Why You Shouldn’t Visit It
The Main Activities in Tangkahan: Elephant Washing & Riding
The elephant sanctuary is a popular destination for travellers in Sumatra because of its proximity to Bukit Lawang – one of the best gateways in Sumatra to see orangutans. You can visit Tangkahan from Bukit Lawang on a day trip. While they are only 20 km apart from each other, the bumpy journey easily takes 2 hours.
At the Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary you can bath the elephants, ride the elephants or do both. These tours are offered twice a day: starting at 9:00h and at 14:00h.
The site positions itself as an ecotourism destination. And while it has actually started with good intentions to end illegal logging, it is not a true sanctuary in our view. The label is only used for greenwashing to cash in on people’s willingness to spend money in the name of environmental protection.
Elephant washing sounds innocent but requires physical and psychological “crushing”
Seemingly innocent interactions with elephants could already be very problematic. According to World Animal Protection the bathing is oftentimes stressful for the elephants, especially when dealing with groups of excited people.
But the real horror is the torture required to bring the elephants into submission to safely interact with tourists: A technique called “elephant crushing”. This includes forcibly taking elephant babies from their mothers, chaining and cruel beating to tame them.
Visitors can wash elephants in Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary. As beautiful as the selfies are, as brutal is the abuse it takes to get elephants into submission to show unnatural behaviour such as being washed by humans.
Elephant riding can cause permanent spinal injuries and depression
As strong as elephants look, their spines cannot support the weight of people. Doing so frequently can lead to permanent spinal injuries. There are further complications from having a chair attached to their backs which painfully rubs on their backs and cause blisters that can become infected.
Moreover, elephants are a lot like humans: They socialize, have families and friends, feel pain and happiness. When they are in trekking camps, they are separated from their herd and can get depressed.
Visitors can ride elephants in Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary. This can cause permanent injuries on the elephant’s back as it is too weak to carry things.
Animals in a real sanctuary live in freedom with little human contact
Ethical wildlife sanctuaries care for animals that have been rescued from abusive situations. The end goal should be to release them again in the wild (as has been done with many orangutans around Bukit Lawang). And when the animals are too traumatised or injured to ever return to the wild again they should live in the camp in as much freedom as possible with little human contact.
As there should never be any physical contact between visitors and elephants, ethical elephant camps work on an observation-only model. This still provides jobs and a valuable income to local people while it genuinely helps elephants in need.
Do proper research before visiting a wildlife sanctuary
Unfortunately there are a lot of shady sanctuaries like in Tangkahan. But that doesn’t mean there you can’t find an ethical sanctuary to visit.
Do your own research and make sure your once-in-a-life-time elephant experience is not based on a lifetime elephant torture. Ignore the self-labelling and beware that even tour agencies do not always know. There are many genuine orangutan tour companies in Bukit Lawang that offer tours also to Tangkahan simply because it is the thing to do and they just never thought of the unethical side of elephant riding and washing.
The first and easiest step is to check if the elephant sanctuary you’re thinking of visiting is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. If it isn’t it does not yet mean that it is shady. Read reviews and contact the sanctuary with a lot of questions. One yes to these questions could already be a red flag:
- Do the elephants perform for visitors (such as painting or standing)?
- Can visitors feed, wash, ride or touch elephants?
- Are the baby elephants separated at times from their mother?
- Are the elephants chained (usually at nights)?
- Are the elephants bought (instead of rescued)?
- Do they use bullhooks against elephants in any circumstances?
But despite a thorough research you may still end up in an unethical sanctuary. In that case, help fellow travellers by leaving a review and posting photos or videos. In some cases it will even motivate the camps to improve their practices.
A British family enjoys a photo shoot with juvenile elephants at Lucky Beach on Phuket, Thailand. Many travelers, unaware of the training the elephants endure, view such picturesque experiences as the highlight of their trip. Source: National Geographic Channel.
We have written this article because we belief in the power of ecotourism and it hurts to see greenwashing attempts undermine the true ecotourism concept.
It is not uncommon that animal camps that chain and abuse animals label themselves as sanctuaries to lure more visitors. Unfortunately, it is a very simple and successful strategy that unaware travellers easily fall for.
Could you help us spread the word, protect travellers from a big disappointment and help them choose true ecotourism destinations to support environmentally friendly initiatives? You help a lot by sharing this article with your network.