For many travellers, seeing an elephant first hand is a big deal and if you ask them they will say the first thing they like to do is to ride them as well. However there are many questions and debates around this topic as there have been deaths resulting in riding elephants and cases of animal abuse when it comes to training these giants as well.
However more and more sanctuaries and tour operators such as ethical elephant phuket, are looking to take a more sustainable approach to taking care of these animals while using them for tourism purposes as well. However on further research it is evident that it is not a simple task at all.
Can tourism help protect these animals?
The answer to this seems yes at the moment. This is because in most parts of Asia, these animals can only be seen in captivity. Illegal logging and encroachment of people have destroyed their natural habitats making it impossible for these animals to be ever returned to the wild. And caring for them is not a simple task, it is very expensive and the funds to take care of these captive animals only seem to come from tourism. So conservationists are faced with a difficult problem, welfare of the animals and at the same time using them for tourism and other work.
So it seems that the protection and survival of these giants at present stands on the success of tourism however it should not be used as an excuse for cruel treatment and exploitation. Therefore as travellers one must research carefully what organisations they support.
Elephant training a positive way
So if tourism is to continue, these elephants have to be trained to a certain degree for tours and such. However the older methods of training are very brutal and involve a lot of pain and suffering on part of the animal. There are more modern methods such as positive reinforcement methods that modern sanctuaries such as chiang mai elephant conservation center use. These techniques are not pain based and are supposed to help the animals learn faster. So as an industry, tour operators, sanctuaries and other parks that use these animals must be encouraged to use these new methods in order to ensure the welfare of the animals.
Animal handlers in most sanctuaries are not educated or provided guidance on better methods for training their animals and overall welfare, so as a tourist you can be the voice to make these changes happen. Therefore always look out for signs of mistreatment and try your best to report them to the local authorities or local animal welfare groups. Since ethical elephant tourism has a long way to go we have a responsibility to make sure that it moves in a sustainble manner.