Last week I saw a post on Facebook written by someone who volunteered at ElephantsWorld. She left a review on TripAdvisor about her experience at the sanctuary.
I had promised myself to do the same after my experience there as a volunteer, but I haven’t.
I had also promised myself to write about it here on my blog, but I haven’t. Many articles have been pending in my drafts section for over a year. The reason: this silly mental block of mine about writing on topics I really really care about, and about making sure my words translate my thoughts and feelings correctly. But here it is. Why now? Because since I left this place over a year ago, things have not changed a bit. Well, they have: they got worse. Therefore, if this post can help even one single person to really think about animal welfare and make the right decision, it will be useful.
I will make a case against elephant camps offering interactions with tourists. Those camps are found in Asia, many in Thailand, and are quite popular with travelers. I will try to explain why I don’t like these places, where attracting tourists (well, their money 😉 ) seems so much more important than taking care of the animals, self-proclaimed « sanctuaries » included. I will take Elephants World located near Kanchanaburi in Thailand as an example to support my case.
I traveled around the world between October 2014 and May 2016. I also did some volunteering then: in Ecuador with wildlife, in Bali with stray dogs, in Thailand at ElephantsWorld. This one-month experience with elephants had me question a lot of things, A LOT. How legitimate an animal shelter / center / sanctuary can be when relying on the tourism industry only? Is doing better than others good enough?
If you are only interested in getting close to an elephant (or any wildlife for that matter), whatever the conditions of detention, and if all you care about is your well-being, this post will not not convince you. But if you are wondering about the best way to interact with wildlife, what follows might get you thinking.
To you, traveler/tourist/curious fellow who wants to get close to pachyderms: go on a hike in the wilderness or in a national park (but please choose the company well). You might get a chance to see elephants, you might not, but at least it will be a « genuine » experience and animals will roam free.
Please don’t visit one of many trekking camps, those camps created for tourists where you can ride elephants, it literally kills them, their back being the weakest part of their anatomy. Living conditions are deplorable there. They are chained all day long, underfed, with no access to water, they keep carrying people on that same path everyday, on and on, until exhaustion, until they are no longer profitable to their owners…
… and (sometimes) get rescued by a « sanctuary ».
However: I would advise not to visit one of those sanctuaries either. Yes, animals are treated better there: usually, you are not allowed to ride them, they have more space, they are not (or less) chained, they no longer suffer the trauma of the bullhook (= stick with a metal hook at the end, used to dominate the elephant), they are well fed. Yes, it is true, they are treated better. But still, they are the product of the tourism industry, here to please tourists, tourists ready to pay a high fee for the experience => easy money for camps / sanctuaries / centers
Even if they are treated better by those so-called sanctuaries, do you really believe that an elephant, every day, 365 days a year, is willing to give in to the same routine created for the sole purpose of entertaining tourists? Eat at the same place at the same time; remain constantly under the mahouts and visitors radar; take a bath at the same place same time everyday regardless of the weather and be splashed with water, brushed by dozens of tourists because that’s why they came for and will be disappointed if the activity doesn’t take place; be touched; be chained as soon as visitors are out of sight, etc … NO.
These specific examples are about ElephantsWorld. I can’t say anything about other sanctuaries, I haven’t visited them, but as long as visitors will pay (often a high fee) for an experience with elephants, of course they will expect to be given satisfaction.
You could argue that you haven’t noticed all this during your visit at ElephantsWorld, or that Sanctuary A or Sanctuary B is much better, that they really care for elephants. I will answer you this: if you were a visitor, your experience was limited. Limited time, limited vision. You saw what the place let you see. You saw what you allowed yourself to see (and it’s understandable, you were here to have a good experience). Spending only a few hours at a place or spending several weeks (and even then, you can only scratch the surface in a few weeks), it’s not the same thing …
… Which brings me to the volunteer experience.
To you, volunteer / animal lover / caring fellow: don’t fool yourself. « I’m going to work with elephants! » looks good on paper (and on social media). You will convince yourself you will help the cause at ElephantsWorld. And once there, you will believe it at first. But then you will get your feet wet, you will fall into a routine, you will start having questions, you will notice inconsistencies. You will ask yourself (and others) why. Why, why, why.
\ Why don’t elephants sometimes get enough food. (you will try to understand how orders and deliveries are made, how budget is allocated, but nobody will answer you)
\ Why do the mahouts use the bullhook.
\ Why are they so young, so poorly trained and why do they change so often.
\ Why are they so badly considered by management. (most of them are refugees)
\ Why is the staff so poorly paid.
\ Why aren’t more activities devoted to harvesting food
\ Why are so many amenities built for tourists when elephants need so much for their care.
\ Why rather plant trees to decorate the reception area than getting proper enrichment for elephants. (they do need trees and shades)
\ Why so few medical facilities and no official vet.
\ Why no fence around the land, nor pens (meaning fewer chains and more freedom for elephants).
