In 2014, Intrepid ended elephant riding on all our trips. The decision came after a study, commissioned in partnership with World Animal Protection, revealed widespread cruelty among businesses offering elephant attractions in the name of tourism. Since then we’ve been fighting hard to raise awareness around the issue, and a lot has changed. But new research by World Animal Protection has shown there’s still a long way to go.
We’ll leave it to them to explain what they found – and how you, as a traveller, can help.
Elephants in the tourism industry
Elephants are the biggest animals to currently walk the earth, and one of the only species intelligent enough to recognise themselves in a mirror. To many, they may seem exotic, majestic – an encounter with one is a bucket-list dream. Elephant rides and shows remain popular among travellers in many Southeast Asian countries. But behind the scenes of the elephant tourism industry is a grim reality.
Elephants are not domesticated animals like cats and dogs; even elephants born in captivity retain their wild instincts. They must be ‘broken’ to accept human contact, often beaten and starved into submission. So before they’ve carried even one person on their back, an elephant pays a high price for tourists’ entertainment.
New research into elephant welfare
Around three in four elephants in captivity across Asia live in unacceptable conditions, according to Taken for a Ride, a new report by World Animal Protection on the welfare of elephants used for entertainment.
Elephants in many venues are often kept tied up on short chains, isolated from other elephants and without access to the proper food or veterinary care they need. These elephants are much more likely to display chronic repetitive behaviours that are a visible sign of stress. Not surprisingly, elephants in the best welfare venues – which allow free roaming, foraging and socialising, and little or no tourist interaction – rarely exhibited these behaviours.
In a polling for World Animal Protection, 44% of Australian tourists believed riding an elephant was acceptable. And 38% believed the same of wildlife shows. These numbers were down since a previous survey – but still much too high. There is plenty of misinformation out there on this topic – including venues falsely claiming to be elephant ‘sanctuaries’ as a marketing ploy.
So as a traveller, how do you tell the difference?
Here’s World Animal Protection’s guide to making sure your encounter isn’t hurting elephants:
1. Arm yourself with knowledge
Many of the travellers polled (43%) took part in activities involving wild animals because they love animals. The problem isn’t a lack of care – it’s a lack of awareness, so educating yourself about the realities is key.
Before you travel, do plenty of research on the places you want to visit and the activities you want to do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. At a true ‘elephant-friendly’ venue:
- Elephants can move around freely and interact with each other
- Elephants are not used for rides, shows or tricks
- There’s limited contact with visitors
- Education on elephant welfare is part of the visitor experience
- Captive breeding is restricted
2. Take a walk on the wild side
More than four in five travellers said they would prefer to see animals in the wild if they had the chance. Elephants are wildlife, not entertainers.
Even though numbers of wild Asian elephants are declining, spotting them in their natural habitat is still possible. Sri Lanka has the highest density of wild Asian elephants in the world, so it’s a good bet; you can often see wild elephants in Uda Walawe, Wilpattu or Minneriya National Parks. Intrepid visits all three on their range of small group trips in Sri Lanka. Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in South India is also home to a population of wild Indian elephants.
3. Help end elephant exploitation
According to the Taken for a Ride report, all elephants found to be living in poor conditions were kept at venues offering elephant rides. So it’s simple, really: don’t support venues that offer elephant rides and shows.
If you do see any animal cruelty or abuse during your travels, report it to the local authorities or a local animal welfare organisation. Aside from venues offering shows and saddled rides, other signs of cruelty may include:
- Elephants kept in short chains, or on hard concrete flooring
- Limited opportunity for elephants to socialise freely with each other
- Dirty, littered, unhygienic or wet standing grounds and enclosures
- Noisy, polluted urban environments, often located next to busy roads to attract tourists
- Poor quality of food provided to animals, often restricted to pineapple leaves and grasses
- Excessive direct contact allowed between elephants and visitors
4. Don’t forget to write home!
Tell your family and friends about the great experiences you had with elephants in the wild or at elephant-friendly venues. The more people who know these alternatives exist and how special they are, the more the demand for them will grow. Ending the demand for cruel elephant attractions is key to ending the cruelty.
It’s only a matter of time before we see the elephant-friendly travel movement grow and grow, and with it more opportunities to see these beautiful wild animals in natural environments, free to behave like elephants.
Feature image c/o Malcolm Elms