The unseen costs of elephant tourism
Isabelle Gray interrogates the wildlife industry’s ongoing abuse of elephants, and poses what we can do to help
After a long-haul flight, and a two-hour car journey, I had reunited with my friend who had moved to Sri Lanka. Myszka, who had gone to Sri Lanka to volunteer on an elephant project for a week, came back with the news he would soon be moving there permanently, to be the new project lead. On the car journey over, it was golden hour. Admittedly, I was very sleep-deprived, and I recall it hazily, but I remember looking out to the streets of Sri Lanka and remarking at its utter vibrancy. It felt like a simultaneously colourful, busy and relaxing place to be. I was so excited to see my friend again, and to meet someone now very important in his life, Mali.
Myszka runs the project, Elephant Care Relief Foundation (ECRF), with Amarasiri, who founded the project and invited Myszka to run it with him. Myszka lives with Amarasiri and his family. Currently, ECRF rents an elephant called Mali, aged 38. She is a beautiful, loving animal who loves sweetbread. ECRF invites volunteers around the globe to come and stay with Amarasiri and Myszka, to help bathe and collect food for Mali. They also provide a unique experience in getting to know Sri Lanka’s traditions, attractions and cultures. From the first day, I could feel Myszka and Amarasiri’s love for Mali, and their determination to give her the freedom and life she deserves.
Exploitation and the domestication of elephants is an ongoing issue in Asia. The World Animal Protection (WAP) assessed almost 3,000 elephants and found more than three quarters living in ‘severely cruel’ conditions. They’re bound with chains less than 3m long and stand, forced, on concrete floors close to loud roads, crowds and music. Back-riding is a common feature of wildlife tourism, where people pay to sit and ride on elephants’ backs, taking Instagram photos for all the world to see. What they often don’t know is how painful this labour is for elephants, and the brutality they face living in such conditions. Many elephants are taken away from their mothers as babies and are privy to harsh training and terrible living conditions for life.
At ECRF’s project, Myszka told the volunteers and me how methodically and systematically-concealed animal suffering is. There is much false advertising, where a sense of wellbeing is projected, showing photos and videos of their elephants being washed and fed regularly. Myszka explained that elephants don’t require cleaning as frequently as they are, and owners, including Mali’s, insist on their elephants to be washed daily ‘to look in pristine condition.’ Moreover, this constant routine of washing enforces elephants to be more obedient. Without this information, many volunteers and travellers are ignorant of these conditions and therefore, blindly continue to support these companies that pass off as ethical projects. ECRF endeavours to raise awareness and bring an end to elephant brutality in Sri Lanka.
Because ECRF doesn’t currently own Mali, they have no choice but to obtain rules like cleaning her every day. As a domesticated elephant, she is far more at risk to infections as she hasn’t had the proper upbringing and environment for her body to learn to fight them off naturally.
Speaking to Myszka recently, he explained how if the project doesn’t have enough volunteers for a certain period, they cannot afford to pay for Mali, and the owners will take them to people who do have enough money to pay for her. In this time, this will include Mali having to do labour in forests or put back-riding places. Elephants are investments and can be very profitable when rented out monthly. All these owners care about is the money they receive, not the welfare of Mali.
Making enough money to ensure Mali isn’t rented out to others can sometimes prove difficult for small charities like ECRF. After the Sri Lanka terrorist attack in April 2019, tourism in Sri Lanka took a massive hit, especially to ECRF. Once ECRF makes enough money, they can buy Mali, and run the first genuine elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka. They plan on having a large flock of land where Mali, and hopefully, other elephants can be fed and looked after while living as freely as possible.
Animals cannot speak up on their pain, so it’s our job to do it for them.
In ECRF’s future, Mali will only be washed twice a week instead of daily. Volunteers will help gather food, clean the spaces the elephants will sleep, and have experience days to do white water rafting, and climb up the bible rock. The dream, as Myszka tells me, is to buy a baby elephant, and break the habits of the violent domestication suppressed onto them from birth, before it is too late.
The wildlife industry manipulates people’s curiosity and love for animals to make a profit on exploiting animals. The critical part to the industry’s economy is keeping the lie alive that the animal’s tourists are seeing are happy, safe and loved.
Animals cannot speak up on their pain, so it’s our job to do it for them. People like Myszka and the ECRF dedicate themselves into doing this and giving animals the life they deserve. If a person walked around with a chain on their leg, being beaten and yelled at, used as a performance prop, we would (now) say something about it. It’s time to do that for elephants, and other animals used as a profit machine for wildfire tourism.
If you’d like to donate to ECRF and help contribute to a happier future for Mali, click here for their gofundme link.
If you’d like to volunteer and meet Mali, this is their website: https://www.elephantcarerelief.com/