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How to do elephant tourism ethically

Elephant sanctuaries have proliferated in Southeast Asia in recent years. Nashua Gallagher explains why many of them are not as ‘ele-friendly’ as they claim.

Elephants are free to roam without restraints at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary.

The elephant is synonymous with Asia. These beautiful animals are omnipresent in trinket-form at night markets throughout the region, as well as depicted in historical artefacts such as pottery, wall carvings and other excavated matter. Their religious importance extends through both of the region’s largest belief systems, Hinduism and Buddhism. And elephant ownership has a long history of signifying wealth and royal lineage.

But despite this reverence, over the last 100 years, elephant populations have plunged by more than half, from an estimated 100,000 a century ago to just 35 to 40,000 today.

Conflict between humans and elephants over habitat loss through farming and urban development has contributed to depleting populations. This is further compounded by explosive human population growth.

Elephant poaching

Poaching is less of an issue for the Asian elephant as its tusks are not as big or as prized as its African cousins, but demand still exists here for elephant body parts for use in traditional medicine.

Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals who live in matriarchal societies with a lifespan that rivals humans. When a baby elephant is born, it falls under the protection of the entire herd.

So when elephants are taken into captivity, either to perform manual labour or to entertain tourists, this familial bond has to be severed in order to ‘tame’ them. The methods deployed to achieve this include a traumatic separation from the mother as well as the matriarch of the group - which in most cases involves killing either one or both of them, given the strong maternal bonds of an elephant to protect their young. This is followed by an equally cruel process commonly referred to as ‘spirit breaking’, where the baby or juvenile elephant is restrained, beaten and bullied into submission.

These elephants are then destined for a life of service; in trekking camps, circuses, elephant ‘painting’ shows, religious rituals and cultural processions. Because submission to any animal outside its herd is a conditioned behaviour, elephants are constantly kept in line with bull-hooks (a metal hook with sharpened points that is used on the most sensitive part of an elephant’s skin to exert control), restraints and limited freedom.

Awareness and conservation

The film Love and Bananas follows a team of rescuers led by renowned elephant conservationist, Lek Chaiert, on a 48-hour mission across Thailand to rescue a captive 70-year-old elephant. The movie is an eye-opening account of the current state of play of the Asian elephant and exposes generations-long methods of controlling elephants in forced captivity. As Lek says in the film, “Elephants have been broken, not domesticated.”

The tide is, however, thankfully turning. Through awareness and education programmes led by a network of conservationists and animal welfare champions around the world, demand for elephant-riding has decreased, leading to some trekking camps removing their saddles for good in favour of less invasive elephant encounters.

Cucumbers for afternoon tea at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary.

A knock-on benefit of this is to the communities surrounding these projects, from job creation for farmers whose yields help feed the elephants, to training mahouts (elephant keepers) and employing on-site staff to help run the project. Community engagement on this scale leads to lasting attitudinal changes which benefit not just the elephants, but the surrounding community as a whole.

A wildlife project deep in the jungles of Wasgamuwa, Sri Lanka, led by the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society, instigated the planting of orange trees around rural villages. Research found that native elephants displayed an aversion to citrus, so planting the orange trees has enabled humans and elephants to live side-by-side. Decades on, this has created a new source of income for the farming families most impacted by wild elephants.

Unfortunately eco-tourism has become a victim of its own appeal. Tourist attractions have started to employ buzz words such as ‘eco’, ‘environmental’ and ‘sanctuary’ in their marketing material without backing up with true conservation practices.

Muddy bathing

Years of captivity has created a situation so unnatural to elephant behaviour that there are arguments even amongst conservationists as to how best to tackle active captivity. The good news is that the most impactful thing you can do is really easy - don’t support any programme that requires elephants to do something. If the elephant needs a saddle, paintbrush, football, or is made to respond to humans in ways that fall outside their natural behaviour, then it’s an attraction best avoided. Even bathing with elephants is off-the-cards; elephants love to bathe, but to do so they need to splash, roll and submerge themselves in mud. Standing at a distance and quietly observing is respectful, educational and fascinating - plus you’ll come away with some great shots.

Spending time with elephants in an acceptable way is a fairly new space and even the more established sanctuaries are still feeling their way around balancing demand with animal welfare. Some things to look out for include size of the herd, the level of human-elephant interaction permitted, what restraints are used, is there a safety briefing, how are the elephants sourced, are there vets on-hand and how transparent is this process?

Reviews from people who have already visited are a good way to find this information.

When I visited sanctuaries in both Cambodia and Thailand, I was struck by the knowledge, care and commitment to animal welfare shown by its staff.

Humans are responsible for the current plight of the elephant, let’s hope they can also take responsibility for the damage that has been done. As the old adage goes, an elephant never forgets.

Ethical sanctuaries to visit

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket, Thailand

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (PES) rescues elephants from the Thai tourist and logging trades and helps them retire in peace. PES can pick-up and drop-off to your resort, or you can meet at its Paklok headquarters. From there, pick-up trucks ferry visitors out to the park ( a 20-minute journey). On arrival, a video about the park and its work is shown and visitors are provided with rubber boots, divided into small groups and escorted on-foot around a section of the park to view the herd. The guards are informative and patient and there's plenty of opportunity to take pictures and ask questions as the elephants amble freely, chomp on bamboo or bathe in muddy ponds.

Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Managed by Save the Elephant Foundation, Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary covers more than a million acres around an hour north of Siem Reap's famous Angkor Wat temple complex. It's home to endangered species including elephants, tigers, banteng, Eld's deer, cranes, crocodiles and turtles. The sanctuary protects the fauna and flora by restoring 25,000 of jungle, providing a safe home for its rescued elephants. This is a fairly intimate encounter and ideal for older children. Pick-up and drop-off is from Siem Reap and it's a two-hour drive to the project. Visitors get to help prepare lunch for the elephants, followed by lunch for the humans.

This article was first published in the Summer 2019 issue of Asia Family Traveller magazine.

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