Elephants and Tourism
I was backpacking through Laos and desperately wanted to see elephants in their natural habitat. Easy you would think, being well-known that Asia has numerous tourist attractions with elephants. It was anything but!
Come elephant riding, bathe them, feed them!
This is exactly what I didn't want. Having read various articles about elephants and the tourism industry in Southeast Asia, I knew that even some of the sanctuaries were not treating the elephants in a natural and ethical way.
The pictures we know from tourists riding on this majestic animals, feeding and bathing them have a dark background. Elephants are wild animals, so in order for them to "play along", they are often mentally broken, a process called elephant crushing. They are put into cages or in a stall, are tied to the walls so that they cannot move and not seldomly are nails or sticks stabbed into their ears and feet.
With these methods they are tamed so that they perform all the nice tourist things we see on TV and on pictures. Because, it might come as a surprise, but elephants do not often paint pictures when they are in the wild where they belong.
A mahout brings the elephant into the jungle where it spends the night with its family
In the middle of bath time... clearly just put the feet in
Thank God I found something else. I booked a weekend at the Elephant Conservation Center, somewhere in the middle of Laos with no city around. Why I did that? I am a copywriter and intrigued by good slogans. Theirs was:
COME MEET ELEPHANTS. AT HOME.
And, needless to say, I wanted to avoid supporting unethical "sanctuaries" or "elephant parks".
When I booked the weekend there, I was told: "You will not interact with them, you will not ride on them, you will not bathe them, you will not feed them." They were saved from captivity, some of them from exactly these tourist places, where they had been mistreated their whole lives.
You should not ride on elephants! Actually, people can. And people did there. One person per elephant. On their neck and not on their back. A person, they trusted. A person who took care of their elephant all the time! No one else, not even a different keeper was allowed to ride on a different elephant.
And what did we do? We watched. We were visitors and learned about the elephants' situation in Asia. How they are poached for their tusks, how they are sold to zoos all over the world, how they are mistreated to entertain tourists.
Just last week I read that the center is now putting the first elephants back into the wild, where they belong. This is something we should all support with our money.
And believe me, even without any interaction, they will leave you mesmerized for the rest of your life!