Travelling is an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in other cultures, and to form a global perspective. But are you enjoying local experiences at the cost of animal welfare?

I confess: a few years ago, I rode an elephant in Cambodia without really realising my impact on the elephants. They seemed to be treated well enough, with water and rest. But then I noticed an elephant swaying sideways, and I knew something was wrong.

Swaying sideways is how elephants show their frustration and desolation. It is only seen in captive elephants.


Instead of elephant trekking… help them and travel by other means.

Elephants are sensitive and intelligent beings. In many countries, including Thailand and Cambodia, elephant trekking is promoted misleadingly as an ethical and even eco-friendly activity. Elephants that paint are seen as cute. But how are they taught to be ridden and to paint?

To break the elephants’ spirits, a method called phajaan is often used, where the animals are starved, beaten, tortured with bull hooks and separated from their mothers. Elephants in the wild live into their 70s but, as rides, they can die in their 30s. This is a problem faced by Asian elephants across Southeast Asia.

Happily, there are ethical alternatives. In Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai provides a place for people to help rescued and previously abused elephants. Wash elephants, watch them roam and appreciate animals without riding them. Travel by hiking, rickshaw, or even Segway.


Instead of paying for photos with wild animals… visit them in animal sanctuaries and gain a rich experience.

In some countries, vendors offer photographs with exotic animals, for a price. A simple photograph might seem harmless, but think about what led the animal there. Since baby animals make the most bank, these are often poached from their mothers, drugged and declawed. For many of these animals that thrive in the wild, their population declines.

Slow lorises, for instance, are endangered, nocturnal, extremely sensitive to sound and happen to be incredibly adorable. Tourists still take photographs with them, and some even try to raise these wild animals as domestic pets. As the Right Tourism website mentions, each photo keeps the industry alive.

Animal sanctuaries often allow a limited number of visitors to reduce animal distress, and provide a happy sanctuary for animals that have been abused before. At the Ciapus Primate Centre in Java, Indonesia, for instance, you’ll be able to observe the animals and take part in their care. This is the country’s only slow loris rescue and rehabilitation centre, run by The International Animal Rescue.


Instead of going to zoos and aquariums, and observing animal performances… visit conservation projects and animal shelters

You’ve probably heard that bullfighting isn’t great for bulls (to say the least). They are killed for entertainment in Spain. Maybe you know of the highly distressed, people-eating killer whale from Seaworld, star of the documentary Blackfish. Animal circuses in the United States are another form of cruelty.  Many trainers use whips, electric prods and bullhooks and the animals spend most of their lives in cages. This harms them physically and psychologically, causing arthritis, infections and severe distress.

If you’re uncomfortable with contributing to any practices involving animal abuse, regardless of country or culture, you’ll agree that adding to animal distress is unacceptable.


Research your place of travel: local traditions

The best way to determine your impact on animals and the environment during your travels is education. Find destinations and activities that have a proven track record of good animal treatment. If your trip is more spontaneous, even a quick Google search would help.

Be curious, ask questions, and use your own judgement. Do the animals look well cared for? Have the animals been drugged or injured? Is the organisation responsible, taking steps towards conservation and ensuring safe animal welfare?

You can also take the Right Tourism pledge.

I’m glad to say that I’ve learned so much since that seemingly innocent elephant ride.  If you choose to, you can travel well and also support healthy, happy animals.