Due to my experience in China with pandas I recently became much more aware and concerned on animal tourism. It is also worth noting that since that article I’ve trended more towards the anti-animal usage side. I still acknowledge the usefulness of good zoos and their necessity. At this stage some animals just can’t survive in the wild and humans must step in. Plus, tourism and attention to the animals also drives awareness and resources to the animals issues. I’ve recommended the book before but you should read Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams as he has a lot of thoughts on it.
This is overall a complex issue and I am not interested in covering the entire broad spectrum of animal tourism morality. Instead I want to discuss one use that I encountered in my trip to Nepal. Elephant riding.
There’s a flurry of articles on the topic with a simple google search and it usually focuses on Thailand but the same applies here and my experience in Nepal.
In essence, of course the actual act of riding the elephant isn’t harmful, but the process of getting the elephant to be docile is very harrowing. Basically they break the elephant by chaining it to the ground for multiple days, starving and beating it until the one who is meant to be it’s trainer frees it. The elephant views this person as it’s savior and does whatever they want for life. There has also been research to suggest the elephant never forgets this act. A bit of a downside to the memory like an elephant phrase…
Now I was aware of these issues before visiting Nepal and refused to ride the elephants. In fact, when picking a hotel in Chitwan it is hard to find a hotel that didn’t have a mandatory elephant safari tour. We ended up at Sappana Lodge because the activity wasn’t forced, which is a perk. We did, however, visit the elephant stables next to the lodge and had a talk with the trainers.
Apparently outside of when they are giving tours they are essentially chained their whole lives. When asked, the trainer said which a chuckle that this was because if they were unchained they would make a run for the jungle as if that somehow justified the choice.
I’ll admit sometimes knowledge can taint experiences, every time I saw an elephant walking around Chitwan with someone on their back there’s a pang of anger while the same time a bit of jealousy at those having the experience. Can’t put Pandora back in that box though I suppose.
There is no realistic way to get countries like Nepal and Thailand to completely stop using elephants as locals use them for labor, the military uses them for patrols, etc. However it is not impossible to get them to stop being used for tourism/riding by just not participating, it’s really that simple.
You can take jeep or boat safaris and get the same experience. Just skip that elephant ride at the local Renaissance Festival. Don’t go to the circus. Trust me when I say the experiences tend to be very overrated anyway.
Awareness is key, the more people that know the better. This doesn’t mean people can’t get close to elephants there’s plenty of safari options and other sorts of excursions all over the globe that should satisfy your elephant fix.
I also do not claim to be an expert nor can I, at this stage, make a comment of how this compares to things like horses, dolphins, or other animal shows. I’ll keep this short, all I ask is that is that people do their due diligence when dealing with animal tourism and make the choices you are comfortable with.