When I travel, how do I know if the elephants or other wildlife I’m going to see are being treated ethically?

As a scientist and a veterinarian who have worked with elephants in Thailand for more than a decade, the question we get asked most often by tourists, friends and family alike is, “where should I go to see elephants or other wildlife where they are treated ethically?”

There are two things to consider when planning a visit to any wildlife facility when you travel. First, think about what type of wildlife experience you want to have. The best place to see wildlife is always in the wild, in their natural habitat. National parks and government-run wildlife sanctuaries can and do offer these experiences. If you decide you want to engage in wildlife tourism at a captive wildlife facility, refuge, center, camp or sanctuary, do some pre-travel research and be prepared to enjoy your experience with an open mind.

Second, try to read up on the local culture and traditions, but also read up on animal behavior so you understand the wildlife you’re going to experience. Is there a tradition or culture around the human/animal bond where you’re traveling? For instance, there is a tradition of elephant handling in Thailand that goes back thousands of years1 and a sense of pride amongst Thai people when it comes to the treasured relationship between humans and elephants2. On the other hand, there is no tradition of tiger handling; it’s a very recent, tourism-centric phenomenon. Thus, although you may disagree with some things you see while traveling, show respect for and learn about other cultures. This should be an important part of your travel experience.

In order to help you approach wildlife tourism from an ethical perspective, we’ll use elephants as an example. The questions you should ask any tourism operator, however, regardless of the wildlife in their care, are the same. As responsible travelers, you want to make sure that you are not contributing to the mistreatment of animals, but often, what you see or hear on a one-day trip is considerably different than what’s happening behind the scenes. Ask questions and evaluate the answers you receive. Here are some questions you should think about asking when deciding whether or not you want to give a particular facility your business:

  1. How do they manage and care for the animals in captivity? The animals should be provided with a balanced diet and regular healthcare. Allowing the animals to interact socially is very important, but requires careful management by behavior and veterinary experts to prevent excessive stress and conflict. If the animals interact freely with each other, they must have enough space to avoid fights and be alone if they so choose.

Elephants, for instance, live relatively stable social lives in the wild because they live in female-led kin groups. In captivity where space is always limited, this is usually not replicable and unrelated animals may fight with one another. Thus, the relationships between seasoned handlers and the animals they care for are an important part of managing the daily social lives of animals in captivity.3

  1. Do my interactions with the animals feel safe? Do the animals have an opportunity to escape interactions with me if they choose? Just because you are enjoying your interactions with animals doesn’t mean they are enjoying being in an interaction with you.
  1. One of the most important questions you can ask a facility is how they treat their staff. Inquire about the healthcare and compensation packages for the animal care staff. Happy and well-looked-after staff members are likely to treat the animals in their care better as well.
  1. Do they have a non-profit charity, how is it organized, and where does my money go? Do they commit any resources to conserving wild habitat for these captive animals’ “wild cousins?” Answers to questions like these provide a window into a wildlife tour operator’s motivations. Do they do this solely for profit or their own pleasure, or is a part of their motivation more altruistic?
  1. Do they claim to focus on conservation, welfare, or providing sanctuary to previously mistreated animals? The word “conservation” is a loaded term and has been re-appropriated by captive animal facilities that claim that breeding endangered species or rescuing them from abuse is inherently conservation. It isn’t! Conservation is the protection of wild populations, and thus any place that claims it is conserving a species by merely breeding it but does not also contribute to the protection of wild populations is feeding you a false message. Providing high quality welfare and sanctuary to mistreated captive animals is a great cause in its own right. Thus, the important point here is that facilities should convey an accurate message about how they spend their income and what their ultimate wildlife goals are.
  1. Do they buy or rent the animals they care for? This is a very complicated question that underlies one of the biggest issues in captive wildlife tourism. Some facilities that buy their animals to “rescue them,” even when well-intentioned, may be doing a disservice to conservation. Although we may feel compelled to buy a captive animal living in what we perceive to be a bad situation, doing so may come at the expense of a wild one captured just to replace it and thus may encourage further trade in wildlife. Renting animals has its own issues – facility owners have less control over the rented animals’ care, for instance – but it may have much less of an effect on the trade in wildlife.

When you’re on vacation, you don’t want to have to worry that your family’s experience could be hurting wildlife. The best traveler is an informed one. Therefore, ask questions and get answers that you’re satisfied with. If an answer sounds like an excuse or if your question is dismissed, you should wonder whether what you’re doing is helping or hurting the local wildlife.

For more information on our work or about what you’ve read here, visit or contact us through www.thinkelephants.org or follow @thinkelephants on Facebook and Twitter. As a non-profit charity that works within the areas of research, education and conservation, we’re here to help if you have questions!

By Joshua Plotnik, Ph.D. and Thitibon Plotnik, D.V.M., Think Elephants

*The views and expressed opinions in this article are those by Think Elephants, and are not necessarily those of TripAdvisor, Inc.  Any cited research is sourced by Think Elephants and has not been necessarily verified or independently evaluated by TripAdvisor, Inc.    

Resources

1 Fowler, M.E. & Mikota, S.K. (2006) Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of Elephants (Chapters 2 & 8). Ames, IA: Blackwell.

2 Lair, R. 1997. Gone Astray: The care and management of the Asian elephant in domesticity. Bangkok: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

3 Phuangkum, P, Lair, R.C., & Angkawanith, T. 2005. Elephant care manual for mahouts and camp managers. Bangkok: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

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