Chained elephant foot (Delia Harrington)
Blog Words : Blog of the week | 26 May

Animal abuse and tourism: Where do we draw the line?

Shocked by 'domesticated' elephants in Kerala, our featured blogger, Delia Harrington, ponders on the role of animals in tourism. And the impact it's having on them – and us.

According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren’t enforced. City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being either chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked.

As a person who loves animals, I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals, and to see them live their lives naturally. As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbour’s porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone’s house and take it.

During our trip to Kerala, we took a boat ride in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (*Tigers not guaranteed.) This area is only accessible by boat, and is the first place I’ve seen in India with zero trash. The animals have substantial protected acreage at their disposal, and their lives appear to transpire without human interference, other than boats that watch from a safe distance. To me, this is how nature was meant to be observed: from a safe distance, in a respectful way.

We were able to see elephants again in Wayanad by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. We were not permitted to drive through the rest of the sanctuary as planned because the weather was making the animals nervous. I was glad to hear that we were not being allowed to do something that would jeopardize our (and in turn the animals’) well-being. To me, the surest sign of a good sanctuary or preserve is that they use the word ‘no’. There should not be a dollar amount that will assuage concerns for the animals’ well-being.

As much as we love the magic and intensity of witnessing a wild animal at close range, it isn’t natural. They aren’t meant to bend to our will, to eat our food, or to carry us around. They need space, not chains, and reputable research and preservation organizations need our money. Participating in the mistreatment of animals is not what’s best for those animals. 

Neither is going on an elephant ride (or playing with tiger cubs), getting the cool photos, and then writing a contrite, hand-wringing post after the fact to atone for our participation. Unfortunately that seems to be the preferred route for travelers with a conscience, myself included: get the snaps, then talk about how messed up it is afterwards.

Beyond the ethics of it, animals are far more interesting when they are behaving as they choose. Seeing a mother and baby elephant interacting in the wild is far better than watching one perform for us on paved city streets. It was amazing to see a small herd of elephants quietly going about their business this afternoon, not bothered by our presence, not decorated by anything other than mud and their own skin, and completely free of chains.

I hope that governments and tourists alike will help to make wildlife-friendly tourism an easy choice, one that is rewarded with good publicity and plenty of business. I hope that consumers become more aware of the power of their dollars, their presence and their photos, and wield them accordingly. I hope elephants, and other less PR-friendly animals, are around in the wild for generations to come.

Where do you draw the line with animals and tourism? Tell us in the comments below.

Delia HarringtonDelia Harrington | Away She Goes

Boston-based Delia is a writer, traveller, student and aspiring changer of the world. She hopes to bring her interest in human rights, global politics and socially-minded business into all aspects of her life, but especially to her blog. 

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