I am sad and I have been for a long time. When it comes to animals I am an unabashed bleeding heart and it pains me deeply to see animals suffering at the hands of man. It makes me even more upset to think that I have played a role in their misery, but I have. I could make a thousand excuses, but ultimately I just didn’t know better. The most egregious of these experiences was several years ago while vacationing in Koh Samui, Thailand. Given my natural love of animals I feel drawn to them when I travel, and I stupidly signed up for an elephant encounter. That ‘encounter’ involved riding around on top of these beautiful animals in the middle of the jungle. The thing is, as soon as I arrived I knew it was wrong and after sitting on top of that poor elephant I instantly sensed his sadness. Just looking into his eyes I saw a misery and pain that I never want to see again. I left the site immediately, seething from anger and frustration. I was angry at myself for not knowing better and frustrated at my own inability to affect change on any level. Even today I tear up thinking about this poor elephant and the elephant rides; it touched me that deeply.
Since starting my website I have sought a way to promote responsible wildlife tourism (my first post was on the subject), and I have yet to find a way that will actually change the way people travel. I’ve even unwittingly been a party to other irresponsible activities, nothing as egregious as elephant tourism, but ultimately not beneficial to the animals. My own education has been an evolution and I think that I am finally at the point where I can safely and assuredly determine when an experience is harmful to wildlife. A few weeks ago I watched a popular US television show and was shocked to see the actors on top of elephants in Bali, riding them without a care in the world. That more than anything surprised me. I had, incorrectly, assumed that a certain level of knowledge regarding wildlife experiences existed amongst the general public, but I instantly realized how very wrong I was.
This is a step towards that education.
Today I am very pleased to share an interview I conducted with a great voice in the fight to combat elephant tourism – Diana Edelman. Diana is a friend, but also a travel writer, blogger and volunteer for the Save Elephant Foundation. Through her blog, she chronicles her experiences as an expat in Chiang Mai, Thailand as well as her experiences in helping to save the lives of elephants throughout Thailand. She is a tireless worker in trying to provide factual information to the public in regards to elephant tourism specifically and responsible tourism in general. She is also the co-founder of the Responsible Tourism Twitter Chat (#RTTC), a weekly Twitter chat aimed at increasing the dialog about responsible tourism between travelers, brands and beyond, and encouraging people to support more ethical choices in their travels. You can follow along with her travels and work with elephants via her website d travels ’round, Facebook, Twitter, G+ and Instagram.
This is an important interview and I am going to great lengths to make sure as many people read it as possible. I never asked this, but I implore you to share this with your friends and family and ask them to do the same. The only way to affect change and to save the lives of animals around the world is through the pocketbook; by refusing to pay money to irresponsible tour operators. While I’m at it, I also ask tour companies and tourism boards to take action. They MUST refuse to work with and promote irresponsible tourism practices; they must be more pro-active leaders in this fight.
What exactly is the issue with elephants and tourism activities around the world?
Diana: There isn’t one specific issue as it relates to elephants and tourism activities around the world. There are quite a few, which makes elephant tourism a very tricky subject. The first thing people need to know about elephant tourism is that the elephants they see in the zoos, the trekking camps, the circuses, the painting classes … they have all gone through an abusive and torturous process to break their spirit. While some argue that this is not the case, that elephants enjoy performing and want to learn, but I can say that based on my personal experience working in elephant tourism for some time now along with discussions I’ve had with leading elephant conservationists, this is not the case. Every elephant that is captive has been put through a process called “the Crush.” In Thailand, it is known as the “phajaan” and throughout Southeast Asia it has different names, depending on the country. This breaking of the spirit involves a young elephant, often times captured from the wild and his or her family slaughtered, who is then confined to a small wooden corral for about a week. During this time, the elephant is shackled or tied (all legs) so the animal cannot move, and then ritually beaten with bamboo topped with nails, bludgeoned with bull hooks, deprived of food and water and taught basic commands. At the end of this process, the elephant is said to be “broken” and no longer has bonds to the family – which is incredibly strong in the wild.
From there, depending on where the elephant goes, the abuse continues. Street begging is perhaps one of the most dangerous and abusive “occupations” for captive working elephants. These elephants are young and have already gone through the Crush. They spend days and nights pounding the pavement with their caretaker (mahout in Thai) and beg for food. There are many issues with street begging elephants. Oftentimes they are drugged to keep walking and working. Their feet are sensitive and walking on pavement means they feel every rumble. Their feet shouldn’t even be on the damaging pavement in the first place; elephants need a jungle terrain. They often do not get the necessary amounts of food, water, access to dirt, shade or rivers to cool off in. Elephants are highly social creatures and are capable of experiencing emotions just like people. Sadly, the life of a street-begging elephant is a solitary one where much-needed socialization does not go on. There is also of course the threat of getting hit by vehicles, which is a regular occurrence.
