Elephant tourism: why the call of the wild is too loud to ignore

Something to declare

Elephant trekking is top of the travel bucket list for many tourists, particularly if visiting Asia. The chance to ride on the back of these majestic creatures, exploring forests and villages, has been a real draw for travellers and profitable for travel companies including our own, ResponsibleTravel.com. Trips to elephant camps to watch elephants play football, paint pictures or perform in an orchestra have proved equally popular.

However, times are changing; last week, we published a new online guide: “Elephants in Tourism – Right or Wrong?” to offer travellers useful information on which they can base their ethical travel decisions.

As a result of writing the guide and a long period of consultation with animal welfare experts, charities, NGOs, travel operators and local experts, we have now changed our own policy. We no longer promote trips on our site that include elephant treks or elephant performances.

Why? Because I believe that until the tourist demand for elephant-related tourism activities dwindles, the demand for illegally caught, wild elephants will continue. Wild adults are often gunned down so that the baby elephants can be captured and sold into tourist camps. Beforehand they are often “broken in” using horrific techniques, tied up in a cage for several days; deprived of food, water and sleep; beaten, burned and stabbed to beat them into submission. A newly broken-in baby elephant can be worth US$30,000 (£18,000) or more. This is a serious threat to a species which is already greatly endangered.

Sadly, there are no laws or regulations regarding the welfare of captive elephants across Asia. They may be tied up in chains, left without shade and segregated from other elephants, which for a highly intelligent, sociable species is unbearable.

Those used for elephant back rides can suffer damage to their spines, sores on their skin from the equipment and wounds from the bull hooks used by their handlers. Elephant riding is very different to horse riding because the animals have not become domesticated through years of captive breeding. For elephants, all their wild instincts remain, even if they are born in captivity.

So what should travellers do now? Asking questions can make a real difference. We urge travellers to research carefully before choosing an elephant establishment to visit. For example, Elephant Nature Park in Thailand is a sanctuary where rescued animals play, bathe, eat and interact with each other as they would in the wild.

Don’t go elephant trekking or attend elephant shows. Write to those places and tell them why. You should also consider viewing these animals in the wild instead. There is nothing as remarkable as approaching a herd of wild elephants while walking on safari. These memories will be secured forever, as I hope, the future of elephants can be too.

Justin Francis is co-founder and managing director of Responsible Travel. For more, see responsibletravel.com/elephants