As I begin my travels around the world, I am conscious that I want to be a responsible traveller.
But what does this mean exactly?
Responsible travel for me means respecting the places I visit and the people who live there. Any impact that I have on a destination, the local cultures and economies must be positive.
Unfortunately, although it has many benefits, tourism is not always seen to be positive – especially when we indulge in practices that may be harmful to the environment or the people – and when our travel legacy is detrimental rather than beneficial.
On my recent visit to Sri Lanka I came face to face with what I consider to be detrimental activities to the wildlife and the people who live cheek-by-jowl with it.
One of our stops one evening after a long day of driving tuk-tuks was the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The next morning after breakfast, we began to hear the beat of drums and over the hill I saw the dramatic sight of these huge, beautiful creatures ambling towards the water for their morning bath. At first I was blown away by the majestic sight of these magnificent animals, but within moments I realised that all was not as it seemed.
Firstly, some of the elephants were chained at the ankle – large, heavy, tight chains. Secondly the mahout herding them was carrying a long stick with a sharp hook on the end, prodding the elephants periodically to make them move where he wanted them to go. Lastly, we were encouraged to feed the animals rotting fruit (for which we had to pay) and we were allowed to touch them – which seemed unnatural.
Once the elephants entered the water they just stood there – listless and tired. Now I’ve seen elephants both in the wild and in an orphanage in Kenya – and this is not how elephants behave. Elephants in mud and water are like pigs in shit! They frolic around getting more caked in the mud, with the added benefit that this acts as a form of sunscreen and insect repellent. These elephants did not look happy or particularly well looked after. In fact, looking into their eyes, I felt an enormous sense of sadness. After a few moments I decided I couldn’t watch anymore and discreetly made my way to my room.
A few days later on the way to Yala National Park from the friendly, mountainous town of Ella, we once again came across elephants – but this time in the wild on the road. As we drove our small tuk-tuks these enormous elephants blocked the roads waiting for tourists to feed them bananas. Again, my gut reaction was that this was not good. Elephants in the wild are dangerous and they should be treated with the respect and distance afforded of all wild animals. It may just seem like fun feeding an elephant a banana – but this seemingly harmless act has a multitude of dire consequences including habituation and human-elephant conflict.
I was keen to learn more and ensure that the gut feeling that I had was not just me being emotional but that it was based in some truth. I needed to know that what I was witnessing and what was making me uncomfortable was based on sound judgement.
So, I spoke to a couple of people in the know – a Sri Lankan elephant conservationist and a guide at one of the lodges in Yala National Park.
And this is what I learnt…
Pinnawala today does not have any conservation relevance. It originally started off with the best of intentions, taking in orphaned elephants to care for them and rehabilitate them for eventual release into the wild. But over time, the conservation link has been lost and it has become a tourist trap with elephants being paraded for tourists to feed them and touch them and pay for the privilege, generating tourism revenue for the government. Elephants are also born at this orphanage and so their lives are destined for captivity until they die.
But, not all orphanages in Sri Lanka can be tarred with the same brush. The Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home (which unfortunately I was unable to visit) is highly regarded for its rehabilitation work of orphaned elephants, and perhaps telling is its policy of deliberately minimizing human-elephant contact so that elephants do not become habituated to humans before they are released.
As for feeding elephants – the implications include wild elephants who became “beggar elephants”. They develop a taste for sweet bananas which encourages them to wait for such opportunities on the road where they know people will feed them. It can also lead to habituation around humans and settlements, where they learn to access easy food by raiding farmers’ crops, which leads to destruction of property, endangering lives of people and prompting retaliation where elephants are killed by horrific means such as hakka patas. Also, often elephants develop illnesses such as diabetes from being fed sugary fruit. And of course, like all wild animals, elephants can be dangerous. Just like human beings, each elephant is individual – some gentle, some aggressive and some unpredictable. If an elephant feels threatened or aggrieved it will not hesitate to attack. In a recent case a tuk-tuk was toppled over by an elephant as the tourist fed it.
It’s hard not to listen to other people’s travel stories and when they enthuse about doing something exciting and unusual, the instinct is “I want to do that too”. But, before we do, we must stop and ask ourselves what the repercussions of our actions are. Is feeding a wild animal acceptable? Is it responsible? What would an expert or conservationist say? If in doubt – ask. In this day and age of technology and social media, answers are not far away.
Responsible travel is something we can all aspire to. In fact, it is something that we should actively promote and embody. Don’t follow the herd by doing the wrong thing – but rather – lead by doing the responsible thing.
AS AN ASIDE
Hakka patas – (jaw breaker) – are small explosive balls made from a mixture of gunpowder, stones, lead and iron, inserted into fruits and vegetables. When an elephant eats one of these fruits or vegetables, the hakka pata explodes in the elephant’s mouth. The result is the slow, painful death of the elephant.