Two years ago, an Asian elephant named Sambo ferried her way through Cambodia, on route to the famous Angkor Wat temple in a 40° Celsius heatwave. Carrying tourists on her back who were too busy taking in the sights around them on their smartphones to notice the utter insanity of her working conditions, the elderly female elephant collapsed of a heart attack on the roadside just outside of her final destination in Siem Reap province.
Asian elephants might be the largest land mammals on earth, but as their habitats continue to shrink, they're also listed as an endangered species. According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), at the start of the 20th century, there might have been close to 100,000 Asian elephants in the wild, but over the last three generations, that number has fallen by more than 50 per cent.
Yet still, tourists around the world line up for elephant rides, and still, "sanctuaries" exist for people to get up close with these gentle giants.
Today marks World Tourism Day, which is dedicated to shining a light on the social, cultural, political, environmental and economic impact of the trillion-dollar travel and tourism industry, and the responsibility that tourists have when travelling around the world.
There's no such thing as a cruelty-free elephant ride
A 2017 KANTAR global poll shows a significant drop of 9 per cent (to 44 per cent) in the number of people who find elephant riding acceptable compared to just three years ago. The poll also shows that more than 80 per cent of tourists would prefer to see animals in their natural environment, proving that animal-friendly tourism is on the rise. The trend is even more pronounced among young, millennial (aged 18-35) travellers.
According to the BBC, World Animal Protection named elephant rides as the top most cruel holiday activity in a list it created for campaign purposes. Elephants who are subject to such practices are often overworked and brutally broken in during training. From the moment the animal is riddled with equipment to the time it is forced to perform for the enjoyment of tourists, the act is often met with resistance. In certain cases, elephants have lashed out at their trainers, seriously injuring or killing them, and in turn, the animals pay the price.
Perceptions are changing
World Animal Protection is working with some the biggest names in travel including The Travel Corporation (and their brands like Contiki and Trafalgar), G Adventures, Intrepid, and World Expeditions. And, although some tour operators, especially those leading tours through India and East Asia, still include an elephant ride in their tour packages, more than 200 travel companies have signed on to their elephant-friendly pledge.
"Unlike previous generations, millennials, and in particular Gen Z or those born after 1995, are more socially, ecologically, and empathetically aware, and they have been raised to frequently call out inhumane treatment of wildlife," said Sheralyn Berry, president of Contiki Canada. "Contiki is proud to join with World Animal Protection on World Tourism Day, not simply to ensure that we are doing our part to ensure that this beautiful planet can continue to provide us with the unforgettable experiences, but to make travel matter."
Leigh Barnes, Intrepid Travel’s chief purpose officer, added:
"Intrepid Travel was the first tour operator to ban elephant riding in 2014. At the time, we partnered with World Animal Protection (WAP) to uncover the realities of animal welfare in Asia. WAP audited nearly 200 elephant entertainment businesses in Thailand and found only six of them fairly treated elephants. In fact, the brutality of industry was more alarming than we knew. From this research, the right decision was obvious, we banned all elephant riding activities in Thailand, instead partnering with ethical elephant rehabilitation centres and not-for-profits to educate and change the perspectives of our customers and locals."
For more information on Intrepid's commitment to animal welfare, click here!
For more information on The Travel Corporation's current initiatives, click here!