I love African elephants. They are absolutely the ultimate icon – large, impressive, magnificent and supremely intelligent. And very much “like us” in their behavior and range of emotional responses.

Indeed, when you get up close and personal with an elephant, you find out very quickly that there’s an awful lot going on behind those amazingly expressive eyes…

Perhaps a little too close…

Close encounters with elephants are not confined to the wild, thanks to the advent of “elephant encounters” such as elephant back safaris, interactions and what is loosely termed “adventures”. But is this a good thing, or bad? And how does an avid safari-goer distinguish between the two?

There are so many opinions as to whether keeping African elephants in captivity, and using them for tourism purposes, is positive or negative for both animal and tourist, that it makes it extremely difficult for discerning tourists to make the call whether to indulge in “meeting” this amazing African icon.

I have written widely on the subject, and visited most of the “elephant operators” in Southern Africa and can honestly say that like most things in life, there is good and bad out there in elephant adventure-land. Good operators, and not so good operators. Happy elephants, and not so happy elephants.

And the difference between them makes for a meaningful experience or a very mediocre one. So. How do you, the end-user, decide which operation or product to use if you are interested in an elephant encounter? Ask questions. That’s the most important “rule”. And do some serious research…

There are a few operators, and some of them high profile, which use wild-caught elephants in their safaris/interactions. This means that the elephants you “encounter” were born and raised wild in a breeding herd before being captured and then “broken in” for tourism purposes.

Now, taking elephants from the wild to use as biological 4×4’s is widely regarded as the ultimate sin, even though the operators in question claim to have “rescued’ said elephants from being culled.

This claim is largely without foundation, and to remove young elephants (variously between the ages of 8 and 12) from their families is severely traumatic on both sides, and not the ideal starting block from which to build a fruitful, trusting and loving relationship.

Removing young elephants from their family units has been compared to kidnapping children, such is the emotional scarring it produces.

Personally, I would not recommend using operators whose elephants are wild-caught, no matter how “noble” the reasons they give for this. It is a question of principle and what sits right with your own code of ethics, and mine do not extend this far!

By far the majority of elephant operators out there are using animals orphaned as the result of the culls in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. During this period, Zimbabwe elected to cull huge family herds except for the tiny babies.

It was a stupid and retrospectively insane decision because it left defenseless, unweened baby elephants without any means of looking after themselves.

As such, they were taken in by farmers and hand-raised. And like tiny children, whose memories of their early years quickly fades, they became used to human families, and have “evolved” into the core of the elephant-back safari industry in Zimbabwe (Victoria Falls), Botswana, Zambia and South Africa, with roughly 150 animals now, almost thirty years down the line, “settled” into their new lives meeting tourists from across the world on a daily basis.

Training, by and large, for these elephants is done on a basis of positive reinforcement, with food-based rewards. They take tourists out for safaris in the early morning and late afternoon, and in between most operators with the space to allow it, let them roam on a “free-range” basis, browsing as they would do in the wild.

So the key to knowing which operators to use is to ask the right questions before making a booking. Where are the elephants from? How long have they been in captivity? What is their background? What is their daily routine? What training methods are used? The answers to these questions will make you more informed and able to make a sound decision about which product to choose.

But at the end of the day, the decision to have an encounter with an African elephant is based on your own sense of personal ethics.

As much as I love elephants, and prefer to see them in the wild, as nature intended, the animals involved in the tourism industry are not there of their own volition, but because we, as humans, have made mistakes.

For the most part they are loved and well cared for, and are proving to be incredible ambassadors for their kind and the cause of conservation.

I would therefore place hand on heart and recommend the following operators, knowing that they are leading the way forward in promoting the needs of elephants in the wild: Wild Horizons Elephant Camp in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe; Pilanesberg Elephant-Back Safaris at Sun City, South Africa and Camp Jabulani at Hoedspruit, South Africa (please note that this selection is based entirely on my own experience and personal opinion, and does not mean that other operators are less noble or doing anything “wrong”!).

Whatever your choice, I can honestly say that touching an African elephant, feeling its incredible skin and “engaging” with its immense soul is an experience that you will never forget and one which I hope will touch everyone as profoundly as it has me.