Here’s Why Travel Instagrammers Must Use Their Influence to Protect Elephants

With great social media influence comes great responsibility.

Instagram is a — perhaps the — source of travel inspiration for many wanderlusters, with some of the most-followed feeds serving as a powerful tourism influence IRL. And that's why, as a travel blogger and Instagram influencer myself, I'm here to plead with my counterparts around the globe to be responsible when sharing imagery... particularly where vulnerable animals are concerned.

Consider the shots that started popping up from Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary in Sri Lanka. The account @doyoutravel posted this pic that made people fall in love with the place:

More than 83,000 people have liked it, and it still gets shared on huge Instagram accounts. Insta-famous people came here — as they do — to copy this shot, and each of those reached even more people.

The problem is, there is a side they aren't showing to the place — and possibly a side they don't know about. 

Here's the ugly truth, according to eye witnesses: The elephants are chained to the bottom of that river. 

This allegation been shared by multiple sources who have visited personally, most recently the guys behind the hugely popular U.K. blog Hand Luggage Only. They wrote that as they went down to the river: "To my horror, I saw the handlers bring down some of the elephants and actually chain them in the middle of the river. Underneath a thin layer of water was a mountain of chains holding a vast proportion of the elephants in place."

I got in touch with the Hand Luggage Only folks, and they shared that when they first heard about the orphanage, "It sounded amazing, the fact that elephant were 'saved' sounded amazing. How wrong we were. We were so disturbed at the animal abuse that occurs. It really is a cruel place."

They aren't the only ones to share their shock after visiting. The duo from the blog Salt in Our Hair visited because after seeing the @doyoutravel feed, and were totally shocked by what they saw. They shared on their blog about how they woke up early waiting for the elephants to come, as they were instructed: "Then they came, in a whole different way than we had expected. Local people walked the elephants out of town, chained, into the river. Attaching them to rings on the rocks in the river. Hidden under the water surface so it won’t really get on photos. But we had a low tide that day."

We reached out to Hannah and Nick to find out more and they told us: "We've seen bad things with elephants but this made us feel so so horrible since we paid and supported Pinnewala. We're sure they [some people there] are trying to do a good thing but a handful of people try to make this a money-making business which shouldn't be supported by anyone!"

It's thankful that people come forth and share the truth of what they see rather than just promoting it anyway for the sake of likes and comments. By doing a simple Google search you'll be able to see what people think of Pinnawala; it's pages of negative articles from press and bloggers as well as TripAdvisor reviews that break your heart.

While the Instagrammers promoting this may not know what really goes on, they should do the requisite research to discover facts — or at least widespread allegations — when it comes to animals. Sri Lanka is full of wild elephants, so much so that if you stay for a couple weeks near places like Arugam Bay, you'll likely end up stopping in traffic for elephants to cross the road. Let's stick to seeing them that way instead of posing for Instagrammable shots looking over elephants who are chained to the ground in a flowing river — and for what? There are more ethical ways to get likes on Instagram.

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