Congratulations, you boycotted an elephant camp! Now what happens?
The guiding principles of responsible tourism have shed light on many exploitative aspects of the tourism industry. From human trafficking associated with orphanage tourism and community dependency brought upon by volunteer-tourism, the need to support meaningful responsible tourism has never been more essential. Responsible tourism can generally be defined as tourism which minimises the negative economic, environmental and social impacts that tourism may bring to a place or culture.
The role of responsible tourism within the elephant-based tourism industry is facing intense scrutiny. Numerous tour operators refuse to patronise elephant camps, believing this is the only way to ensure captive elephants are not harmed by tourism. Despite evidence-based research indicating elephant rides do not harm elephants, there remains a continued resistance to facts - preferring to focus on click-bait headlines and ‘altruistic’ corporate social responsibility, over expert findings.
In an industry that is overrun by emotion and misinformation, many tourists are preferring to boycott all elephant camps, or at least avoid the camps that offer elephant riding, bathing or any other form of human interaction. But the long-term consequences of boycotting the majority of elephant camps throughout southeast Asia have not been thoroughly examined. Does boycotting an entire industry align with the ethos of responsible tourism? While boycotting an elephant camp may first appear like the sensible approach, there are invisible impacts that visitors should be aware of. These include:
‘No elephant riding’ does not guarantee no elephant cruelty. It is baffling that passive viewing camps receive so much positive support without any independent verification of their camp practices. Visiting a ‘no riding/no ankus’ camp does not mean elephants have not been subjected to cruel training practices. An elephant that does not undertake riding can still be exposed to harmful training, excessive chaining, physical injury, poor diet or a lack of enrichment. Camp staff may be underpaid, lack basic training and are actually placed in extremely dangerous positions on a continual basis. All elephant camps should face intense camp management and elephant welfare assessments, including the passive viewing camps.
Boycotting elephant tourism inevitably means camps face budget-cuts. There is a risk that elephants won’t get fed enough, and nor will the local suppliers. Camps typically have contracts with local farmers to produce a plentiful and ongoing supply of organic fodder, seasonal fruits and vegetables for the elephants. Without camp patronage, elephants risk a scale-back in the abundance and quality of fresh produce available to them. Local farmers face economic losses; thus the flow-on effect occurs down to the village and family level. In countries where small-scale agrarian family-run businesses are common, any boycott can be felt by the entire community.
A similar consequence occurs with local staff employment. As a tourist, a visit to an elephant camp is a short-lived experience. But for many staff, that same camp is the key to their future. Some elephant camps have over 80% of camp staff employed from the local area. A reduction in visitors not only impacts the elephant’s welfare, but impedes local employment and the opportunity for locals to stay in their regional communities. Many elephant camps offer English lessons to staff, sponsor local schools and are heavily involved in community events. Staff can afford to send their children to school and provide for elderly family members. Elephant welfare does not exist in a vacuum and no bottomless pit of money currently exists for elephant conservation. Local people need your support to help elephants. Ensuring staff in developing and least-developed countries have a secure income and can provide for their families and the captive elephant population is the least we can do as responsible travellers.
Understandably, tourists that boycott elephant-based tourism genuinely believe they are doing the elephants a favour. But these good intentions are not long-term solutions for captive elephant welfare or sustainability. The location and living conditions of the elephants in these camps do not improve themselves. Elephants are not moved on to greener pastures. Despite boycotts, on a practical level, nothing has actually changed for the elephants except that their caretakers are receiving less assistance to care for them. Boycotts mean camp managers have less resources to improve poor camp practices. That’s less assistance for veterinary help, captive breeding, socialisation, and many other elephant welfare essentials. If the goal is for camps to be accountable for their actions, then demand they seek international accreditation. Responsible travel supports positive industry reform and improved management, not unfounded bans and boycotts that hold no tangible benefits for elephant welfare or conservation.
Please continue to support elephant camps that have met internationally-recognised standards of elephant welfare, humane training techniques and camp management. Riding or bathing an elephant is a personal choice and is not compulsory to engage in if you do not wish to. But these activities can successfully be performed in a strict and measured way if a camp has high standards. Training an elephant need not be cruel, and is vital for making veterinary procedures safe to perform for both the elephant and veterinarians. Help elephants by patronising camps that have a demonstrated high standard of elephant care. This is a much more effective and responsible act than visiting a camp that has never undertaken an independent assessment, and is certainly more responsible than not visiting a camp at all.
Dr Ingrid Suter, BEnvMan(Hons), PhD.