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Money vs morality: Tourism’s conundrum

Knysna Elephant Park had previously been a shining star in the local tourism firmament, offering a range of activities for visitors including close encounters, rides and even ‘sleepovers’ with elephants. It owned and ran the Elephants of Eden sanctuary in the Eastern Cape, a facility which was subsequently merged with the operation in Knysna.

A herd of adult and baby elephants walks in the dawn light across Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, with the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, seen in the background.

The NSPCA laid criminal charges against both operations, their directors and management, and one would be forgiven for thinking that this marked the end of the road for this type of tourism activity, and particularly Knysna Elephant Park/Elephants of Eden.

More than six months down the line, nothing could be further from the truth.

A quick phone call to Knysna Elephant Park reveals that business is booming, with elephant activities and tours taking place every day. Rides are so popular that it is imperative to book in advance.

Indeed, Tripadvisor, the digital sage of all things tourism, has given Knysna Elephant Park a Certificate of Excellence for the past two years running, and reviewers trip over themselves to sing its praises, ranking it No. 2 of 23 attractions in and around Knysna.

Keepers ride on white elephants as they walk through dense vegetation in an enclosure near Uppatasanti Pagoda in Naypyitaw November 10, 2014. Five white elephants, seen as sacred signs of good fortune, peace and wealth in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar are kept near Uppatasanti Pagoda in Naypyitaw. Yangon lost its status as Myanmar's capital in 2005, after the former military junta carved a new seat of government from a parched wilderness some 380 km (236 miles) to the north and called it Naypyitaw ("Abode of Kings"). This week, Naypyitaw will have its coming out party as world leaders, including United States President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, attend meetings organised around a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Picture taken November 10, 2014. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (MYANMAR - Tags: POLITICS)

‘The onus is on tour operators to make the decision not to sell unethical products but in the current economic climate, money wins over morality every time,’ she adds.

‘What we need is for the tourism industry at large to take more responsibility where activities like elephant interactions and lion petting experiences are concerned. Many operators do not know what these animals go through in order to entertain. Even if they do, they are not educating tourists or giving them the information they need to make an informed decision about where to spend their money.’

Willson says that it has fallen to the NSPCA to try and ‘police”’this segment of the tourism industry. ‘We have some of the strongest animal legislation in the world, but enforcement of it is our biggest challenge, especially with our limited resources. We are also heavily reliant on our judicial system, which moves very slowly,’ she says.

The Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA) says better educating tour operator members to choose ethical and responsible products to sell to clients is a priority.

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