\ Why are the chains at their feet so short. Why do they have chains at all.
\ Why is this elephant pregnant. (babies attract tourists)
\ Why are these two baby elephants rented.
\ Why is there no fund to rescue this elephant who is slowly dying in a trekking camp.
\ Why do they keep asking visitors for donation.
The list goes on and on.
Your burning question will be: where does all the money go and who decides on the priorities? You will ask around. But you won’t get answers. ElephantsWorld management will tell you that it is none of your business. Funny because you actually paid to come here as a volunteer, so you would like to know how your money is spent. A nice pie chart is displayed at the sanctuary, saying that 40% of the cash flow is dedicated to feeding elephants, then someone should know, right? Well no, because funny enough no one knows the cash amount spent on food (but it’s 40% eh!) …
Powerlesss and frustrated
You will want to shake things up, make improvements. You will be committed to the cause, because that’s why you’re here! In front of you, the management might pretend to listen, but most of the times they will send you packing. Dozens of people before you probably have had the same ideas, tried the same things. Usually volunteers stay one month at ElephantsWorld, they come and go. Management can feed you with fine words, they don’t care, You will be leaving soon and there will be no follow-up on those empty words. As long as money keeps coming in, all good!
1 visitor = 65€/day (up to 150 visitors a day!), 1 volunteer = 400€ to 1900€/month depending on the program (~10-15 volunteers a month). Do the math.
You will be struck by cultural shock. But you will realize that the « cultural difference » is often an easy way-out. You will experience the impossibility to communicate. You will feel powerless and frustrated. Eventually you will probably give up the fight, you will decide to take a step back and try to appreciate things for what they are. Because it is indeed not your culture, and you got attached to people, and you got attached to elephants, and… You will forget about your principles a little.
Money as a means not an end
To keep an animal organization afloat, you need funding. Facilities, health care, vet, food… It costs money. Money coming from tourists is easy money. With easy earned money comes greed, a shift in priorities, corruption even sometimes (in Asia, often), etc.
Let’s take ElephantsWorld’s example again: from the moment you’d rather build more parking spots, more accommodation options, a bar, a spa, buy new air-conditioned taxis, etc. all for tourists, rather than training and paying your staff decently, buying more land for elephants, installing a fence and pens for them, building amenities for them, working on healing their trauma, etc. NO, « sanctuary » is not the right word. ElephantsWorld is a lucrative business, a tourist center, not a non-profit organization.
Back to my question from the beginning of this post:
IS DOING BETTER THAN OTHERS GOOD ENOUGH?
Not when we could do better, no, I don’t think it is. It’s not because your neighbors lock their child up in the basement and lash them that you should take pride in locking them up in their bedroom and beat them with a belt. No.
ElephantsWorld and other sanctuaries focused on tourist activities may take better care of elephants than standard trekking camps, but NO, they should not be pleased with it. We should go further. We should come up with a new sanctuary model. Because those sanctuaries don’t put animal welfare first. They put tourists first.
I don’t have a solution. Asian elephants don’t have habitat any longer, blame deforestation. Farmers don’t want them to destroy their land. Human activity prevents them from roaming free and getting access to water. Trafficking still does exist, feeding South-East Asia trekking camps and Chinese market with wild elephants… There is no solution. Where should we put those gigantic, clever, kind souls? We need to come up with a new model, relying on other financial sources.
One thing to keep in mind though: volunteers and visitors are the ones funding those places. If those places get deserted, they will not have a choice but to re-assess themselves. Buying is voting.
So much good could be done with ElephantsWorld.
To conclude: Avoid any commercial interaction with animals. Favor their natural environment, consciously and respectfully. Yes, it’s almost impossible nowadays, but whose fault is that? Ours, humans who are destroying nature. So better sit in front of the TV and watch wildlife documentaries. Because soon, that’s all we’ll have left. Unless we REALLY decide on protecting the living.
edit 08/25/2017: A bunch of former EW volunteers have decided to come together and raise awareness. One consequence of it: ElephantsWorld is now trying to control their online reputation. They have changed their name on Facebook, from « wildlife sanctuary » to « animal shelter ». They have disabled the Reviews feature from their Facebook page, too many negative comments were showing up…
Ask for transparency when visiting a wildlife venue. Do your research.
Food for thoughts:
\ The report Taken for a Ride about the conditions of elephants used in tourism + recommendations on ethical sanctuaries (edited by the NGO World Animal Protection)
\ Guide to being animal friendly on holiday (edited by the NGO World Animal Protection)
\ Thailand Elephants: Facebook page trying to promote responsible tourism
\ Nat Geo article about tripadvisor being accused of promoting animal cruelty (the company has since agreed to stop \o/) and my opinion about it (in French)
🐘 🐘 #NotEntertainers 🐘 🐘 #SaveElephantsWorld 🐘 🐘 #UniteForTheHerd 🐘 🐘