Elephants have been woven into the fabric of the lives of humans around them for centuries. Domesticated elephants have been used to carry heavy loads, in the logging industry, and for entertainment. In more recent times with the invention of trucks and other heavy machinery, our need for them as work animals has practically ceased. It’s become common in some parts of the world for these now jobless domesticated elephants to be trained for entertainment, be kept in a rescue, or placed in an elephant preservation.
What’s out there now?
Some of the common tourist experiences range from observing wild elephants in a nature preserve to performance shows, and everything in between. Within this spectrum there can be many dark sides to the animal tourism industry. Depending on the establishment, their living conditions or training conditions may not be humane. Others may work to provide something as close to their natural habitat and behavior as they can. Close interactions with visitors increases the risk of accidents and injuries for both humans and elephants. One of the most common experiences is paying for an elephant ride. Depending on the flow of tourists this could be many, many times over in a day for a single animal. With the increase in popularity of captive animal tourism, elephants have been known to be taken from the wild for this use. Also they are meant to travel in family groups with large territories, so constraining them in a small pen or cage goes against their nature.
In many ways we’re just scratching the surface here, with multiple factors to consider when choosing an experience or not. Elephant shows with performances should be avoided overall, for obvious reasons. Facilities that restrain the animals with chains, especially short ones, should be avoided. A popular tourist experience in Thailand is visiting an elephant park and later riding elephants through the river. Over the last few years many of these facilities are shifting to providing a small nature preserve with hands off experiences for visitors. Luckily, tourists are now the ones looking for eco-friendly experiences at a growing rate. Exposure to the downsides of the animal entertainment industry in particular has opened many people’s eyes. One thing to keep in mind is that the term “nature reserve” may not always mean what you think it does. Do your research prior to picking an experience. Does “preserve” mean acreage that rescued elephants live in? Is it a national park for wildlife? Maybe it’s just a small facility whose main attraction is a performance?
What should I look for?
First thing’s first, check out their website. Look at eco tourism websites (like ours!) to see whom they recommend in the area. The World Animal Protection organization has a great website for this. Also take note of who owns or supports the facility, this may help key you in to if it’s run as a business or as a non profit. Elephant Preserves that maintain rules for entering and to minimize our impact on the wild, are better bets. Using a local trained guide helps support the area’s elephant preservation and conservation efforts.
There are several good examples in Sri Lanka such as Yala and Udawalawee National Parks, as well as many of the large national parks in Africa. Overall you should look for experiences that are focused on the observation of the elephants, not our interaction or entertainment by them. Good facilities will try and preserve natural behaviors and give the animals ample range.
It’s not hard to see why so many people want to spend time with these majestic creatures. Supporting more eco-friendly elephant preservations can help reduce the impact from the animal tourism trade and hopefully in turn reduce some stress on wild populations. Where you spend your money makes an impact.
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