Commit To Ethical Elephant Experiences!
Be an ethical traveler. If you love elephants, remember that elephants are wild animals, never domesticated. Elephants in captivity are just that - captives. If you have the opportunity choose to view elephants in the wild, safely. Avoid situations in which elephants are chained, confined, or subjected to grueling work loads.
Are you a Social Media Influencer, Travel Writer or Blogger? Follow the guidance below to set a good example for your followers and refrain from encouraging practices that endanger elephants!
Considering volunteering? Read up about the practices you might be supporting with your funds. Baby elephants are cute, but please resist the urge to bottle feed and pet them, as this can support a thriving illegal industry dependent on their capture from the wild. Close contact between people and animals that are semi-free roaming also creates opportunities for disease transmission - not good for an endangered species.
The following information will help you be a responsible traveler, and get the most out of your experience with elephants in Asia.
The following advice is from the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, based on years of observing elephants in the wild. Whether on your own, or with a safari service, insist that your tour guides and drivers adhere to the following - remember that it is as much your responsibility as theirs.
Ecotourism or Eco-exploitation?
Questions to Ask:
Ready to act?
Tourists in range countries should not support events using captive elephants purely for entertainment since this drives the capture of young animals from the wild. While animals in captivity are required to be registered by local authorities, this does not necessarily happen. Asian elephants have unique challenges in each range country, with the uniting fact that they are highly threatened everywhere. Be sensitive to local cultures, and their traditions, realizing that not all captive situations are the same. Here are things to consider.
Riding elephants: Is it ever ok?
Unlike horses, the skeletal structure of Asian elephants is not well-suited for riding on the back. Therefore carrying loads for extended periods of time causes physical harm. Riding elephants purely for entertainment or photo ops, especially on private property or unnatural conditions, should be completely avoided.
In some countries, elephant-back safaris in National Parks may offer a unique way for people to view other wildlife, such as tigers and rhinoceros, without disturbance to these species or the environment. In these contexts elephants potentially provide two conservation benefits - they do less damage than motor-vehicles, which pollute and require the creation of roads through these sensitive ecosystems, can get into less accessible areas, and they provide revenue for the protected areas. The same animals can also be used for anti-poaching patrols or research, therefore safaris may at least contribute to their own upkeep. However, the actual welfare conditions can vary widely and therefore visitors should weigh these potential benefits against the possible concerns when considering elephant-back safaris in and around National Parks.
Bottom line: Only consider elephant-back trekking in National Parks where it is sanctioned by authorities and has demonstrable conservation benefits.
Temples & Cultural Attractions
India & Sri Lanka
These countries have the largest wild elephant populations numbering roughly 30,000 (India) and 5000 (Sri Lanka), with a long history of cultural association with elephants. Historically, elephants have been viewed as status symbols, and as mounts for sacred objects. Today the practice continues, but the number of elephants in captivity number under 1000, a relatively small fraction compared to those in the wild. Though it is illegal to capture elephants from the wild for these activities, it does occur as the captive elephant population ages.
Elephants feature in festivals and parades in many countries, notably Thailand. There are ongoing efforts to properly document and track the origins of these animals, but there is as yet no published evidence from reputable sources on how well such efforts are succeeding at curbing illegal captures.
Elephants are still found in temples and used in festivities such as weddings, but welfare advocates locally and internationally are increasingly critical of the poor conditions that some animals may have to endure. The use of elephants purely for entertainment is highly questionable, given their endangered status.
Bottom line: Elephants should be never be viewed as entertainment.
"Orphanages," "Sanctuaries," and Volunteering
The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka, overseen by the national zoo, accommodates 80 or so animals that cannot or will not be released into the wild, adults and calves alike. Some are legitimate orphans, but others have been ended up at the facility through questionable means. The presence of young calves for bottle feedings is a large draw for tourists. The elephants at this facility do breed readily, with some being given to zoos, temples etc. locally and abroad. However it is over-crowded, with spaces and daily regimen designed more for the benefit of visitors than the animals.
The Elephant Transit Home near Udawalawe National Park accommodates injured or orphaned calves with the aim of eventually returning them to the wild. This facility follows a strict hands-off policy with clear separation of visitors and animals. Staff also maintain distance so as to avoid overly habituating animals to human contact. It is run by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, with additional contributions from non-profits and individual donors.
Neither facility takes foreign volunteers. Private facilities that pose as sanctuaries are not legitimate and should be avoided.
Thailand & Myanmar
Thailand and Myanmar both have sizeable populations of elephants that were employed in the timber industry, which may be equivalent or even outnumber the remaining wild populations. The reduction or banning of logging creates a unique problem: out-of-work elephants and their caretakers. This situation is very unlike elsewhere in Asia, and has given rise to the elephant camps and sanctuaries that purport to be better alternatives to trekking. While these camps provide income and livelihoods for both elephants and their trainers, the lucrative industry they have created has driven the capture of animals from the wild. Even well-known "sanctuaries" have been alleged to engage in shady acquisition of animals. While efforts to crack down on illegal captures are ongoing and showing some promise, concrete evidence of success remains to be seen.
While mature animals may be legitimately in need of support from tourism, be wary of programs that encourage interaction with elephant CALVES. This is a red flag because over-habituated calves can never be released into the wild. Moreover they prop up the industry by ensuring a pipeline of animals that rely on human care. Never "buy" and "release" elephants into sanctuaries, since this sets up financial incentives for taking animals out of the wild and you have no way to ensure that the same animals are not being sold repeatedly. Ultimately, all of this can promote the ongoing breeding of animals already in captivity for a life of continued servitude and exploitation. Where the captive elephants breed by mingling with wild elephants, contact with visitors creates the opportunity for transmission or novel diseases and pathogens that could decimate wild populations.
Elsewhere in Asia
Volunteer-based programs are not widespread elsewhere in Asia, though they may increase in popularity if perceived as profitable. If interested in volunteering with a program, do your due diligence to see if they have any documentation that proves their legitimacy such as relationships with academic institutions, accredited facilities, and/or reports and publications.
Bottom line: Circumstances vary by country.
Some key highlights and findings from World Animal Protection's report on the conditions of captive elephants in the tourism industry:
These captive management systems resemble 'intensive management' systems of livestock...When managing elephants intensively it is crucial to recognize that some procedures may be necessary to safeguard the keeper, visitors, or property from harm. However, their necessity does not make them any more acceptable or better for the elephant.
A true elephant-friendly venue is purely observational for visitors, where the safety of visitors and wellbeing of elephants reduce the need to constantly control the animals.
The notion from many proponents of the captive elephant industry that there could be an acceptable way of keeping elephants within a commercial industry is deeply worrying...This unsuitability is highlighted further by the risks to the lives and wellbeing of keepers and people around elephants and the financial dependency on tourism. As evidenced by the Cobvid-19 pandemic, the decline oin tourism has led to a crisis where captive elephants are at risk of starvation.
Sanctuary or Scam?
Questions to Ask:
For the Responsible Traveler
Educate yourself further with these freely available publications and media resources. Note that we do not necessarily endorse the views of third party content.
SPEAK UP for elephants!
Will you commit to Ethical Elephant Experiences?
For Tour Operators
We recommend working only with facilities with verified legal standing and documented commitments to proper standards. Unfortunately, there is no universal set of guidelines for good practice. The following are some examples of standards and practices, none of which are perfect but preferable to nothing. These links will be updated as more acceptable standards become established.
Below are research papers that provide alternative perspectives on the management of elephants in range-country facilities.
* There has not been a more recent documentation of these trends, which may have changed since the time of the time of this report. We will update links as more current data become available.