Martin Clunes row: Elephant tourism – what’s ethical and what’s not?

Martin Clunes is under fire after he was filmed riding an elephant for a TV show. Not only is elephant riding unethical, but the actor was also a celebrity patron of animal welfare charity, Born Free – a role he has now been dropped from.

Clunes was widely criticised for his actions on ITV’s My Travels and Other Animals by charities and viewers. Born Free’s chief executive, Howard Jones, confirmed to The Mirror that ties had been severed with the 57-year-old since the controversial footage emerged.

“Born Free has always been opposed to the exploitation of captive wild animals for entertainment and human interactions, including riding elephants,” he says.

Programme viewers took to Twitter to express their surprise, and condemn Clunes’ decision to climb on top of an Asian elephant in captivity, and then ride the animal.

“I was shocked to see the recent footage of Martin Clunes clambering aboard an elephant on his show,” says CEO of Responsible Travel, Justin Francis. “As an animal lover I’d have thought he would be aware of the ethics of riding these wild animals, as well as the methods used to train them.

“Elephant back riding is not an ethical means of conserving these endangered creatures, but it is, in fact, precipitating their extinction in the wild.”

In the wild, elephants live in herds and walk many miles a day. The reality is though, lots of countries – including Thailand, India, Cambodia and Laos – have booming elephant tourism industries, from offering rides to performances, and opportunities to get up close to the animals. And you only have to look at Instagram for proof that travellers are still participating.

But to make elephants submissive enough for these interactions with humans, animal charities say they’re often treated cruelly, and then kept captive with little space, inadequate food and water, suffer injuries and often die early.

Elephants in the wild (iStock/PA)

“These days, no animal lover would dream of purchasing ivory, yet riding an elephant while on holiday could ultimately have the same impact on elephant populations,” says Francis. “The more elephants that are taken from their natural habitat to supply temples, sanctuaries and camps, the smaller their chances of survival.”

Genuine elephant sanctuaries – in theory a place rescued elephants, or former working elephants, can live in peace – do exist, but the term is being exploited by some operations.

So how do you know if the animals are being helped and protected, or held purely for the pleasure of tourists and to make money?

“Sadly, there are no regulations regarding the treatment of captive elephants across Asia, so you will need to do more than just look at the name of the place you’re visiting to know what goes on in each location,” says Francis. “Despite the name, many sanctuaries and orphanages use chains, and their elephants are forced to perform or give rides – so we strongly advise you do some research, and look at their website, along with review sites to see what other travellers have to say.”

Ideally, the best way to see elephants is in their natural habitat of course. Francis advises you see the animals “in the wild with expert guides who ensure you don’t just see the animal, you learn about it, understand its behaviour and the issues involved in its conservation.”

He says: “Many holiday companies also donate a percentage of the cost of each tour to supporting local wildlife charities or research efforts – in an attempt to conserve the very thing you are travelling there to see. Look for trips where the wildlife is put first, not the tourist, and if you don’t feel comfortable, then often it can be best to stay away.”

Thankfully, he says the types of attractions offering elephant riding are becoming less popular as we all become more aware of the ethical issues.

“It’s having a ripple effect, and we’re starting to see a change with elephant riding being phased out from some of the bigger outfits – and that’s down to tourists making their feelings towards this activity strongly felt,” he says.

If you’re not sure, use an ethical operator to book your trips, who’ve done all the research for you. Only genuine sanctuaries – all of which have been screened – are featured on the Responsible Travel website, so you know you can enjoy the experience, fully in the knowledge that you’re not contributing to the poor treatment of elephants.

- Press Association

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