LATELY, ELEPHANT-BASED TOURISM has inflamed strong opinions, and the practice of riding elephants — especially in Thailand — has come under a lot of scrutiny. Many international travelers have learned about the abusive and unethical practices in the field, and are choosing where to put their money carefully.
However, simply dismissing all elephant-based tourism as problematic ignores the fact that some countries are getting many things right. Nepal is a great example of this. The way elephants have been utilized for conservation and tourism in this country has actually had broad positive effects. Here’s a few reasons why Nepal’s circumstances for elephant tourism are different.
1. Government-owned elephants are used in conservation efforts, and some private tourism operators are leading the way with the ethical treatment of elephants.
The most popular national park in Nepal with elephants is Chitwan National Park, south-west of Kathmandu.
There are both privately-owned and government-owned elephants in and around Chitwan. Government-owned elephants are used for anti-poaching rides within the park, not tourism. Private elephants are used for tourism. A positive example of change in the elephant tourism sector is pioneering eco-lodge Tiger Tops, which has just opened a new style of elephant park, their Elephant Camp, just outside of the Chitwan National Park. In designing the lodge, Tiger Tops consulted experts from Elephant Aid International to advise on progressive elephant care and management. As Kristjan Edwards, chairwoman of Tiger Tops, has stated: “We strive to give our elephants the most natural existence possible in captivity… We want to set an example and to be a model on how to do elephant-friendly tourism for others throughout Nepal in the future.”
In the last few months, under the new leadership of Deepak Bhattarai, Nepal’s United Elephant Cooperative has started to implement some important changes in privately-owned elephants’ treatment at Chitwan. Hopefully, the evidence of these important changes will start to be seen, although change can be slow to take effect in Nepal.
2. Though the UK-based agency Responsible Travel denounced elephant trekking and safaris in 2014, they stated an important exception was Nepal.
They wrote: “Chitwan National Park in Nepal is one example where elephant rides are a positive force for conservation. The park and its buffer zone protect some of the last remaining Bengal tigers and Indian rhinoceroses, as well as wild elephants and 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.”
3. Without the revenue that elephants attract to Nepal’s national parks, it is unlikely that the parks themselves could be financed.
United Elephant Cooperative’s Deepak Bhattarai is frustrated by the persistent criticism private elephant owners receive from international animal welfare groups. He is particularly annoyed by the lack of practical suggestions he has received about how Nepal should fund the national parks, provide Mahouts with a livelihood and pay for the survival of elephants without the revenue generated by the elephants’ involvement in tourism. Without the income that elephants bring to the national parks, there would be little money for the upkeep of the parks and surrounding areas, as the Nepali Government has more demands on its limited resources than it can provide for.
At the very least, the re-introduction of the one-horned rhinoceros and Royal Bengal Tigers into the parks may not have been affordable. This has been an extremely successful conservation program. In Nepal, park rangers take elephants on patrols to look out for poachers, which has directly led to an increase in tiger and rhino populations. Nepal is now one of the few places in the world where rhino, tiger and elephant populations are actually increasing in the national parks.
The welfare of animals, humans and the general ecosystem is a difficult juggling act in any country, and particularly so in countries with extreme poverty, like Nepal. Though it is every traveller’s right — and duty — to avoid activities that they disagree with, credit should be given where it’s due in Nepal.
Editor’s Note: This article was redacted on March 2, 2016 to reflect additional information.