Why You Shouldn’t Visit It
The Main Activities in Tangkahan: Elephant Washing & Riding
The Elephant Camp 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 Camp 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.
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.
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.
Elephants are chained in the Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary.
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.
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.
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.
A mahout in Tangkahan removes the feces of constipated elephant by hand.
The Tangkahan elephants are structurally stressed and therefore they have chronic constipation. An inconvenient consequence is that the mahouts in Tangkahan put their arms in the anus of the elephants to remove their feces.
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 the Tangkahan Elephant Camp. 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.
There is Hope…
Since we had published this post a several years ago, the Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary decided to no longer offer elephant riding tours to travellers to address repeated complaints.
This is a fantastic first step and it shows how powerful travelers are! When travellers no longer actively support an organization that mistreats elephants, it is in the sanctuary’s financial interest to treat them better.
However, not offering elephant rides is not enough. Elephants are still ridden by their carers, the mothers are still separated from their children, and they are still beaten and chained into submission.
The most powerful thing that we can do is to bombard Tangkahan Elephant Camp with emails about why we will not visit them, and what they should change in their behaviour for us to reconsider. For the sake of impact, remain polite when explaining your issues with their treatments. You can contact their office via WhatsApp on the number +62 813-9624-2503.
No inspiration what to write? Here’s an example.
Dear Tangkahan Elephant Camp,
As an animal lover, I was looking forward to visit an elephant sanctuary during my visit to Sumatra. Since there aren’t many elephant sanctuaries in Sumatra I came across of your organization.
It is with enthusiasm that I have read about your recent decision to no longer offer elephant ride tours. I applaud this development. However, it is with sadness that I read that your carers still ride elephants, that elephants are sometimes chained and that the mothers are separated from their children. It is for this reason that I have decided to not visit your sanctuary.
I kindly advice you to reconsider the treatment of the elephants. Besides this being the morally just thing to do, it would also be in your financial interest since travellers increasingly look for eco-friendly activities. Please let me know whenever you have adopted a more elephant-friendly treatment, so that we can support your organization with a joyful visit the next time we are around.
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.