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Elephant Rides Have a Dark Side. Is Your Vacation Booking Site To Blame?

A U.K.-based research company just investigated 10 top travel booking sites — including Airbnb, Expedia, Groupon, and TripAdvisor — and ranked them on how much they support notoriously cruel vacation experiences, like elephant rides The results might surprise you. 

We’ll get to those in a minute. But first, a brief overview of the problem: If you’ve spent much time on adventure travel instagram in the last few years, you’ve probably seen photos of influencers posing with adorable exotic animals. Maybe they were bathing elephants in Indonesia or petting tigers while visiting Thailand. From the outside, it probably looks pretty harmonious. But behind the scenes, it’s anything but. 

The dark side of elephant rides

According to a new report from wildlife advocacy nonprofit World Animal Protection, these kinds of animal encounters almost always involve some kind of cruelty, and different travel booking services tolerate that cruelty to varying degrees. 

For one thing, the report states, cub-petting operations usually force female big cats into back-to-back pregnancies so that the facility always has a supply of baby animals on hand. Once the tigers or lions are grown up, they’re either killed, kept in cages, or sold in the illegal pet trade. Likewise, elephants used for rides and bathing experiences are almost always mistreated. According to the report, they’re often trained via beating when they’re young and kept in chains when not in use. 

Tiger petting experiences usually involve cruelty behind the scenes. Image by webphotographeer/Getty

Where travel booking sites come in

While some travel booking sites prohibit animal encounters known to be inhumane — like posing with caged primates or riding captive elephants — other sites allow and even encourage customers to book those kinds of trips. Some have in-depth policies around animal cruelty. Some have none at all.  

According to the University of Surrey, which conducted the investigation, California-based company The Travel Corporation and global brand Airbnb ranked highest. Both have policies in place to screen out experiences that involve animal cruelty, though even they aren’t perfect. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got companies like Groupon, which don’t have any animal cruelty measures in place. In other words, they don’t do much to prevent travelers from booking vacation experiences involving animal cruelty. 

Here are the overall scores for all the companies featured in the study: 

The Travel Corporation: 75%
Airbnb: 67%
Expedia: 64%
TUI Musement: 51%
Booking.com: 48%
Tripadvisor Viator: 44%
GetYourGuide: 7%
Trip.com: 6%
Klook: 4%
Groupon: 4%

What you can do

Shopping around for reputable tour operators is important. But if you don’t want to support animal cruelty, the easiest thing to do is to avoid up-close animal encounters in the first place.

“Travelers will be misled to assume that these activities are acceptable or even beneficial for animals,” the report warns, “When in fact they are cruel and cause irreparable and lifelong harm.” Instead, look for baby animals in the wild with an ethical safari company. Or find a bonafide wildlife refuges that takes care of injured animals — and only let visitors view them from afar.

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