Safari tourists harm elephants’ health and make them violent, researchers find

Wild animals more likely to be aggressive to other herd members when people are nearby

Jane Dalton
Wednesday 20 March 2019 17:49 GMT
Large groups of people frighten elephants in the wild, potentially making them aggressive
Large groups of people frighten elephants in the wild, potentially making them aggressive (Getty Images)

Tourists on safari are damaging elephants’ health, scaring them, stressing them out and making them more violent towards people and each other, new research says.

Herds retreat from where they are resting or feeding when groups of tourists turn up in jeeps and take photographs.

And elephants are more likely to be aggressive to other group members when large numbers of people are nearby, the 15-month study in South Africa found.

Lead author Isabelle Szott, of Liverpool John Moores University, said aggression in elephants rose in parallel with tourist pressure, with males more prone than females.

“Tourists who wish to observe animals in their natural habitat should be aware of their potential negative effects on animal welfare.

“Research should investigate best practice standards to minimise such negative effects,” Ms Szott said.

Observing elephants in the wild has become increasingly popular with holidaymakers as awareness has started to grow of the cruelty of riding the animals.

Captive elephants trained with hooks to give rides or perform tricks often develop post-traumatic stress.


Tourism chiefs say the income from the safari industry protects elephants and their habitats.

Last year a German tourist was trampled to death by an elephant as she tried to photograph it in Zimbabwe.

The woman was in a group of tourists who encountered a herd in Mana Pools National Park.

In 2017, a trained elephant was shot dead after fatally trampling a tour guide in Zimbabwean tourist resort Victoria Falls.

Another local man was killed in a separate incident after trying to drive elephants into the open to take pictures.

A trend for taking selfies with wild elephants in the eastern Indian state of Orissa has also led to a series of fatal attacks. Officials believe such incidents are on the rise.

Other people have suffered serious injuries while taking selfies with elephants.

Earlier studies have found wildlife tourism causes fear, alertness, aggression, vigilance and stress behaviour in animals including rhinos.

Ms Szott, whose research was published in the Journal of Zoology, said elephants at waterholes could experience frustration and stress, as well as being targeted by other herd members, increasing the risk of aggression towards people in vehicles.

“We suggest a consistent minimum distance from the nearest individual, especially upon first approach, should be introduced to guidelines for wildlife viewing to alleviate the potential for conflict,” she said.

Audrey Delsink, head of wildlife for Humane Society International/Africa, told The Independent: “Stress can be caused to animals if the guide or tourists approach too close to the elephants, coming between females and calves or cutting off exit routes, and it’s that sort of irresponsible behaviour on the part of people that encourages negative responses in elephants.

“Wildlife tourism should not in itself cause an issue if conducted according to strict codes of conduct regulating how elephants should be viewed, such as safe-distance observation.”

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