Many of the issues with street begging carry across the entire elephant tourism industry. For example, elephant trekking has the same issues regarding food, water, shade and so on. There is also the houda or bench. Research has shown that an elephant’s back is not made to carry a heavy bench and especially not one laden with people atop that bench. Their spines are not like horses or other animals that people ride. Instead, the only way an elephant should be ridden (although my personal opinion is not to ride one) is on the top of the head.
Circuses, shows, sports and elephant painting also face an entirely different set of problems, namely the additional training of the elephant to perform. Training involves a hook that is placed in the animal’s ear with a string attached to it, so whenever the elephant does not listen or makes a mistake, the ear – the most sensitive part of an elephant – is cut with the hook. There is also the bull hook, a long stick with a metal hook attached to it. This is used to get the elephant to listen.
At the end of the day, I suppose the greatest issue is the demand for these animals to be exploited for people’s entertainment. They must either be allowed to live naturally in the wild and/or moved from irresponsible tourism activities to more responsible ones where their owners can still turn a profit without causing further harm to these beautiful animals, thereby eliminating the demand for captive working elephants on such a large scale.
How prevalent is this? What countries are in question and are ALL experiences bad ones?
Diana: This is everywhere in the tourism industry and isn’t limited to one country or one region. Sure, this happens in Thailand, but it also happens in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and yes, even the United States. Look at undercover footage of elephants being trained for the circus; or local zoos that offer riding opportunities. While all tourist experiences aren’t categorically bad, the bottom line is that the elephant – no matter where – has gone through the Crush in order to do anything with humans. By simply visiting an elephant facility, it supports the practice of the Crush and making the elephant captive in the first place.
There are facilities that rescue elephants from the tourism industry and still have a tourism aspect. In an ideal world, it would be best to eliminate human interaction with elephants completely, but more and more places are opting to simply let people observe the animals in a natural habitat instead of making them work or perform.
What can a tourist who wants to interact with elephants do to make sure they’re being responsible?
Diana: It depends how responsible a tourist wishes to be. The best thing to do is to opt to see them in the wild. Places like Minneria in Sri Lanka, where you hire a tour guide/Jeep and drive around to see the herds is absolutely fantastic. Be careful even here though, it is important to steer clear from the “safaris” where you ride an elephant into the park to see animals in the wild, and “orphanages” which involve baby elephants who are poached, chained and turned into captive working animals.
Sanctuaries, like Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Northern Thailand, where I volunteer, are more responsible as well. They rescue elephants from the tourism industry and give them a place to live where they are not chained, do not perform or work for people and instead get to live as close to the wild as they can, while being observed and fed/bathed by tourists. While elephants are trained at these facilities, it is only so they can receive medical treatments, and training is done with positive reinforcement and never pain. Mahouts at ENP are not allowed to use bull hooks or other instruments to get their elephants to listen to them.
When looking for responsible options, it is important to keep in mind whether or not these facilities are actually sanctuaries or not. If they offer rides, shows, performances and so on, this is a big red flag. These facilities may “rescue” the elephant, but the life the elephant lives still is not ideal and would fall under irresponsible tourism for those who decide to visit.
How can anyone, tourist or not, help elephants affected by irresponsible tourism practices?
Diana: Education is the single most important factor to help elephants. If more people learn about what really happens to captive working elephants, then more people will talk about it and ultimately the more change will take place. Sadly, not every elephant can be rescued so it is up to individuals to help spread the word and encourage those who are traveling to make considerate decisions as they relate to elephants.
This extends well past elephants, what other types of animal experiences are to be avoided around the world? What are the alternative, sustainable activities?
Diana: I don’t believe in making any animal do something to put a smile on my face, to post an image on social media or for content on my blog. I don’t support any sort of exploitation or use of animals for my entertainment. I often encourage people who want to spend time with animals that belong in the wild to ask themselves what would happen if they were to meet the animal in the wild. Would they be attacked? If so, that is something to think about when they go to “sanctuaries” to snap photos and “play” with them. It means that these animals have been broken in order to entertain visitors – it’s as simple as that.
I think the only truly responsible option is to see these animals in the wild. It is not our right to decide whether or not an animal should be held captive and made to entertain us and to really understand an animal, the wild is the only way to see them.
What else should we know about responsible tourism and animal experiences?
Diana: It is incredibly important to not take TripAdvisor reviews and similar at face value. Just because someone writes that an animal “seemed happy” does not mean that they are. The person writing the review is likely not an expert on the animal, or even someone who has a general idea about their behavior. I encourage anyone who considers an animal experience to do their homework, to look at sites like Care for the Wild and Born Free, and really research what happens to these animals in order for them to be in the tourism industry.
I can’t thank Diana enough for taking the time to offer these amazing tips on how to be a better tourist. I understand that not everyone may be as passionate about this issue as I am, but I also find it hard to believe that anyone would willingly choose to hurt another living creature for no reason other than amusement. It’s up to you and the decisions you make if any kind of real difference is to be realized.
Additional resources to help find ethical tourism experiences: