Tourists are Packing Their Trunks: The Rise of Elephant Ecotourism in South Africa

A look at the role of elephants in South Africa, and the potential effects of ecotourism that need to be addressed.

With their immense size, close-knit family groups and clear intelligence, elephants are a beautiful and charismatic animal that we can all admit to being fascinated by. The African elephant is a species that often graces our televisions in documentaries, or features in amazing photos in nature magazines. Since their numbers plummeted to just 600,000 across the entire continent of Africa in the 1980’s, mankind has become obsessed with the fate of these magnificent beasts [1]. Is it really any wonder then that the ecotourism market has exploded across South Africa in the last number of years? To witness their quiet grace and incredible sociability through media is no longer enough. Today, more and more people wish to experience these gentle giants in person, usually through safari tours [2].

Photo Credit: Fiona Cummins
Photo Credit: Fiona Cummins

With the pressures of the illegal ivory market constantly resting over their great, tusked heads, poaching is an omnipresent threat. However, it is not the only threat that has presented itself to them over the years. As the number of humans is increasing, the demand for space and change in land-use is forcing native species into smaller and smaller areas [3]. Elephants now must prove their value to humans in order to be entitled to what is quickly becoming very limited space. In this way, ecotourism seems to be a saving grace. 

Ecotourism generates much needed jobs, and huge capital income, for South Africa. These ‘ecotourists’ typically enter the country with the intention of partaking in ‘Big Five’ viewing experiences. Therefore, as elephants are one of these ‘Big Five’ targets, they have come to serve a valuable role to the South African economy. The promise of profit from ecotourism is often incentive enough for the conversion of range and farmland into game reserves. These game reserves ought to recreate a natural ecosystem for viewers’ enjoyment, and are ideal for a species that no longer have a viable place in South Africa’s rapidly changing landscape [4]. 

So, yes, elephants serve a new purpose to mankind. But what are the implications of this purpose for the species? The concept of a recreated ecosystem for these animals is fantastic, but how is it affected by human activities? Ecotourism is fantastic for South Africa, but how can it be made sustainable? These are the questions that must be addressed if both man and elephant are to benefit from this new interaction. 

As incidences of human-elephant contact are rising, it must be ensured that conflict is not. We have all seen videos of elephants charging headlong after vehicles of tourists. In many ways, this is the exact experience that multiple tourists seek out by going on safari. What better a way to impress your friends at home than showing them videos of the might and power of a charging bull elephant? But this is not the goal of ecotourism, and it is not sustainable. 

Photo Credit: Laura Griffin
Photo Credit: Laura Griffin

The success of ecotourism safaris in South Africa lies in them not encroaching upon the natural behaviours of their elephant populations. The more time that an elephant spends on charges, being vigilant or moving away from vehicles, the less time it has to invest in normal behaviours such as resting, socialising or feeding. African elephants are enormous, and must consume up to 300 pounds of vegetation and drink 50 gallons of water in a day [5]. As social animals that coexist in enormous herds, interacting with one another plays a key role in their development and mental stimulation. However, adverse reactions to human activities limit the amount of time that they can commit to these important behaviours, leading to a direct impact on their health [6].  

There are a number of factors that must be considered. For example, is there a limitation on the number of vehicles that can be present at a viewing before individuals become destressed? Is there a limit to how close a car can get to a herd before their behaviours are negatively influenced? What role does noise, both from tourists and car engines, play in the stress levels of these animals who are reported to hear sounds up to 150 miles away [7]?

Photo Credit: Laura Griffin
Photo Credit: Laura Griffin

Some indication of the potential health impacts on herds in these reserves lies in studies performed on elephants in Asia, where ecotourism has been longer established. One major difference is that the activities across Asia usually involve physical contact between human and elephant, but some direction can still be drawn. Asian elephants have been shown to experience spikes in stress hormones on days where they undergo activities with humans. They also experience higher levels of stress when exposed to sounds such as thunder or fireworks, noises that are notably similar to the engines their cousins experience during safari tours. From this, we can discern that activities in reserves most likely have some sort of impact on elephant stress levels [6].

Photo Credit: Laura Griffin
Photo Credit: Laura Griffin

Ultimately, even if you are not a conservationist, it is clear that elephants are an important finite resource for South Africa. Therefore, everyone, whether you be a conservationist or capitalist, can agree that this species must be protected. The aim of ecotourism in South Africa must be to provide tourists with a real-life experience of elephants in the wild. In other words, to create as natural an environment as is possible for these animals, and ensure tourists get to receive a real encounter with normal, untouched elephant behaviour. Our ultimate goal should always be to ensure the overall health and wellbeing of these animals that we revere and respect. In order to achieve this, we need to better understand the effect that we have on them during safari tours and build legislation based on ensuring that they remain as unimpacted and protected as possible. 



1) The Great Elephant Census

2) Parker, S., and A. Khare. 2005. Understanding success factors for ensuring sustainability in ecotourism development in southern Africa. Journal of Ecotourism 4:32-46.

3) Milnergulland, E. J., and J. R. Beddington. 1993. THE EXPLOITATION OF ELEPHANTS FOR THE IVORY TRADE – AN HISTORICAL-PERSPECTIVE. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 252:29-37.

4) Child, M. F., M. J. S. Peel, I. P. J. Smit, and W. J. Sutherland. 2013. Quantifying the effects of diverse private protected area management systems on ecosystem properties in a savannah biome, South Africa. Oryx 47:29-40.

5) African Elephant. Natgeo.

6) Ranaweerage, E., A. D. G. Ranjeewa, and K. Sugimoto. 2015. Tourism-induced disturbance of wildlife in protected areas: A case study of free ranging elephants in Sri Lanka. Global Ecology and Conservation 4:625-631.

7) Yirka, B. 2014. Elephants may be able to hear rain generated sound up to 150 miles away.

About Laura Griffin 3 Articles
Laura is a lifelong nature and wildlife fanatic, with a passion for fieldwork and conservation. She recently graduated with a 1.1 Hon BSc in Zoology from University College Dublin, and is currently looking for a suitable PhD. Her interests include behaviour studies, ecology, social species hierarchy/communication and within/across-species inter-individual variability (personality) studies in both terrestrial and marine habitats. She has a passion for volunteering and research, having previously worked in the field in South Africa, Greece and Spain.

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