The Elephant in The Room: A Piece on Elephant Tourism.

The business of elephant tourism in parts of Africa and South East Asia is as enormous as the animal itself. It is an industry upon which many locals rely for their livelihood and understandably so, in poorer countries any form of employment is highly coveted. Yet still elephant tourism is a controversial topic to broach. Scepticism arises as to the ethicality of the treatment of these creatures who are forced to carry a load of 5 humans on a daily basis. In a modern world with modern machinery, elephant power is a dwindling commodity; one that shouldn’t be exploited for the amusement of the tourist.

“The issue lies not with elephant tourism itself, but with the often brutal treatment of the animals within the industry.”

However, that’s not to say that all elephant related tourist activities are a bad idea. Though there are plenty of horror stories circulating, done right, it can be something unforgettable. There are many wonderful sanctuaries where the animals are treated with the care and respect that they deserve, such as at a sanctuary in South Africa where I was lucky enough to volunteer for a month. In South Africa there is an overpopulation of elephants and regular operations are underway to try and keep the expanding population under control, often leaving young orphans with no one to look after them. Such orphaned elephants are among the many that this park aims to rehabilitate. This park also takes in elephants who have been victims of culling, or bred for the trophy hunting industry, and rehabilitates them into one of three herds. Although they do still entertain tourists and offer some rides, these activities occur with an emphasis on the elephants well-being, rather than as an exploitation solely for tourism purposes.  From my time volunteering at the park I can honestly say that the elephants could not have been better looked after there. The park effectively becomes their new herd, their new family; and this was especially obvious with one guide, who called an elephant -Nandi- his wife, and her daughter -Thandi- his child. The rapport between the elephants and their keepers was truly touching.

Of course, the park does profit from its upkeep of the elephants, like many other elephant tourist businesses across the world. It offers bi-daily rides to tourists and charges wide-eyed tourists for interacting with them, however, the moral justification for such profit need not be looked upon so scornfully. Natives often have little other choice than to turn to tourism in order to make money, and elephant tourism is no exception. The issue lies not with elephant tourism itself, but with the often brutal treatment of the animals within the industry.

As for the rides, unlike many less ethical parks, they make a point not to use heavy saddles that can cause spinal problems. Each elephant carries a tourist and guide who are seated on a blanket to avoid damage to the elephant’s sensitive hairs. Riding an elephant was probably one of the best experiences of my life so far, and it was made so much better that I was safe in the knowledge that the animal wasn’t mistreated in any way.

In Asia too, there are now many places where mahouts can retire their elephants from a lifetime of hard toil and you, the tourist, can visit and spend time with these wonderful creatures. By going to one of these sanctuaries you can support the elephant rehabilitation movement and encourage locals to opt for using their elephants humanely in the tourist industry. For, if the demand for this kind of experience increases, as opposed to the demand for mass rides, then it will become more profitable for their owners to treat the elephants with care and respect, as opposed to violence and terror.