News | Elephant ambassador investigates eco-tourism and conservation

Alex Leonard, elephant ambassador

I’ve been advocating for elephant wellbeing across Asia since 2012, earning me the title of elephant ambassador.

Jodi Thomas, co-founder of the renowned elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre in Northern Thailand, Elephant Nature Park, honoured me with the title of “Elephant Ambassador” in 2013. 

My research and upcoming documentary is seen through an environmental lens, looking at the impact of ecotourism on conservation efforts.

Cambodia and Sri Lanka are the focus of my academic research, given both countries are recovering from historically recent civil conflicts. 

They are more open to attracting tourists into the country in order to restore the economy and help those impacted by the war who lost their livelihoods.

As Cambodia and Sri Lanka are rapidly developing and becoming more Westernized, opening their doors to tourism, there’s a need for economically and environmentally sound policies. 

The aim of my research is to discover ways to help protect the wild elephant populations from rampant tourism and international development’s ecological destruction. 

The purpose of my report is to focus on the conservation tactics tactics that are mitigating damage from well meaning eco-tourists who flock these developing countries in unsustainable numbers, looking for an authentic experience with wild animals, particularly elephants.

Photo by Krystal Millo

I have personally been to Cambodia and Sri Lanka for field research to investigate the mutually beneficial relationships that elephants have with the ecosystem and local actors. 

Elephants are endangered in both countries and face rising deaths and injuries from a loss of Protected Areas.

The ecosystem in Sri Lanka is full of wild species, many of which are endangered due to human development in Protected Areas and the rise of ecotourists visiting these environmentally fragile habitats. 

Not allowing Sri Lankans to enter National Parks while inviting international tourists on jeep safaris is not an ideal solution, but is sadly the reality.  

Working towards a sustainable future with all invested parties is the best course of action to ensure the livelihood of local actors and wildlife can be preserved for their own wellbeing, first and foremost.

One key solution under investigation from a multi-dimensional lens is Payment for Environmental Services (PES). 

Providing financial incentives to improve the conservation work in areas facing rising development and urbanization is historically and academically proven to be a viable solution to help reduce environmental destruction.  

Where there is either no conservation system in place or a broken method of tourism takes hold, PES can play a crucial role in educating both tourists and local stakeholders, while providing a protected or at least less destroyed ecosystem through diverting funds towards environmental initiatives.

Traditionally, the role of conservation organizations is to relocate indigenous populations or pass laws that are enforce protection of an environment with an absence of humans. 

The top down approach does not work and is left over from colonialism, where we Western’s can dictate the management of natural resources and protected areas, keeping them away from indigenous claims to the land.

It’s important we continue to support alternative livelihoods that explore the role of sustainability and how animal wildlife has a larger role in local communities through mutually beneficial relationships.

There is a global movement towards community based eco-tourism, focusing on improving the lives of the people that are fundamental to the ecosystem and management of the protected areas.

One of the most interesting ways that is taking place within Sri Lanka is through the Orange Elephant Project that the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society started over 15 years ago. 

Essentially the project aims to help improve the relationship between rural farmers and wild elephants in a sustainable and economically sound way. Citrus trees, particularly oranges and lemons, are planted along the borders of farmer’s fields, which act as a natural deterrent to keep elephants away.

Photo by Krystal Millo

The project has been very successful and ties in multiple stakeholders, such as local farmers who financially benefit from selling the fruit, elephants who are not killed from electric fence encounters, and eco-tourists who help with the labour of planting thousands of trees.

A similar project has been done in Cambodia, but chili peppers are used as a natural deterrent hung among wire fences on the border of the farms. There is still a lot of work to be done, though thankfully the solutions right now are moving in a sustainable direction that is community lead and mutually beneficial.  

If you’re looking for more information about the project or wish to speak with the author, please contact Alex at the following links provided below.