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Elephant Tourism in Southeast Asian countries and the ethical issues

Written by: Sarah Le

Edited by: Akanksha Nayak

In Southeast Asian countries more specifically, elephants have been playing an important role in terms of the cultural and historical aspects. For example, the elephant-riding rebellion of the Trung sisters against the first Chinese domination in Vietnam was one of the most heroic and powerful stories in the country. Moreover, according to Asians, elephants symbolize wealth, health and happiness, therefore, natives treat these animals with the most precious care. The animal-human bond, also, has been built up strongly. However, profits have blurred the line between the relationships and rather used the animals for entertaining purposes. Elephant tourism, for instance, is a well-known industry where tourists could come in close contact with wildlife which could, in fact, bring countless unethical issues on the well-being of elephants.

In order to understand deeply on how human activities affect elephants, we should know the basic needs of the animal. This would help us to be able to further analyze how commercial-based tourism has negatively impacted elephants’ well-being.

  1. Social interaction

Elephants tend to interact within their family groups as the social bonding for elephants is particularly important. This helps the elephants to maintain stable mental health. Their social behaviours vary from chasing, mounting, wrestling and sparring (Lee 1986) to vocalization, trunk interactions (Moss and Poole 1983). Elephant family grouping consists of a female matriarch guiding other females and their related babies to form a tight social bubble. Therefore, interactions between enfant elephants and their mothers are also a necessity.

  1. Movement needs

Wild elephants need shades for breaktime during the hot days, especially under the harsh, torrid conditions in Southeast Asian countries. Because of their massive weights, elephants’ movements are restricted. Moreover, their legs are considered too slender for their enormous body in addition to the fact that they stand on their toes. This makes the issues involving riding on elephants’ backs raise up, seeking for a wider awareness.

It is very easy to find elephant trekking in Asian countries where thousands of elephants are captive. Tourists would sit on chairs on the back of these elephants and explore the surrounding nature. Even though no study has showcased the injuries of chairs on elephants’ backs, it is understandable that carrying heavy loads can still damage the spines of elephants, especially under overworking conditions. Moreover, as mentioned above, elephants walk on their toes. As for tourist-based elephants, the animals have to walk on concrete paths for several hours per day, which could seriously damage their toes. Bruises and injuries are very often found on the legs of these riding elephants.

Adding onto the point, chains and sharp equipment are often used to train the elephants in order to do tricks. The wounds could then be easily infectious, decreasing the well-being and life-span of elephants. Wild elephants could barely lift their upper feet up as they are the very few mammals that could not jump. However, under cruel training, the elephants have to obey the instructions and stand on two feets to draw or circusing.

The ethical framework has been put on elephant-riding issues multiple times, emphasizing the need for an effective solution. According to the IUCN Red List, Asian elephants are categorized as “endangered” right now due to a sharp decline in population of the species in recent years. In fact, for the last “three generations, the population has declined by more than 70%. And, in the next three generations, the population is projected to decline by at least another 50%.” (Elemotion). It is a crucial matter that we all need to be aware of and seek for a solution if we want to protect this precious species from going extinct.

Now, as we’ve known the issues involving entertaining activities with elephants, the question is what can we do to save wildlife? There multiple ways you can help while still being able to enjoy natural experiences with elephants.

  1. Research

There’s no better way to raise awareness on environmental issues than raising the level of understanding of the matter. As this blog aims to provide briefly the information on negative impacts of tourist activities on elephants, readers should also check for more detailed research papers to have a deeper understanding. Moreover, when travelling, it is very important to make sure that you are not choosing unnatural, cruel, commercial-based tourist activities. Check for reviews from well-known websites before booking the tickets to avoid unreliability.

  1. Jeep safaris

One of the most recommended natural-based activities is jeep safaris. You can observe elephants living in their natural habitat while making sure no harm is present. Be prepared and conduct the guidelines to have the best experiences in the wildlife in the most eco-friendly way.

  1. Sanctuaries

Sanctuaries are places of refuge and protection. Minimum human-elephant interaction should be ensured even though tourists could still closely contact these animals. Some interesting activities include: feeding, bathing and petting elephants. However, be mindful of the titles of these sanctuaries as not all of them are following strictly the animal health-care guidelines. Some outstanding sanctuaries according to the Elomotion Foundation: ‘Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, BEES Sanctuary’ both in Thailand, and ‘Elephant Valley Project’ in Cambodia.