Because Nepal is a CITES signatory, the trade and sale of these endangered species is illegal. Yet, it continues unabated, and owners openly acknowledge this fact in newspaper articles and emails. No amount of description of peaceful jungle walks or ‘ethical’ activities will change the fact that the use of these animals for commercial purposes is illegal.
Until the government of Nepal enforces CITES there will be no effective changes. Owners should refrain from buying or selling elephants in the future, as a sign of their commitment to creating lasting changes in Sauraha. Visitors to the area should be aware of the laws surrounding elephant trade, and consider this fact when booking travel to areas advertising elephant tourism.
Currently, there are multiple plans in place to create a non-riding sanctuary in the Chitwan National Park area of Nepal, and NGOs such as Jane Goodall-Nepal and World Animal Protection have been in talks for years with the local elephant owner’s cooperative group about this issue.
If all owners agreed to stop tourist elephant riding, these organisations, and others, have indicated that there would be a great deal of financial support available. But because there have been holdouts among cooperative members, talks have stalled for the time being.
There is now discussion of a cooperatively-owned facility housing a few of the members’ elephants which will provide viewing of elderly individuals and riding of younger ones. However, this hardly fits the definition of a true sanctuary.
Instead, Sauraha has the unique opportunity to become a completely ride-free, chain-free venue due to the relatively small number of captive elephants, and the acknowledgement by owners that these elephants now require a change in treatment and management.
These owners have the chance to establish Sauraha as a more ethical tourism venue, while still creating income for themselves and maintaining employment opportunities for marginalised communities of mahouts. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Nepal, and the elephant owners, to create a world-recognised facility. Hopefully, owners will embrace this opportunity and create lasting changes in the elephant industry.
Luckily, there is already one smaller NGO in the Chitwan area working with local stakeholders to purchase elephants out of riding situations, and quietly transfer them to true sanctuaries. In addition, other organisations are working with hotel owners to lease elephants, keeping them off safari.
In addition, there are other ethical venues open for tourist visits. One way to ensure your destinations are animal-friendly or ethical is look at the access offered to living animals. If the venue allows human touching of animals, then it is best to avoid. Use your tourist dollars to support facilities that care about animal health and welfare. Look, but don’t touch.