An Eye on Elephants

How traveling to see elephants can save them


 “Over 35,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory, which is one every 15 minutes.”


The results of the Great Elephant Census are in and the news is dire. This historic, two-year survey of savannah and bush elephants in 18 African countries found that between 2007 and 2014, elephant numbers plummeted by 30 percent, or an estimated 144,000 elephants. Currently, over 35,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory, which is one every 15 minutes. At this rate, half of Africa’s remaining pachyderms will be gone in nine years.

In June, the United States joined hundreds of other nations in a sweeping agreement to ban the domestic trade of ivory. President Obama proposed this ban during a visit to Kenya last July, excepting antiques, such as furniture and musical instruments. While international ivory trade has been illegal since 1989, domestic trade continues to fuel demand. The United States is the world’s second-largest ivory market, after Asia; the new rule prohibits the sale of ivory across state lines and tightens restrictions at U.S. ports.

If you’re wondering what you can do to help elephants, the answer is simple. Aside from never buying ivory or anything that looks like ivory, travel to Africa or Asia to see these magnificent creatures up close and in the wild. Taking a safari or spending time at a reputable sanctuary contributes to the regional economy by providing locals with a livelihood as well as helping to preserve the landscape and all it encompasses, including elephants.


Tourism that is grounded in respect for nature, wildlife and local culture is a vital contributor toward the conservation of elephants and other wildlife, as well as the surrounding ecosystems. No photograph, video, book or magazine article will get you closer to these highly intelligent creatures than actually being there (although you may want to invest an evening in Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s PBS documentary Soul of the Elephant, which will move you to tears). There are a handful of ethical elephant encounters specifically designed to help fight poaching and save these gentle giants from extinction. Here are some of the best.

The S.A.F.E. Travel Collection (saveafricaselephants.com/travel-itineraries) is a curated set of safaris handpicked for their unique interactions with elephants, rhinos and other endangered species. S.A.F.E. stands for “Safeguarding a Future for Africa’s Elephants” and is an initiative of The Bodhi Tree Foundation, a nonprofit that mobilizes travelers and travel professionals to fund grassroots initiatives that preserve cultural heritage and conserve the earth’s biodiversity.

Actress Kristin Davis works tirelessly to protect elephants at teh David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya. 

The 11 trips in The S.A.F.E. Travel Collection range from Elevate Destinations’ 9-day Namibia Conservation Safari to Africa Dynamics’ 11-day Zambia Elephant Experience. Mention S.A.F.E. on booking and five to 10 percent of your trip cost will be donated to these organizations that work tirelessly to protect Africa’s elephants: The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, sheldrickwildlifetrust.org; Save the Elephants, savetheelephants.org; and WildAid, wildaid.org

At Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary (blesele.org) in northern Thailand, visitors participate in a hands-on experience with rescued elephants, which includes gathering their food, walking alongside elephant families and scrubbing them down. Guests will have the magical opportunity to see the animals roam in their natural jungle habitat. Most guests at the sanctuary generally stay for about three to five days, overnighting in teak cottages with wraparound porches and modern bathrooms.

Boon Lott’s is a nonprofit founded by Katherine Connor, who left a successful retail career in England to establish the sanctuary devoted to creating a safe, natural home for Thai elephants who have been rescued from abusive tourism and logging activities throughout Thailand. The staff at Boon Lott’s cares for these rescued and retired elephants on 500 acres of forestland, and BLES is entirely dependent on funds generated by visitors.

At Sanctuary Stanley’s and Baines Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta (sanctuaryretreats.com/walking-with-elephants), guests accompany three elephants named Marula, Thembe and Jabu on a walk through the African bush. The three elephants were brought up by their caretakers Doug and Sandi Groves, who rescued them from culling operations that left them orphans.

At Sanctuary Stanley's and Baines Camp in Botswana.

Each morning, guests have the opportunity to join the Groves with the herd on a leisurely stroll as they forage for food. Chat with this fascinating couple–Americans who have dedicated their lives to saving African elephants–and afterward, enjoy a picnic lunch in their company. This is a highly unique opportunity to see Africa through the eyes of an elephant. 

Visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (sheldrickwildlifetrust.org) in Nairobi, Kenya, where you’ll be able to interact with orphaned elephants whose mothers have been killed by poachers. Founded in 1977 by Dame Daphne Sheldrick, widow of renowned former warden of Tsavo National Park, David Sheldrick, DSWT rescues and hand-rears baby elephants with Dame Sheldrick’s elephant milk formula, perfected over trial and error in the early years and now the key to the orphanage’s success. At the orphanage, guests will learn the stories of each baby elephant and meet the elephant “keepers” whose life work it is to raise these baby elephants and reintroduce them back into the wild.

One of the most meaningful gestures you can make is to foster a baby elephant by providing a donation toward the animal’s continued growth and well-being. It’s a great way to end your African safari and one which will stay with you always, as you will receive a direct link to the “Keeper’s Diary” for your elephant, with photos and daily updates from the elephant’s on-site caregiver. Most reputable safari outfitters and travel agents can easily arrange a visit to DSWT before or after your African safari.

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Kristan Schiller
Kristan Schiller

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