A thought about animal tourism and ethical traveling


Today I want to talk to you about ethical travel, and about how your presence in a place can impact it positively or negatively.

I am writing this post as a result of an article I read in a magazine while I was on a plane, yesterday. I had to read the lines twice and check the magazine the same amount of times, to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding. But no, black on white, it was written how a particular luxury hotel chain was offering “rare elephant rides in the jungle” as what they called “unique experiences” as a reward for their loyalty program.


Having this in mind, let’s talk about what does an elephant ride mean! Elephants are wonderful and intelligent creatures, docile in their natural habitat. In the wild they live in families, they feel the same feelings as us, they love and feel happiness, they get sad and they mourn the death of members of their tribe. When a baby elephant is born, the entire herd is celebrating.

The elephants used in the animal tourism (pretty much all “domesticated” ones) have all gone through a painful process called “Phajaan”. The baby elephants are captured and taken away from their mothers at a very young age. If this happens in the wild, then their mothers are killed in front of them, which is traumatising for the baby elephant. Remember, they have the same feelings as we do! The baby elephants are then locked in very small cages, with their legs tied up, and then beaten with sticks. They are constantly stabbed in the head with a sharp metal tool. They will be starved and constantly yelled at. In some places, nails and bull hooks are used to pin down the ears. When you look at an elephant used in the tourism industry you will notice the torn ears and the scars on their foreheads. They are all caused by beating. This is how the elephant’s spirit is broken! At the end of the torture, the trainer will come and release the baby elephant from the cage, giving him water and food. Because of the traumas the elephant has gone through, the loneliness and pain, he will see this man as his saviour and will trust him – another way of the man manipulating the baby elephant.

Do you want to ride an elephant? Watch this:

Elephants have not been created to carry things on their backs. But in many places where elephant rides are offered to tourists, you will see them carrying a heavy wooden box on their backs. The elephant’s spine doesn’t have round disks but sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards, which makes their backs very vulnerable to weight coming from above. A wooden box or a chair fitted on their backs is only crushing their spine, creating back pain, irreversible injuries, and often infections due to the rubbing of whatever they are carrying. Do you really want to contribute to that just so that you can say you rode an elephant?


My story

Rohini, the elephant

India, 2014. I have taken just a few steps in, after getting off the train, when a tuk tuk driver started to walk alongside me and offer me his services. At first I refused politely but after answering his questions about where my hotel was and what my plans were for the day, I agreed to hire him, as his day rate was very reasonable, about 1000 rupees (which at the time was the equivalent of £10). So, I hopped in his vehicle and he drove me to my hotel. As it was quite a way from the station, we had time to talk, and he recommended me a unique experience of Jaipur, a farm where I could see, play with and feed an elephant.

I had an amazing day with Rahul, my driver, he was very knowledgeable about Jaipur and also showed me a lot of places out of the guidebook. He even let me give it a go at driving the tuk tuk and in the evening we went for a beer on top of a haveli, where a hand puppet show with traditional music was taking place. So, I decided to go to the elephant farm with him the next day, which was a few kilometers outside of Jaipur.

As we arrived the place looked peaceful and quiet, with large buildings from place to place, which later I found out they were the overnight homes for the elephants. Strangely, there weren’t many elephants around. The owner of the farm greeted me warmly and we got talking straight away, as we both had something in common: we were both active couchsurfers, which promptly made him invite me for lunch, made by his mom.


Soon enough, after they’ve put a turban on my head and a flower garland around my neck, as traditional, they brought Rohini out, a beautiful elephant which I fell in love with from the first sight. She was so docile and lovely, adorable when she was trying to eat from the flowers around my neck with her trunk. I pet her, I gave her bananas and chapatis, as apparently those were her favourite treats. Her mahout (the elephant’s keeper) kept telling me how much she liked me back as well, by the way she was behaving around me. I remember telling to myself how lucky I was to have such a special moment with such a special creature.

But then, in a split of a second, the mahout asked me to place my knee on Rohini’s trunk and before I knew what was happening, she lifted me up and dropped me off her back. And that was the moment when I knew this was all wrong. This wasn’t an ethical elephant farm, this wasn’t a safe place for the large mammals, Rohini wasn’t a rescued elephant and there was no freedom in her life! No wonder there were no other elephants around…. They were all at the fort, carrying tourists up the hill, in wooden boxes fit on their backs. Rohini wasn’t liking me back, as her mahout was telling me, she was probably just relieved that she wasn’t at the fort that day. And I felt horrible and guilty, I was contributing to her pain!


Mark, the dolphin

Mark was a bottlenose dolphin who lived for 23 years in captivity, at the Constanta dolphinarium, in Romania. He died aged 31, after suffering from a pulmonary haemorrhage, in 2009. As a child I used to go with my parents every year to the seaside, and seeing Mark performing was one of the highlights of the trip. He was an extremely intelligent dolphin, very playful and he loved to “sing”. I still remember how he would get up on his tail and start “singing”.

I was about 12 when I touched Mark, after one show. I went down to the pool to take a photo and he came to the raised platform, towards me. I reached towards him with my hand and he came closer. As a kid, I felt like it was a magical moment. Now I realise how wrong that was.

