Elephant rides

If you’re trying to live ethically but you’ve also been bitten by the travel bug, making sure your globe-trotting adventures fit with your ethical lifestyle can be a challenge.

I’m ashamed to admit that while I was travelling in Cambodia I selfishly overlooked a crucial ethical issue in favour of ticking something off my bucket list – an elephant ride at the Angkor Temples. Deep down I knew I shouldn’t be supporting this activity, but it was so easy to get carried away in the excitement of seeing one of my favourite animals up close.

Elephant rides at Angkor have recently hit the headlines as the death of elderly female Sambo highlighted their poor working conditions. Sambo had been providing tourist rides in a 40 degree heatwave and sadly veterinarians concluded that her death was caused by the hot temperatures which caused stress, shock, high blood pressure and a heart attack.

Sambo, who was believed to be 40-45 years old, died from a heart attack while ferrying two tourists to the temple.

Sambo, who was believed to be 40-45 years old, died from a heart attack while ferrying two tourists to the temple.

Several tour companies have stopped promoting elephant rides, and the charity World Animal Protection has named the activity as the top most cruel holiday activity you can do.

Asian elephants are classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conversation of Nature, and there are around 70 domesticated elephants in Cambodia. Elephants are incredible creatures and seeing them up close and interacting with them was an unforgettable experience – but knowing now about the poor conditions and cruel treatment they are subject to I wish I could take it back.

Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary

Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary

There are alternative options if you want to encounter elephants while you’re travelling, at places like hospitals which treat injured animals and sanctuaries which rescue them. Make sure you research their ethical credentials too, but you’ll find that these encounters are usually much more animal friendly.

Unfortunately, as with most ethical issues, this one isn’t as straight forward as it seems. A complete ban on making money from elephants isn’t necessarily the most ideal solution. Elephants have been used as working animals in Asia for centuries and the Mahouts that own them wouldn’t have any income or way of supporting the elephants if a ban is put in place. Instead, pressure needs to be put on the governments to help them diversify. In Thailand a scheme has been announced which will pay the Mahouts to take their elephants into the jungle to roam free instead of using them commercially.

Elephant Nature Park is a unique project set in Chiang Mai province, Northern Thailand.

Elephant Nature Park is a unique project set in Chiang Mai province, Northern Thailand.

Unfortunately I can’t take back my elephant ride, but I can educate myself on the issues, sign the petition and help raise awareness for other travellers. In future I’ll be researching the activities before I go and I’ll definitely be planning a more ethical itinerary for future trips

If you’ve taken part in a tourist activity and later learnt about it’s less than ethical credentials, don’t beat yourself up. There’s a lot of issues to consider when it comes to living ethically, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed.

For many developing countries in particular the tourist industry is essential to livelihoods, and it’s important to try and support local producers and businesses when you’re travelling. Many organisations around the world support people to diversify into more sustainable and ethical practices and support local producers to build their own businesses, including fashion producers.

My top tip for anyone trying to travel ethically is to research as much as you can before you go. Check out the activities you want to take part in and try and find more sustainable activities or local organisations you can support too – you never know what treasures you’ll find!

It was through Instagram while I was travelling that I learned that most of the souvenirs available in the Cambodian markets are actually imported from Vietnam where they are mass produced in factories. This doesn’t benefit local artisans or support Cambodian producers, but by researching and connecting with local organisations through social media I was able to find out about more ethical, local projects where I could purchase sustainable souvenirs and clothes to bring back from my trip.

It didn’t take much time to do the research and I actually came home with better quality items and a story to tell because I’d met the people who had made my clothes, artwork and jewellery. (That’s actually how the idea for our sustainable fashion business Little Lotus Boutique was born. Check out the full story here.

Have you got any tips for travelling ethically or supporting local business? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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About the Author

Sian is a love of travel, fashion and all things ethical. She is one of the founders of Little Lotus Boutique, supporting artisans and championing handmade, ethical garments from across the globe. She lives and blogs in the UK but rarely sits still and can often be found with a backpack on exploring a different corner of the world!

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