries do not provide rides or performances but instead offer softer interactions such as elephant viewing, feeding and bathing. This form of elephant tourism provides opportunities to raise money for the upkeep and protection of captive elephants as well as fostering respectful treatment.
Additionally, whilst we strongly stand against any activity that brings harm and suffering to animals, we recognise that sometimes the stakes are simply too high to blindly take the moral high ground without considering local circumstances. With this in mind and somewhat reluctantly, we decided that elephant rides are acceptable when they serve a greater conservation purpose and no alternatives exist. In national parks in India and Nepal for example, elephant rides are the only safe way to observe endangered species such as tigers and rhinoceros whose very existence is threatened by rampant poaching. The money raised from tourism is reinvested into anti-poaching efforts. Elephant rides are therefore a lifeline for these species.
However, we only accept elephant rides when there is tangible proof that they are essential to conservation efforts and that no alternative solution can be implemented. We do not accept elephant rides that are offered as a paid extra to visitors, even if the money is reinvested into conservation. We believe that there is plenty of alternative ways visitors can interact with elephants that also offer the opportunity to raise funds. Moreover, strict guidelines must be followed so as to minimise harm to elephants. They must have access to plenty of food, water and shade, be able to roam freely in an open space environment, and have the opportunity to socialise with other elephants. They must never be submitted to any type of abuse. The use of bullhooks must only be as a last resort when the safety of elephants or tourists is at risk. Rides must be limited to an hour and must only be available in the morning. Elephants should carry no more than two adults on a lightweight saddle and a mahout sitting on the neck. Finally, elephants should have plenty of rest breaks between rides.
In an ideal world, all elephants would be living freely. However, our world is far from ideal. The only way elephants will not have to work in the tourism industry anymore is if we eliminate the barriers to their return to the wild. Ecotourism has therefore a dual role to play: help fight poaching and the destruction of natural habitats and protect captive elephants from cruel practices in the tourism industry, whilst always keeping in mind the factors at play in the wider conservation world.