World Animal Protection calls for better treatment : Elephant back rides frowned upon by tourists | Sunday Observer

World Animal Protection calls for better treatment : Elephant back rides frowned upon by tourists

7 May, 2017

“It is a great memory but the whole time I kept thinking, poor elephant”, said Marlyn FrØshaug from Norway who with her husband rode an elephant for the first time in their lives.

“I think elephant tourism in Sri Lanka could take a few pointers from South Africa. They should be witnessed from the wild. None of the business of being caged and used for economic reasons. They seemed overworked and tired. I understand that elephant owners do this for a living but there needs to be another way”, said FrØshaug who felt that having actually gotten over the myth of the elephant, she found the whole experience to be cruel and would not do it again.

She is not alone in her guilt, western tourists have in the past few years been calling for better treatment of elephants or the ban of elephant back rides in the countries they wish to visit.

Responsible travel

Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera

In 2016, the UK based animal protection organization, World Animal Protection (WAP) announced that over 100 travel companies worldwide had signed up to ‘stop elephant rides and shows’. They stated that major tour operators such as, “Travel Corporation, TUI Benelux, Thomas Cook Northern Europe and Intrepid Travel Group have agreed to stop selling and promoting venues with elephant rides and shows, in a bid to end the cruel practice”.

The UK based travel company, ‘Responsible Travel’ who had also signed up with WAP’s stance quoted their supplier in Sri Lanka ‘Tikalanka’ to have said, “We stopped promoting Pinnawala Elephant ‘Orphanage’ in Sri Lanka in 2005 when we were approached by the Born Free Foundation and became supporters of their global animal welfare campaign, Travellers’ Animal Alert. We always state our negative position regarding Pinnawala in our replies and most customers decide not to visit once they are made aware of animal welfare issues”.

While this campaign is mostly focused in Western Europe and the Americas, Sri Lankan tourism which had 30.7 percent of its tourist arrivals from Western Europe in 2016 has a lot to worry, as animal welfare, especially that of elephants, becomes a strong decision maker when choosing Sri Lanka as a destination to visit.

Elephant back rides

Despite a movement away from ‘elephant rides’ and ‘shows’, the local tourism industry has not taken note of the need to adapt. The Elephant Bay Hotel, located close to the Pinnawala Orphanage proudly advertises on their website, “Have your private elephant chauffeur pick you up from your room and take you on an elephant trek through jungles and rubber plantations”.

When the Sunday Observer contacted the Hotel’s management, they informed that they did not provide such a service but if a guest was interested, they could arrange it for them, “This is mostly for Chinese and Indian tourists”, said a staff member of the hotel.

UNP MP Sandith Samarasinghe is a member of the Samarasinghe family which runs the Millennium Elephant Foundation (MEF), a 15-acre estate known as ‘Samaragiri’ where abused captive elephants are treated and rescued. They allow tourists to ride the elephant under strict guidelines and use no harness on the elephant. The family has owned elephants since the 1960s and later on opened up the estate to the public as the, ‘Club Concept Elephant Bath’.

“The problem is, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority had a set of rules when it came to elephant riding places but the last regime didn’t implement it; it still hasn’t been implemented”, said Samarasinghe.

He explained, tour operators, especially, in the areas of Habarana used large wooden howdahs to carry at times up to six tourists which caused great harm to the elephant.

Director General W. S. K. 

“An elephant can only carry up to 200kg on its back, it has pulling power not carrying power. Even when you have three or four tourists it is more than 200kg and you also have the howdah made out of wood. With no protection, this cuts into the elephant’s back and causes abscesses”, he said.

“Sometimes, we see the howdah kept on the elephant throughout the day and the straps which go round the stomach and chest area is always tight. Elephants find it hard to breathe as their lungs are attached to their ribcage. They also have no proper veterinary care and are not checked every week”, he said.

Samarasinghe pointed out that at times, tour operators used bull elephants in ‘Musth’ for elephant rides. These aggressive elephants pose a danger to tourists.

At the Foundation, Samarasinghe’s family has chosen to promote tourism where tourists can watch the behaviour of the elephants rather than ride them,

“We have found that many prefer to watch them than ride them. Though traditional elephant keepers want them restrained, we have found that an elephant is less stressed without chains. When they eat and walk around without chains, they get less stressed, it is better for the elephant and is easier to manage”, he said.

According to Samarasinghe there are 127 registered elephants in captivity, mostly owned by private owners and temples, “The temples lend them out for tourism.

This has to be monitored. The SLTDA has to monitor them, and there are around 10 guidelines they issue when elephants are used for tourism, but these are not monitored or implemented”, he said.


The SLTDA issued guidelines five years ago for “Elephant Safari Tour Operations”.

It makes it mandatory for all elephant tour operators to register with the SLTDA and adhere to uphold basic requirements in ‘carrying passengers on tour’, ‘maintaining of elephant shed’, ‘using of elephants for safari’ and ‘the health condition of elephants’.

When the Sunday Observer inquired of the Deputy Director of the SLTDA, Chandana Wijeratne of the guidelines, he said, he was not aware of any guidelines and that the SLTDA at present did not have any, “We are yet to formulate guidelines. There are no guidelines in our website”, he said.

