Sri Lanka, ethical tourism and the elephant issue

Those of you who follow my Instagram and Facebook feeds will be well aware that I have been on the road recently, eating and hiking my way through the lush green of Sri Lanka. What I expected and what I found there were two vastly different things.

Sri Lanka is a tiny drop of an island, lying just off the southern tip of India. The landscapeย is dominated by mountains and tea plantations, the people are warm and inviting and the food is surprisingly devoid of overpowering chilli. Lanka is a bio hotspot, with an astonishing number of endemic plant and animal species which are under threat as habitats are flattened to make way for urban sprawl and farmland.

Watching locals and tourists alike in wilderness areas, it was easy for me to sit back and pass judgement on the mistakes made and places that could use some improvement in their responsible travel aims. Travel is very much headed in a more ethical and responsible direction, and if Sri Lanka truly wants to make tourism their primary industry by 2020 then they have a ways to go in this department.

From my many trips to Africa, you’ve probably guessed that I like my wildlife to be exactly that – wild. Elephants have occupied a special place in Sri Lankan culture for centuries. In ancient times they were considered Crown property and to kill an elephant was a terrible offence. Elephant iconography is evident in most major temples and ruins, and legend has it that it was elephants that stamped down the foundations of the oldest temples in Sri Lanka; the ruins can be found at Anuradhapura. Today elephant are still held in high regard, even those in captivity; the male tusker that carries the scared tooth relic in Kandy’s Esala Perahera festival is probably the most revered of all.


Despite being the symbol of Sri Lanka, elephant numbers are dwindling. During the Colonial years, British big-game hunting was ridiculously popular, and the extent of the hunting delivered a huge blow to numbers across the country. Today experts seems to agree that there are approximately 3000-4000 wild elephant, about half of which live in protected national parks. But what of the domesticated numbers?

My research puts the numbers of domesticated or captive elephants at around 300-500. For me, that’s 300-500 too many. We know what happens to captive animals. They don’t usually live as long, especially when forced to carry large loads of visiting white tourists. Fun fact, elephant actually struggle to hold up their own weight. In the wild, you can often see them resting one foot up while balancing on the other three – this isn’t something they do for fun. It’s the elephant equivalent to girls taking off their high heels after a night out on the town. They do it to ease the pain.


In addition to the dwindling numbers, elephants in Sri Lanka face a similar issues as their brothers in Africa. Farming and elephants don’t mix. Farmers who have set up in elephant country face huge issues with elephant eating or trampling crops, destroying buildings, and even taking farmers’ lives. During the cultivation season, you’ll see farmers keeping round-the-clock watch by rotation on their lands, sitting in tiny tree houses with fire crackers and shooting them at marauding elephant in the middle of the night. For the nation’s poor, losing their yearly crop to elephants is a situation that simply cannot afford.

But how can the issues be solved?ย 

Don’t ride them to start. Refuse to patronise places where elephants are kept in chains, or poked with mean looking sticks. Trust me, if it looks like it hurts; then it definitely does. No matter what the guy with the stick says. When visiting them in protected national parks, go with an accredited guide, and make sure he doesn’t drive too close to them since this will just cause stress on the animal. Use your visit to the national park to learn about local conservation projects in the area, and give generously. Reward ethical animal treatment by locals when you see it, and speak up against mistreatment when you see that. If joining a group tour, ensure you research your options prior to booking to ensure you travel with a reputable company with a strong responsible tourism background.

Sri Lanka is still a developing tourism industry, and it is up to us as travellers to demand ethical and responsible treatment of animals now, while the country is still growing.