Animal tourism can help to protect wildlife but it can also be harmful and it’s easy to unwittingly be on the wrong side. Here’s how to make sure you’re part of the solution, not the problem, says Laura Gelder
It used to be easy to spot animal cruelty – big cats in tiny cages, skinny and overloaded donkeys or heavily chained bears being forced to dance – those awful situation still occur but today it’s not uncommon for cruelty or unethical animal practises to be disguised as kindness, conservation or a ‘must-do’ cultural experience – from cuddling an orphaned monkey to eating turtle soup.
I’ve always loved animals, so as a naïve backpacker in my early 20s, I was drawn to animal-related experiences. Mostly this involved ethical activities like safaris and I studiously avoided performing and captive animals, but I did engage in one activity that I am now ashamed of, which was elephant riding.
I remember wondering if it was ethical but the elephants didn’t appear in distress or have any obvious wounds. I felt uneasy when I saw that the elephant handlers had sticks but they didn’t use them and I
was convinced to go ahead, by a combination of peer pressure, my desire for an exotic and novel experience and my eagerness to be culturally sensitive. After all, wasn’t it just the Indian equivalent of riding a horse, and who was I to say that our way was OK but theirs was inappropriate?
I now know that what I did was wrong and that those sticks were indeed, sinister. The elephant had almost certainly been subjected to a traumatic training method known as ‘the crush’. This, according to charity Animal Asia, involves separating young elephant calves from their mother and beating them into submission. As elephants have long memories this is often sufficient, but a stick is a visceral reminder.
Thailand is home to three quarters of Asia’s captive elephants but many tourists are now wise to the cruelty of elephant riding. Instead, they visit sanctuaries where you can bathe and feed
elephants, some of whom have been rescued from the tourism or logging industries. However, World Animal Protection’s latest report – ‘Elephants. Not Commodities’ – notes a 70% increase in the number of Thailand’s captive elephants in the last 10 years, showing that even ethical venues could be a part of the problem.
The recommendation of most animal-focused charities is that if a
tourist attraction is offering the chance to touch, feed or interact with non-domesticated animals, the easiest way to ensure you’re not contributing to animal cruelty is to avoid it. They take this hard stance in the view that even centres which are genuinely caring for orphaned or rescued animals are fuelling a demand for animal interactions and therefore growth in other venues who use unscrupulous tactics to obtain pliant animals and don’t care for them.
World Animal Protection’s study shows a rising scale for elephant welfare which is poorest for those in shows and being ridden, higher for those at bathing attractions but best in observation-only venues. The charity’s Global Head of Wildlife, Audrey Mealia, says it straight: “It’s not just riding and circus-style shows that involve suffering – it’s the bathing and selfie opportunities that you might find at so-called sanctuaries, orphanages or rescue centres.”
However, as usual, the issue isn’t black and white. There are venues that are saving animals from cruelty, they may rely on tourism to do their work and across the whole industry are millions of humans who rely on animal tourism to make a living.
If you’re not sure what to do, stick to the following rules and you should ensure that your holiday isn’t contributing to animal cruelty.
Do your research: World Animal Protection advises to investigate animal attractions you intend to visit beforehand, ask your tour operator or tour guide if they have an animal welfare policy and make it clear what is unacceptable.
Remember, wild should mean wild: Don’t support any shows or attractions which use animals for entertainment. Four Paws says that if you can hug, ride, touch or take a photo with a wild animal it has probably suffered some kind of cruelty to make that possible. If you’re not sure, ask questions.
Assess the living conditions: Is there adequate space for the animals to move,
climb, bathe, swim or fly? Do they have shade or shelter and water to drink? Is the enclosure clean and well-maintained or does it contain litter, a build-up of faeces or rotting food? Visitors should not be able to touch or torment animals.
Look for signs of ill treatment: There are signs of cruelty or negligent care, such as being de-clawed or having missing teeth, being overly thin or fat, having sores or wounds or displaying repetitive behaviours. Born Free asks: “Are animals displaying strange, unnatural behaviours, such as constant pacing and circling, bobbing of heads, neck-twisting and swaying?”
Check domesticated animals too: Brooke, a charity dedicated to helping working horses and donkeys, advises to check places where equipment could rub such as the mouth, shoulders, spine and belly and as wounds might be hidden under a saddle or harness, ask to see if you’re concerned. It says: “A healthy animal will have a high head position, with eyes open and ears forward. It will also stand evenly, so look at all four legs for signs of pain or injury and check for cracked or misshapen hooves.”
Speak up: Don’t be afraid to calmly point out bad practises when you see them and report them. Born Free’s Raise the Red Flag initiative encourages people to report any venues they think are causing suffering to animals and it has a map which shows what places have already been flagged and/or investigated. You can also complain to your tour guide, hotel or tour operator – or even write to the tourist board.
Eat ethically: When you’re trying exotic local foods, check if the animal is rare or endangered. Think before you try or buy. What may be a local delicacy may drive demand for illegal trade in wildlife and culture is not an excuse for cruelty.
Demonstrate your economic power: If you see shark fin soup on the menu, politely tell the owner that you are leaving and why. If a shop is selling products which you know are associated with animal cruelty, calmly tell the owner why you wont be buying anything from them before you leave.
Use the carrot as well as the stick: International working animal charity, SPANA. Says its important to praise a tour provider of they are treating their animals well and explain why you have given them your trade. They also point out the importance of paying a fair price for an experience or attraction if it is ethical. This money will not only help the owner to earn a living, but will allow them to care for their animal and show that good practise pays off.