Increasing numbers of tourists and tour operators are starting to say “no” to elephant trekking.

Riding on the back of an elephant in countries like Thailand and India has been seen as a way of getting close to both the elephants and the culture of these countries, but information about how these treks impact on the elephants has become more available.

These include:
  • Elephants must be “tamed” before they can take part in treks – one of the traditional ways of doing this is a process called phajaan, or “crushing the spirit”, which often involves beatings and keeping young elephants in small cages until they are broken. 
  • Young elephants are taken from the wild – often with the result of their mother being killed – to supply the tourist trade.
  • Elephants, while strong, are not designed to carry heavy weights on their backs, so carrying tourists all day will be causing suffering.
  • Conditions for many of these elephants will be hard and relentless, including long days and being chained when they are not working. 
Last week, ResponsibleTravel.com announced it would no longer supply tours that involved elephant treks or performances, joining STA Travel and Intrepid Travel, which brought in similar bans in the last couple of months.

A study of Google searches on “elephant treks” as part of bucket lists shows that while 8 out of 10 of the top search results still recommend riding an elephant, 1 in 4 of those encourage people to only go on treks that don’t harm the elephant.

The same search in 2000 showed 100% of the results recommended elephant trekking, with no mentions or awareness of the cruelty.

Philip Mansbridge, chief executive officer of Care for the Wild International, which runs the RIGHT-tourism.org website offering information on animal tourism, said: “Elephant trekking is another of those things we do on holiday without really thinking about it.

“Being up close with such a magnificent animal is quite overwhelming, so we don’t stop to think about what it’s doing there, how it got there or what happens to it at the end of the day. It seems though that, at last, tourists – and the tour operators who send them – are starting to see beyond the excursion for the truth that lies behind.

“Our key message through our RIGHT-tourism campaign is just that: stop and think.

“The sad thing is many of the people taking elephant rides will be animal lovers, so, in a warped way, they will be hurting the very thing they claim to love.

“But as the tide is turning against these treks, so the number of more ethical alternatives is increasing. We’re not asking people to stop getting up close and personal with elephants, if that’s what they want to do. We’re asking them to go somewhere, such as a recognised sanctuary, where they can see or even interact with the elephants – but in a place where the animal’s needs are put first.”
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