Wildlife Tourism: How to Experience Elephants in the Wild, Ethically

On World Elephant Day, our social media editor Julia O’Driscoll takes a look at some of the work being done across the world to protect elephants from the dangers of the growing wildlife tourism industry.

On the odd occasion that I drop into conversation that I once volunteered in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand people often ask, with a slight eyebrow raise, “the good kind?” – and rightly so. 

Wildlife tourism has fast become a booming sector of the travel industry. Certain activities now seem to be considered a rite of passage among backpackers and holidaymakers, the attraction differing depending where in the world you visit. Being photographed with docile tigers; watching monkey shows; riding an elephant; animals acting unnaturally has become a perverse but proliferating form of “entertainment”, and animal welfare is often pushed to one side or overlooked as the spectacle takes centre stage. 

Happily, my experience at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) was very positive. This rescue and rehabilitation centre does fantastic work for conservation and is considered a pioneer in the treatment of captive elephants. Providing shelter for endangered species with an onsite veterinary clinic and carefully trained team of mahouts, the park is a home for elephants who have been orphaned, involved in street begging, illegal logging, tourism trekking, or have in some other way become vulnerable to environmental or human threats.

The founder, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, was named one of Asia’s Heroes by Time Magazine in 2005. Before our volunteer programme began, Lek talked to us openly about the elephant tourism industry and we watched several documentaries which gave a horrifying insight into it. By informing and educating group after group of visitors, the ENP is making significant headway as an advocate for elephant rights.

The same can’t be said for all camps and supposed sanctuaries. Journalist Natasha Daly shares her experience of elephant tourism in Thailand in an eye-opening National Geographic documentary. Although awareness has risen greatly since I visited Thailand  in 2014, Natasha’s investigation took place just a few months ago and it seems little has changed in the way that certain types of animal attractions are run. In this industry constricting cages, spiked chains and sharp-edged bullhooks are common tools and torture methods used to control an elephant’s behaviour, curbing its natural reactions to make it safer for tourists to get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures. 

There are some fantastic charities and organisations doing invaluable work to protect and grow the number of elephants in the wild, such as the Tusk Trust and World Wildlife Fund, but awareness campaigns have a crucial role to play too. World Elephant Day launched in 2012 to bring attention to the threats faced by African and Asian elephant populations. As events take place across the world to mark the day, we are faced with the fact that there are fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants in the world, making them an endangered species, and African elephants are classed as vulnerable with roughly 415,000 in the wild. 

I wouldn’t claim that my experience is a perfect example of ethical wildlife tourism in practice – but it would be difficult to find a completely faultless wildlife volunteer projects or tourist visit. When I visited the ENP, our small group of volunteers were allowed to wash the herd – since April last year volunteers are no longer allowed to bathe the elephants to allow them to live as naturally as possible. What changed? The number of visitors to the park, for one thing. It’s crucial that sanctuaries and organisations continually review and adapt their practices, but the onus is also on tourists and travellers to be critical and do their research before attending any kind of animal attraction.

How to find ethical wildlife attractions 

  • Start your research online. Dip into Facebook groups, read blogs and use websites such as Responsible Travel or WTM Responsible Tourism to identify potential places to visit. Social media can also be a useful tool, if you use hashtags such as #greentourism and #ethicalanimaltourism as a starting point.
  • Then, read reviews. Although TripAdvisor and Google reviews sometimes need to be taken with a pinch of salt, they can be really helpful at giving you an idea of the kind of the organisation you are looking at. If the words ‘elephant rides’ or ‘playtime’ come up, steer clear. Don’t shy away from the one or two star reviews – see what people had to say, and raise concerns with the organisation before visiting. 
  • Speak to a professional. Book an appointment with a well-reputed travel agent to discuss potential projects and ask if they can advise or answer any niggling questions that you have. Hopefully they’ll be able to give you more information and steer you in the direction of some great organisations. 
  • Be critical and overly-cautious. If it seems too good to be true (particularly through social media), it very much could be. Ask yourself: who is benefitting from the experience? I essentially sweated for two weeks, cutting down banana stalks, clearing elephant poo and chopping up kilo upon kilo of watermelon, corn and pumpkin to help in the day to day running of the park. If activities seem to be geared towards pleasing or impressing volunteers, dig a little further.

Read 10 things you need to know about the Illegal Wildlife Trade.

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