Wonderfilled friends, we're so excited to announce that we'll be sharing contributions from adventurers and explorers around the world as we build our next issue. First up, an intriguing and important look at wildlife tourism, artfully written by Jenny Hauschildt with beautiful photos by Jordi Clopés.
Wildlife attractions account for roughly a third of all tourism worldwide. Elephants are among the most sought after animal by tourists, and they feel it. Big time.
How can we satisfy the craving to interact with the world’s largest land mammal, but in a more sensitive and nurturing environment? The answer: Sanctuary.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant sanctuary with 60+ elephants outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand that serves as a refuge for elephants who have been rescued and rehabilitated from tourist industries. Many come from elephant riding camps.
People can come to visit or volunteer, and have a chance to learn about the plight of elephants. Visitors can get an up close experience with the elephants by feeding or viewing them from the deck. It provides a better alternative from traditional elephant tourism.
So, what is a sanctuary? How is it different than a zoo?
Sanctuaries have vast acreage where elephants can roam, which is an essential need for elephants.
In sanctuaries, elephants have rough boundaries like rivers and mountainsides, but stay relatively close to the sanctuary headquarters where they know they will receive and can get medical care, if needed. Essentially, they have freedom in a supportive environment.
What’s wrong with elephant tourism and why do elephants need to be rescued?
Many well-meaning animal lovers unknowingly support tourist attractions that force wild animals into unnatural behaviors and environments. In order to perform rides or anything else for our entertainment, elephants in Thailand are captured from the wild and put through a training process called a Phagaan or “crush”. This process involves restraining the elephant for many days and torturing them with a sharp and painful weapon called a bull hook until they learn to obey commands. The process is continued until the elephant is so fearful that they will do anything to avoid being hurt again.
Humans can train elephants to do pretty much anything this way: play the piano, give massages to humans, give rides, paint pictures (I’m sure you’ve seen the YouTube videos!). The list goes on. Unsurprisingly, when seeing photos or videos of these activities, you almost always see someone there carrying a bull hook next to the elephant. The bull hook serves as a constant reminder of the “crush” and forces them to remain fearful, and therefore, compliant.
How can sanctuaries be healing for elephants? Why is that important?
In sanctuaries, elephants are able to create herds with others of their choosing, which allows them to meets their very advanced social needs. Elephants are just like humans. They want to choose their own families and friend groups!
Also, by allowing elephants to mingle and roam, this creates a setting where elephants can reproduce naturally and further the species. Artificial insemination in elephants is extremely unsuccessful for many reasons. Elephant infant mortality rate in zoos is ~40%, nearly triple the rate in the Asian or African wild. And most elephants die prematurely at half their age when held in zoos. Elephants simply cannot survive, thrive, or reproduce well in captivity.
Elephants are kinda off my radar! Why should I be thinking about this
Scientists predict that wild elephants will be completely extinct in 10 years. TEN YEARS. When elephants are gone:
1) Entire ecosystems will feel a ripple effect. For example, elephants in the Central African Forest are the only creature that can disperse the seeds from the tall trees. This is the second most important forest in the world for carbon capture, and with the loss of elephants, there will be no new growth.
2) We’ll lose the most magnificent, sensitive, largest land mammal on earth. That just makes me sad.
So after 10 years, no more elephants?
Well, after that, the only elephants left on this great planet will be domesticated elephants: those in zoos, used for logging (yup, like pulling logs up and down mountains), or entertainment purposes. It REALLY matters how we treat those elephants, because they’ll be the only ones left capable of continuing the species. The sanctuary model provides the best chance for rehabilitation.
Jenny Hauschildt was an Elephant Nature Park Volunteer in 2013, and joined on as an Elephant Ambassador shortly thereafter. Her job is to speak up for elephants everywhere, especially in her local community in the Pacific Northwest, and to educate the public about the plight of elephants. Jenny lives and works in Portland, Oregon with her 22lb elephant-cat Navann, who she named after a lovable and “never-been-crushed” baby elephant from the sanctuary.
Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram @jennywholegrain, especially if you want your hands on a long list of elephant sanctuaries in SE Asia! She’s got one on hand!