Elephant Sanctuary how to support conservation and education, not exploitation.
Dear fellow travelers,
maybe you come across this site and you are conscious traveler and you already thought about it, perhaps you are a traveler who had not dealt with animal tourism before and what I am about to say is new to you? Or you might have used animal tourism in the past but were not conscious of behind the scenes.
Whatever your story is, I wanted to share my thoughts. I drafted this article just after I came back from Thailand in April 2018, and thought it won't interest people so left it in my drafts. The draft was waiting until recently, when I saw a great story by Sophie who is behind travel account @keane_on_travel and I decided to finish this article to share my thoughts as well, in my corner of the internet, because maybe it will help someone to make better choices, or make someone more aware.
Animal abuse in tourism.... yes that pink elephant in the room people don't talk about. It is riding on elephants in India and Thailand, swimming with dolphins, or watching them perform in the aquarium, or tiger temples in India and Nepal, or any other animal abuse in tourism industry. The animals we are happily admiring, or watching, or riding, most probably suffer abuse.
Photo: Elephants having a snack break - we stop when they need to stop, not the other way round.
And I do understand why this happens, if you travel to a country where you have an opportunity to ride an elephant, and this is an exotic experience for you, you want to try it, right? But we can also enjoy the beauty of these animals while being conscious travelers.
Most of the time, experiences like dolphin shows, elephant riding, donkey riding etc. are animal abusive. So how can you as a traveler make a right choice?
First of all, check the places you are going to (it is easy in the era of the Internet, so there is no place for ignorance); as an example - is it a scientific research place where you know the animals welfare is protected, or perhaps it is a rescue center that looks after animals that survived cruel treatment? Sadly, most of those places that we come across on our holidays exist for entertainment and by visiting this places we become part of the problem.
Photo: walking with elephants and admiring those giants
I am guilty of swimming with a dolphin in the past, but the more I travel, and the more research I do I realise the issues connected with animal abuse. It is all about educating ourselves.
Animals and humans lived alongside each other for thousand of years. It was a symbiosis. Until a time when as humans we thought we are better, we can use animals as toys, or treat them in a way that any living being should not be treated. Animals started to become a source of income and therefore so badly treated. Examples in today's world are countless. If you want to see animals, try to see them in the wild, alternatively watch them on Animal Planet. If you are going to a place where you may have an encounter with animals, be sure to do your research on how are they treated.
Weather you are seasoned or regular traveler, we are all responsible for the welfare of animals that are involved in our travel experience. Let's be wise about it, and let's not add to the cruel treatment of animals by agreeing on going to trips where animals are abused.
Photo: baby & mommy
Further example of animal abuse that I did not experience myself but I was close to (and now I'm so happy it did not happen) was tiger temple in India. My Indian friend really wanted me to go there and at first I wasn't sure why, then her excitement of tigers and 'love' of the animals convinced me. However, luckily it didn't work out somehow. What I learnt later was that tigers in those temples are drugged in order to be sedated while tourists can take photos with them. Now, if you think about a wild animal, a predator like a tiger, ask yourself a question - have you seen it calm and sleepy in the wild. Most probably not! So why do you think they are like that in that particular temple? Sometimes we just need to question what we see... and don't agree to what you are told.
One more important point to discuss here is people. None of the people behind this trade and practices will admit to starving animals, sedating them with drugs or abusing. The trainers earn money from that. And some may have a good heart but the reality is they have family to feed and need to earn money. So do your research and do not rely on their answers.
When I traveled to Thailand, I really wanted to see elephants. So I started my research how to organise that. I found that there are a a lot of sanctuaries around Chiang Mai and that's where I focus my search.
Photo: Who is stealing my bananas?
I visited Happy Elephant Home, a sanctuary for abused elephants rescued from tourism industry. This business model provides sanctuary for elephants, promotes knowledge for visitors, and allows tourists to experience the elephants in a non harmful way. One of the elephants I saw was blind in one eye from the time she worked in tourism industry.
So what to look for when searching for elephant sanctuary?
- do animals walk freely and are not chained
- find out how are they kept over night (ask if you cannot find it online)
- is the place teaching you about animals (more of education than entertainment)
- keepers don't have bull-hooks
- there's a shelter for elephants to provide shade, water etc.
- there's no rides involved, shows etc.
Is riding an elephant a norm? Not really, they don't let human ride them in their natural habitat. You may ask how is this possible? They are subdued to a 'crushing process' where baby elephants are starved and beaten until they subdue to rides and listen to the trainers. So sanctuaries like the one I visited help elephants to avoid being treated this way.
Photo: pregnant elephant looking for a snack in my banana bag.
If you have more time, sanctuaries are looking for volunteers to help them with looking after animals. You may spend few days to a week working in an Elephant sanctuary (how cool it will look on your CV? 😉 ). Elephants are expensive to keep and by volunteering and paying for visits in such sanctuaries you support a good animal treatment. If more people with their dollars, pounds or euros prefer to choose sanctuaries like described above, the more animal parks will change their policies and will have animals' welfare at heart.
It is important that we do our checks before we spend our money to support organisation that are doing right thing for animals. If we start asking "we want something else", we can make a difference!
Concluding all my points, it's all about education. If we as travelers educate ourselves beforehand, we can make a change by supporting the right organisation. There are number of resources available online to help you make the right choice.
I know the desire to see or be close to animals when you travel and there is nothing wrong with that, just make sure you do it responsibly. You can still get that memorable moment close to the animals while making sure you support conservation and education, not exploitation.