Elephant safaris


While we at Responsible Travel believe that riding an elephant in a sanctuary or a camp is an unnecessary activity which contributes to the harsh treatment of the elephant and the capture of wild elephants, not all aspects of elephant riding are as black and white as this. Some uses of captive elephants are, in fact, a very elephant-coloured shade of grey.

Case study: Chitwan National Park

Chitwan National Park in Nepal is one example where elephant rides are a positive force for conservation. The park and its buffer zone protects some of the last remaining Bengal tigers and Indian rhinoceroses, as well as leopards. Elephant safaris are one of the most popular – and safe – ways to discover these exceptionally rare species in Chitwan, and revenue from these safaris contributes greatly to the upkeep of the park and surrounding area, and the protection of its wildlife.

Survival in the balance

The Bengal tiger is one of the most endangered species in the world, numbering no more than 2,500 individuals. In Nepal, this number is less than 250 – and many of these are found in Chitwan and its buffer zone. With such a fragile number remaining, any encroachment on their habitat or a reduction in rangers and monitoring could lead – rapidly – to their extinction.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chitwan National Park was in fact gazetted in 1970 with the aim of protecting another rare species – the Indian rhinoceros. Numbering just 95 in the region at the time, there are now around 600 Indian rhinos in and around Chitwan. Both rhinos and tigers are highly prized poaching targets, thanks largely to the use of tiger bones and rhino horns in traditional Chinese medicine. Rhino horns are, literally, worth more than their weight in gold.

Good news for wildlife

In April 2017, an Indian rhino was shot by poachers in Chitwan National Park, but this was the first such killing in three years. From 2013 to 2014, not a single rhino, tiger or wild elephant had been killed in Chitwan National Park. To put this into context, South Africa lost more than 1,000 rhinos in 2017 alone. Chitwan’s incredible record has been possible only through intense investment in rangers, community outreach and crime investigation units. More than a thousand soldiers patrol Chitwan and Bardiya National Parks and their buffer zones, and community anti-poaching units ensure rapid responses.
Government owned elephants have played a suitably large role in the protection of Chitwan and other similar parks. Patrols are carried out on elephant back, and radio collared tigers and rhinos are tracked by rangers riding elephants while carrying receivers. They also reduce human-wildlife conflict, as Marcus Cotton, from Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, explains: “These elephants are used inside national parks to capture injured animals to treat them; to capture “rogue” tigers and other animals that are attacking local people or threatening livelihoods through crop predation (thus jeopardising conservation initiatives); and to capture rhinoceros for removal to new reserves to ensure repopulation and diversity of populations.”
Another way the elephants help is by carrying tourists into the park and buffer zones. The income from these safaris is what has allowed for this enormous investment in conservation, as well as winning over local communities, who have formed civilian anti-poaching units. In certain habitats in Chitwan, an elephant is the only safe means of access. According to National Geographic, "The government actually gives 50 cents of every tourist dollar to local communities, which makes them hold more value for rhinos alive than dead".

Bad news for elephants

Unfortunately, there are currently insufficient minimum standards for those operating elephant safaris in and around Nepal’s national parks, meaning that the elephants may be trekking beyond the appropriate, recommended time limits; they may be harmed with bull hooks; howdahs are usually used; and they may be deprived of food and contact with other elephants.
Marcus Cotton, managing director of our supplier Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, explains more: “In Nepal, elephant safaris in national parks are restricted to two hours and no more than four tourists per elephant. The income is very important for the parks’ maintenance and to ensure a skilled team of wildlife personnel is available for conservation duties. On the negative side, elephant safaris in the park buffer zones are more of a tourist attraction and are not always essential as the best/safest means of transport in the particular habitat. Again – those doing it properly with correct management are fine; those who overload, or take out too many trips per day are the ones to be targeted.“
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Our views


While we at Responsible Travel do not in any way endorse poor treatment of elephants, after much discussion with elephant charities and local operators, we have decided to make an exception to our policy of not supporting elephant rides, in the case of Chitwan National Park. The survival of the remaining tigers and rhinoceroses is simply too precarious to risk withdrawing funding from the park and buffer zones; to do so would risk an instant increase in poaching and the demise of these species. Due to the potential dangers of encountering tigers and rhinoceros on foot, and the natural restrictions of seeing wildlife from a jeep, elephant safaris are still one of the most popular ways to visit Chitwan and similar lowland parks in Nepal and India. This is far from an ideal situation, but we believe it is the “least bad” solution to a complex problem.

Instead, we are calling upon our suppliers and our travellers to Chitwan and similar locations which protect highly endangered species to demand the ethical treatment of the elephants; this means limits on the time elephants can work, a reduced number of passengers and restrictions on the way the bull hook is used – strictly for dire emergency situations only where the safety of the riders and elephant is at risk. We would also encourage any visitors to the parks to look into alternative means of visiting where possible, and especially if they have concerns about the treatment of elephants working in the parks.

Photo credits: [Chitwan National Park - rhino spotting: Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn)] [Chitwan National Park - on the trail: John Pavelka] [Bengal tiger: Paul Mannix] [Indian rhino: Diganta Talukdar]
Written by Vicki Brown
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