The truth is though that Mark lived his entire life in a pool as big as a residential one. He couldn’t swim freely, and he was alone. The bottlenose dolphins are very sociable creatures who live in groups of a minimum 15 in the wild, they are very intelligent, with a brain bigger than a human’s, and they love to swim in open waters but also in lagoons and reefs. They tend to swim up to 100 miles every day.  However, Mark lived alone, in a few meters long pool. He was captured in the Black Sea in 1986 and was forced to adapt from the freedom of an entire sea, to a tiny pool, to entertain people. And 23 years later, he died, in the same pool, not knowing the feeling of being free ever again.

This is where Mark lived and performed:

About animal tourism

As long as there is demand, animal cruelty will never stop. There are so many companies that make money out of animal tourism, which are some of the cruellest attractions in the world. World Animal Protection has made a list with the top 10 cruellest tourist attractions that cause animals lifelong sufferance and pain, and among them you will find riding elephants, tiger selfies, holding turtles, or swimming with dolphins. Even visiting the so called monkey islands is wrong!


If you want to take part in a tourist activity that involves animals think first if what you are about to do/see is part of the natural behaviour of the animal. There is nothing wrong with observing the wildlife in a natural park in South Africa from the inside of a jeep for example, but there is a totally different story if you are offered to pet a baby lion.


What is ethical travel?

Ethical traveling means simply being aware of how your actions will impact the place you are going to. For example, as most of our destinations require a flight, to reduce your carbon footprint you could choose to fly economy over business and take direct routes. As most fuel is consumed at landing and take-off, direct flights are the most environmental friendly. The more people are on a plane, the less the carbon emission will be per passenger. Using low cost flights is another option, as they don’t have business class and they try to squeeze as many passengers as possible on a plane. When you are on vacation don’t take helicopter rides or private planes.

Use packing cubes for your suitcase instead of plastic bags. Not only that your bag will be neatly organised and you will save space as well, but you will also be able to reuse them over and over.


If you plan on renting a car, opt for a low CO2 emissions one. Even better, go for a hybrid or choose an electric one if you have this option. If you are not renting a car, take the public transport as much as possible rather than taxis.

Try to eat locally in your vacation and buy your groceries from the market. Don’t go for imported products that you can easily find at home. Do not waste food or water.  When going to the market bring your own bags and avoid taking new plastic ones, which will end up in the bin anyway. Bring zero waste products with you to reduce to use of plastic on your trip.

Support the local communities you travel to by buying crafts and handmade souvenirs, but don’t haggle too much. The few pennies you are saving can mean someone else’s dinner. Not only once I have seen people haggling for the equivalent of less than 25 cents, as if it was £100!

Do not engage in animal tourism, unless it is ethical. There are ethical sanctuaries where animals have been rescued from circuses, zoos or people who used them to gain money, where you can learn more about why this type of tourism is so bad by seeing the scars they left on the poor creatures. In some of the places you will be allowed to interact with the animals but not ride, touch or do anything that would hurt them.


How can you, as an individual, make a difference?  

You might feel and think that alone you can’t really have any impact on changing the “game”, but it’s not true. By saying no to animal tourism and by starting to travel ethically, you are making a change! Because you have friends and family who will follow your example. And even if it’s just a small step from you, as more and more people join together and say no, the demand for animal tourism will decrease.


Tourists don’t ride elephants on purpose, don’t swim with dolphins inside pools because they want to hurt them, they don’t go to the zoo because they enjoy seeing caged animals. No, tourists do all these things because they are offered to them as a reasonable low price, and because they don’t know how those elephants are broken… how those dolphins are miserable… how those lions never felt the freedom to run in an open savannah. And if they do know all of this, they might be thinking that the animal is suffering anyway, and their actions won’t have consequences.

So it is up to me, it is up to you, to tell them no, don’t ride that elephant, don’t give money to that snake charmer, don’t take a photo with the monkey on your shoulders!

It’s tempting to ride an elephant, after all, it has been broken already, right? But if you think further than this statement you will realise how you riding that elephant will finance the breaking of another one. And as long as people will ride elephants, the cruelty against these beautiful creatures won’t stop! It’s time to refuse animal tourism, no matter how small or big the animals are!

Choose to observe animals in the wild, in their natural environment!


Do you really want to ride an elephant just for the sake of bragging about it or do you want to say no, and take a step towards stopping animal cruelty?   

Disclaimer:  Some of the links one this website are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on the link and do a purchase, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost for you. This helps me keep my website running and continue to share my traveling knowledge with you. I thank you for booking your flights or hotels using the links on my website. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

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91 thoughts on “A thought about animal tourism and ethical traveling

  1. Pingback: How to Say "No Straw Please" in 40 Languages - The Altruistic Traveller

  2. Rosie (@greenrosielife) says:

    This is such as important message to share far and wide as so many people have no idea what they re buying into as tourists. I host a small animal based blog linky called Animal Tales on my blog A Green and Rosie Life and would love it if you would like to link up this post. The April one is currently open.

  3. Amy says:

    Thank you for such a great read. It genuinely made me cry. A family member came home from Thailand and was so pleased they he got to ‘ride’ an elephant, and it just made me feel sick. Great post 🙂

  4. Mira says:

    Great post. I’m glad to see that there is much more awareness of animal “imprisonment / training” issues these days and that animal tourism is one of them.

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