New Campaign Tells Tourists How to Behave Around Elephants

Rule #1: Never, ever touch them.

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Safari jeep gets too close to elephants
Safari jeep gets too close to elephants.

via Trunks & Leaves (used with permission)

Seeing an elephant up close, in person, and outside of a zoo is a dream for many people. If they're fortunate enough to travel to Asia or Africa, they may make a point of signing up for safaris or visiting centers where elephants are kept. While these experiences may seem innocuous and fulfilling for the tourists, they're not always so kind to the elephants themselves.

A conservation organization called Trunks & Leaves is urging tourists to use this lockdown period to think seriously about how they will interact with elephants going forward, particularly wild Asian elephants, which is the group's focus. Their campaign, launched in mid-August and wrapping up on September 27th, World Tourism Day, is called Ethical Elephant Experiences, and it wants to "change the narrative around wildlife tourism, particularly elephant viewing."

Tourism can be a force for good, under certain circumstances. It can provide an influx of money to help protect struggling elephant populations and maintain protected areas, to relieve pressures on local communities that might otherwise be inclined to poach or cull elephants, and to care for endangered animals in human care that cannot be returned to the wild. But tourism also has a negative side:

"Wild animals are captured and drugged to pose for photos with tourists, confined in tiny spaces, or subjected to grueling workloads. At many facilities, the demand for cute baby animals can also spur irresponsible breeding or illegal captures. These issues are highlighted when it comes to the much-beloved but often-exploited and highly endangered Asian elephant."

Ethical Elephant Experiences wants to change that by teaching tourists how to behave when they're observing elephants in the wild. It offers a list of dos and don'ts that includes always remaining in your vehicle, staying at least 64 feet (20 meter) away from the animals, staying quiet, moving slowly, and never approaching from the rear. 

wall of jeeps near lone elephant
A wall of jeeps hems in a lone elephant. via Trunks & Leaves (used with permission)

Another good point is never to "edit your photos to make yourself appear cooler or braver by doing something you shouldn't be doing (e.g. standing next to a wild elephant) and then share it with your followers." This promotes more of the selfie stupidity that's already causing problems in many places around the world, and has even led the Costa Rican government to launch a campaign to #StopAnimalSelfies campaign.

Ethical Elephant Experiences says no one should ride elephants because their skeletal structure is not designed to do so for prolonged periods of time. The only time when riding elephants is appropriate is when participating in an elephant-back safari to observe other wildlife, such as tigers and rhinoceros: "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." Only elephant-back safaris run by National Parks should be supported. 

The question of elephant sanctuaries is a tricky one. While some do serve the important purpose of rehabilitating or sheltering animals that previously worked in the Thai and Burmese lumber industries, the ones that let tourists have "hands-on experiences," such as bathing or feeding elephant calves, should be avoided. A calf that has had too much contact with humans cannot be released into the wild. (Human contact can also make wild animals sick.)

"[This] props 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."
tourists bathing with an elephant
Tourists bathe with an elephant at a sanctuary in Malaysia. Mohd Samsul Mohd Said / Getty Images 

A phenomenal exposé in National Geographic last year revealed the truth behind many popular sanctuaries in Thailand, and how the idyllic image presented to tourists is far from the reality suffered by the animals. 

There is really no way to interact with elephants safely except through observing them in the wild from a distance. This may be a tough fact for many tourists to accept, but it has the animals' best interests at heart. Trunks & Leaves urges people to sign a pledge agreeing to these personal standards and to share it publicly so that others learn about the importance of treating elephants with greater respect. You can do so here.