Do wildlife safaris benefit Asian elephant conservation? By Kylie Butler

Through my PhD work in Sri Lanka, I’m lucky enough to visit Wasgamuwa National Park almost weekly, to observe and collect elephant data. This is a beautiful and wild park in Central Sri Lanka with a healthy elephant population, and is not as frequented by tourists as more well-known destinations such as Yala and Minneriya National Parks. I’ve had magical days in the park surrounded by elephant families feeding and meandering by, calves rolling in the mud, and strong solitary bulls checking the females out. Unfortunately, I’ve also had less than magical days where the foolish actions of drivers causes elephants to become stressed and disturbed, repeatedly running away from, or charging at, vehicles.

An elephant family disturbed by a vehicle approaching too quickly and too close, and walking directly towards the car

An elephant family disturbed by a vehicle approaching too quickly and too close, and walking directly towards the car

It is these observations of both human and elephant behaviour that have left me thinking – does this type of Jeep Safari tourism really benefit wildlife? There is no question that money generated from National Park tourism can benefit a countries economy, thus provoking governments to perceive a financial incentive to protecting the parks inhabitants – of which in Sri Lanka, elephants are the most well-known, majestic and easily viewable of the terrestrial mammals. Placing this type of financial value on wild elephant populations can encourage governments to implement conservation planning and to ensure the animals continue to benefit the country in the future. I personally think that the elephants intrinsic value as an elephant is more than enough reason for protection. However, governments tend to speak a language of money, and financial benefits can be a key influencing factor for those who devise the management plans and regulations that can make or break the future of elephants. The more importance that is placed on elephants in the wild, the more incentive there is for governments to stop the illegal capture of baby elephants, to actively implement human-elephant conflict mitigation plans, and to manage the National Parks well – all vital factors in securing a future for wild Asian elephants.

Sri Lanka is home to Asia’s second largest wild elephant population, and being a small island boasts the highest density of wild Asian elephants. The numerous, aesthetically breath-taking National Park’s offer a unique opportunity for tourists to see elephants up-close in the wild, akin to the safari experience so revered across Africa. Theoretically, a well-managed park system could have a multitude of benefits to elephant conservation. People would experience the awe-inspiring wonder of watching elephants just being elephants: socialising; caring for their floppy and uncoordinated young; trunk wrestling in a game of strength; rhythmically feeding on grass. From bulls to small families and huge herds – you can see it all. No chains, no circus tricks, no unethical rides on busy roads. Just the sights, smells and sounds of the elephants natural world. This is an incomparable opportunity to educate people about elephants and their role in an ecosystem, and to generate money for wildlife management and conservation through park tourism.      

A family of elephants interacting in Wasgamuwa NP. It was a real privilege to watch this family of elephants doing what they do best - just being elephants in the wild.

A family of elephants interacting in Wasgamuwa NP. It was a real privilege to watch this family of elephants doing what they do best - just being elephants in the wild.

Sadly, my personal experiences over the last year and a half, and stories shared by other researchers and tourists, show that the safari experience all too often deviates from the idyllic description above. Many trackers, guides and drivers appear to have little knowledge of an elephants behaviour, and are either oblivious to, or deliberately disregard, any guidelines about responsible safari tourism. It is not unusual in parks such as Yala and Minneriya to see up to 20 vehicles surrounding elephants, often blocking their path to road crossings or water tanks, and even separating mothers and calves. One bold bull in Yala has learned to wait at a certain point on the road which cars have to pass, and to poke his trunk into safari vehicles looking for food, and refusing to leave without a treat. This behaviour is 100% driven by humans, and if one day, the bull isn’t happy with what’s on offer and flips a car, he will likely be killed or captured as a ‘problem’ animal. In Wasgamuwa National Park, I see drivers speeding up to elephants, startling them and ignoring all common warning signals that the elephant is upset. Often if an elephant charges, the driver will reverse back up to them, causing more elephants to join in the charge. Tourists must take their fair share of the blame also, as many tip generously for this type of close-up, adrenaline pumping encounter. It is no wonder some elephants are becoming less tolerant, rather than more relaxed, around vehicles.

There is nothing fun or nice about making an elephant feel threatened in its own home. Here in Sri Lanka, human-elephant conflict is the single biggest threat to elephant conservation. People and elephants come into conflict all too frequently, as elephant habitat diminishes, and elephants enter communities to raid crops at nights. The National Parks should be a safe haven for elephants, a place they want to be. Sri Lanka needs strict park rules and regulations that are enforced not just printed on a piece of paper. Tourists need to know the do’s and don’ts of park etiquette prior to beginning a safari and can lay down their own laws too, by expressing their desire to view the elephants natural behaviour and not disturb them. Drivers, trackers and guides must be educated in wildlife behaviour, tourism and conservation.

Photo by Lauren E. Ross

Photo by Lauren E. Ross

 Guides and tourists have encouraged this bull to approach cars for treats. Surrounding by multiple cars, he buries his trunk into the back of jeeps searching for food. Many safari guides and drivers encourage this behavior to give their tourists a unique experience. This is extremely dangerous as the bull will not leave until he receives food now and ambushes cars. Note the front left tyre of the car lifted up, as the bull uses his head and tusks to push on the car until he is satisfied with his treats. Photo by Lauren E. Ross

 Guides and tourists have encouraged this bull to approach cars for treats. Surrounding by multiple cars, he buries his trunk into the back of jeeps searching for food. Many safari guides and drivers encourage this behavior to give their tourists a unique experience. This is extremely dangerous as the bull will not leave until he receives food now and ambushes cars. Note the front left tyre of the car lifted up, as the bull uses his head and tusks to push on the car until he is satisfied with his treats. Photo by Lauren E. Ross

A protected area should be a place where the needs and welfare of the wildlife is unquestionably the highest priority. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of safari tourism becoming just another detrimental source of fuel in the human-elephant conflict inferno.

I’d be very interested to hear the experiences and opinions of others lucky enough to visit Asia’s wild elephants, and to share ideas on how we can improve park tourism to the benefit of all stakeholders across all species involved.