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Understanding the Difference Between Elephant Sanctuaries & Elephant Trekking

Growing up, most of us saw documentaries about elephants on National Geographic and thought to ourselves, “How amazing would it be to encounter such amazing creatures up-close!” In fact, you can even ride on top of an elephant while basking in nature’s wonderful beauty. Elephant tourism is a booming industry in many Southeast Asian countries and while these majestic animals attract plenty of travelers, it’s usually for the wrong reasons.

Thanks to the conscious efforts of animal welfare activists like Trunk Travel (along with responsible tourists), the truth about activities like elephant trekking are slowly coming to light. Many are starting to advocate elephant sanctuaries as a viable alternative and it’s important to know exactly why. In this article, we’ll be discussing the differences between elephant sanctuaries and elephant trekking to better understand which is the most ethical form of elephant interaction.

Why elephant trekking is considered a bad thing

In countries like Thailand and Cambodia, it’s normal to see elephants performing in street shows and with people riding on their backs. While these activities may sound like a bucket list for most travelers, the sad news is that these animals go through a lot of suffering just for the sake of our own entertainment.

Before an elephant learns how to paint a picture or perform circus stunts, they must first go through a cruel training process known as phajaan. Elephant trainers use bullhooks and whips to teach elephants a variety of tricks, often starving them and keeping them in cages to “break their spirit”  and follow their orders. The training is abusive in nature and it imparts more than just physical damage, but psychological harm as well.

The elephants constantly suffer from blisters on their feet due to walking long hours in the heat. While these animals may seem like strong, powerful creatures, their backs aren’t built for handling heavy loads, much less the weight of an average human. All of these can take a toll on the elephant’s health, causing them to endure the pain throughout their captive life and in some cases, die prematurely.

How elephant sanctuaries are saving captive elephants

Thankfully, many organizations have taken action against elephant trekking, one being TripAdvisor (one of the largest online travel companies in the world). In 2016, TripAdvisor banned sales tickets that allow tourists to physically interact with captive and endangered animals. This means no swimming with dolphins, no touching or petting a captive tiger, and most definitely, no elephant riding.

In place of elephant trekking are elephant sanctuaries, which are non-profit organizations dedicated to protecting elephants from manipulative travel companies. Elephant sanctuaries serve as rescue sites for elephants that have endured years of harmful captivity due to unethical tourism practices. Here, elephants are cared for by experienced veterinarians while living in an environment that resembles the wild. They are given adequate food, shelter, and care to ensure their longevity and provide them with a safe place where they can recover and rehabilitate.

How to know if an elephant sanctuary is ethical

One thing that ethical elephant sanctuaries don’t allow is direct contact with the animals. The goal is to reduce human interaction as much as possible so that the animals can live freely (much like they would if they were in the wild). The mission of these organizations is to educate the travellers about responsible tourism and inform them about the plight of Asia’s captive elephants

 Beware of sanctuaries that claim they are ethical. You’ll know an elephant sanctuary is shady when they charge you a particular fee and the sanctuary itself looks more like a zoo than it is an elephant refuge. That’s why we recommend doing your own research and asking travellers about their particular experience with the sanctuary to confirm if they’re actually ethical.

Each elephant sanctuary offers you an opportunity to contribute not just to the animals, but to the community supporting it as well. You can participate in volunteer programs like preparing food for the elephants, assisting vets in rehabilitating the animals, and more. In some sanctuaries, they allow tourists to bathe and feed the elephants depending on their condition. Ultimately, visiting an elephant sanctuary can make a drastic difference in how you, as a tourist, view elephant tourism as a whole.

Aside from that here are a couple of signs that point to an ethical elephant experience:

*Strictly no elephant riding, feeding, or bathing.

*No circus acts or street performance for the elephants (e.g. painting or soccer playing)

*The elephants aren’t kept in cages and are free to roam in a semi-wildlife-like environment.

*Open volunteer programs where tourists can join and help assist in nurturing the animals.

Elephant tourism has come a long way from the dark days of elephant trekking. If you truly wish to encounter these animals in an ethical, responsible way, then visiting an actual elephant sanctuary is the way to go. It’s a life-changing experience that will definitely open your eyes on how elephant tourism should be.

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