The Elephant in the Room – Elephant Tourism

By Christine Mackay, Crooked Trails Co-Founder & Executive Director

I remember the first time I rode an elephant; it was over 20 years ago in Chiang Mai, Thailand on an ‘eco-cultural trek’. We spent a few hours lumbering along on the backs of these incredible pachyderms. I remember not feeling great about what I was doing but cherishing the opportunity to be so close to an elephant. The same thing happened a few years later in Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal; I loved being close, and hated that the handler carried a huge spiked tool to control the elephant. I remember when he hit the elephant on the head with it; I cringed and asked him not to do it. He ignored me.

Since then, slowly but surely, elephant tourism, like all animal tourism — from swimming with dolphins to getting your selfie with a drugged tiger — has come into question and much-needed criticism. No one who has seen The Cove would ever swim with dolphins. Those who know that the tigers made available for your fun selfie live a wretched life of continual drugs and cages take a hard pass. Elephant riding has fallen out of favor, but elephant sanctuary tourism… that is a trickier issue.

No one denies that elephants need to be treated with dignity and respect. Videos of painful torture techniques to train elephants are rampant and heartbreaking. In response, especially in Thailand, there have been numerous groups over the years who have rescued working elephants from logging camps and tourist shows, housing them in rescue centers. Some of these centers have even come under scrutiny because even though the elephants do not provide rides, nor are they harmed but in fact are well taken care of and loved, it is suggested that they still have to ‘perform’.

I visited one such place in Thailand several years ago. A group of 10 travelers were able to feed the elephants by hand. Then we walked among the elephants as they roamed their enormous enclosure and followed them down the road to their bathing area. We made giant balls of healthy elephant yumminess and fed them again. We got to hang out with them as they took a mud bath and splashed river water on themselves. From my perspective, it looked enjoyable for the gentle giants. It sure was for the humans. Yet, the elephants were performing and earning their keep. Today there are sanctuaries that permit even greater freedom for the elephants by allowing them to freely roam in larger areas, and tourists encounter them in a much looser and more natural way.

Is it wrong to have elephants in captivity and ‘performing’ for tourists in any manner? The alternatives are not great. Elephants are enormous animals, which require tremendous quantities of food and space. They do not deal nicely with fences and farms and so they frequently earn the wrath of locals. As the human population encroaches on habitat and more and more elephants are rescued from poorly-managed tourist activities we have even more of these massive animals needing care. There are an estimated 3,000 elephants currently working in the tourist trade in SE Asia. They need to eat and have a place to roam, and that is increasingly difficult and costly.

The future of elephants in SE Asia will rely on well-run elephant centers. If these elephant centers/sanctuaries were not allowed to continue to work because tourism has sent the message that all elephant tourism is bad, then the only tourists heading out to see elephants in SE Asia are the unethical, in search of the all-important selfie trophy and caring little about how the animals are treated. Therein lies the problem. We live in an age, like it or not, where these magnificent animals may very well have to earn their keep. If done well, the work they are asked to do would not be harmful, and in fact can contribute to their wellbeing by allowing them to live with their family members, have access to good food, and to roam unshackled where they can enjoy a nice mud bath and shower. Likewise, for travelers, it can be a transformative experience to be up close and personal with the world’s largest land animals. This type of scenario also fosters respect and understanding.  

Should you visit an elephant sanctuary when visiting a place like Thailand? This is a question each traveler needs to evaluate for themselves, but I can tell you about my own experience. I felt shame riding on the back of an elephant all those years ago, but felt only exhilaration and true happiness years later when I was able to walk alongside one of these breathtaking animals at a well-run sanctuary. It was truly a moment I will never forget. I hope the elephant I nudged up to enjoyed it as well.

Crooked Trails works closely with our partners in Thailand to vet elephant sanctuaries (and other animal rehabilitation centers) for our travelers who wish to visit one. The sanctuaries we recommend have been evaluated and certified by Travelife, whose methodology was developed during the EU supported LIFE project, based on sustainability management concepts developed by UNEP, the Tour Operators’ Initiative for Sustainable Tourism Development (TOI) and earlier experiences of ANVR and ABTA.

We also keep the conversation open, both with our travelers and among our own staff. Animal tourism is a continually evolving issue, and as our environment as well as our awareness continues to change, we feel it is important to regularly revisit our best practices.  

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