In 2009, the Animal Welfare Trust went to court over the President at the time, gifting two baby elephants; Sindhu and Raja from Pinnawala to the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy.

Sandith Samarasinghe M.P.

“The most important decision to come out of that was, the court asked the government to legislate to protect the welfare of captive elephants. At present we do not have any law to ensure the welfare of elephants in private custody”, said a member of the Animal Welfare Trust, Lalani Perera. The above legislation, she said was drafted by the Animal Welfare Trust, Attorney General’s Department and the Department of Wildlife last year, and approved by Cabinet, but is yet to be gazetted to come into effect.

Director General (DG), Wildlife Department, W.S.K Pathirathne said, they had sent the required regulations to courts and once a decision is given, they would gazette it, “We hope to make it illegal for elephants to be used for tourism purposes. If our regulations are approved, it will only be used for cultural purposes”, he said.

The DG however, noted that they could not check the welfare of every single captive elephant and, if there were complaints, they would be investigated. “Even the police can take action regarding that”, said Pathirathne.

A spokesperson from the Wildlife Department who wished to remain anonymous said, “As the Wildlife Department we do not exercise power beyond what is laid down as per the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. What we call for is the protection of wild elephants. It is not permitted to domesticate wild elephants for whatever reasons.

The tourism sector however is now venturing out more towards eco-tourism under which elephants are considered as a resource. It is important in striking a balance between these two aspects”, said the official.

Where is the gazette?

The Ministry of Sustainable Development and Wildlife however has been struggling to gazette the guidelines it drafted over year.

The draft touches on; how to maintain the elephant with its medical, nutritional and general wellbeing taken into account, the minimum space required to keep one, the need to register any new calves born to female elephants with the Wildlife Department, the maximum workload allowed for an elephant and guidelines to be followed when using them in the Perahera and other cultural events.

Minister of Sustainable Development and Wildlife, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera speaking to the Sunday Observer said, guidelines would be gazetted soon. Last week, he had approved a cabinet paper which would grant permission to give out elephants from Pinnawala to private individuals and institutions as the elephants in Pinnawala had exceeded the carrying capacity of the orphanage.

The cabinet paper which emphasized on temples being one of the main places where elephants would be given to, also stated that the elephants will only be sent to institutions which meet the ‘necessary basic requirements’.

“There is no outright sale of the elephant”, said the Minister and explained that the institutions will be identified through ‘public advertisement’ and a non-refundable financial bond of Rs 10 million.

“We will look into whether they can support and look after the animal and also for what they would be used. There will be strict rules, which if not complied with, we will take the animal back”, he said.

Contrary to the Wildlife DG, the Minister said they would introduce guidelines for tour operators along with the recently approved cabinet paper, “we want to work out rules and regulations for tour operators. The animals are being taken out on the roads in sweltering temperaturesat all times, this is ill-treatment and should be stopped”, he said.

“When we announced that we are going to take back elephants if we find them being used for elephant rides, almost 80 percent of the temples had taken back their elephants”, added the Minister as he admitted that the temples were already engaging in tourism activities.

But he believed that his officers would be able to monitor the temples with the new rules and there was no harm in giving the temples more elephants. The lack of monitoring by the officials however has been a major issue. Chairman of Species Conservation Centre, Pubudu Weerarathne observed that the amnesty period given to people who had not registered the ownership of elephants did not yield much, “Some have still failed to register ownership. Once we gather all these data on domestic elephants we can decide what needs to be done”, he said

“I would like to question the authorities; Pinnawala and Wildlife whether they continuously monitor the elephants previously given away to private ownership? How many such animals died of utter negligence by owners? What is the point in giving away more elephants and making guidelines never to come into practice?”, asked Dr Deepani Jayantha, veterinarian and Country Representative at Elemotion; an NGO which works on protecting wild Asian elephants.

“Elephant back safari is a dying art in Asia. Many countries try to establish elephant sanctuaries instead of safari operations because that is what modern tourists are after”, she added.


Maheshi Dissanayake, Lecturer on Tourism and Hospitality Management, Rajarata University too reiterated that Sri Lanka needed to promote alternative ways to experience elephant tourism.

Her research paper “Promoting Elephant Friendly Tourism in Sri Lanka” which indicated what alternatives can be explored as a result of the global campaign to ban elephant back riding, revealed that tourists were moving towards observing elephants in their natural habitat rather than riding them,

“When you take Tourism in Sri Lanka, it is positioned around the elephant. So you need to look at the options we would have, if there was to be a global ban on elephant back riding”, she said.

She added that while they did not observe a considerable drop in tourist arrivals due to last year’s campaign, there was a notable drop, “If the trend continues, it will certainly have an impact’, she said.

The research also highlighted that while the SLTDA did have various guidelines for elephant back safaris, they were not implemented or imposed.

She explained that you could not categorize ethical tourists to certain parts of the globe and that the world in general was moving towards sustainable tourism, “Even if you take places like Pinnawala, tourists have shown that they would prefer to visit if animals there are treated better. Better animal welfare will certainly attract more tourists and be better for the sustainability of our tourism industry”, said Dissnayake.