Don’t ride that elephant
The sad truth about the use of animals in tourist attractions
A few months ago, when my trip to South East Asia was still in the preparation phase, my sister (the only person I really enjoy traveling with) and I started browsing any possible material we could find in search of information about places to visit and things to do. Travel blogs, travel guides, travel magazines, travel diaries published by online travelers communities, in Italian and English – whatever it was, we wanted to read it.
I immediately noticed that a few of the travel diaries published by the biggest online travel community in Italy, as well as a number of travel blogs, mentioned visiting the Tiger Temple in Thailand, not too far from Bangkok and supposedly a conservation centre run by Buddhist monks with the aim of saving tigers and re-introducing them into their natural environment. Attached to the diaries and posts, a series of pictures, testimony of the activities that go on in this “temple”: a tourist with a tiger pup being fed on a baby bottle; with a tiger enjoying being pet as if s/he was an overgrown cat; with a tiger on a leash, being taken for a walk (as if s/he was a dog!) and the never-missing selfie.
I thought it looked a bit odd that tigers – wild animals by definition – would allow people to feed them with a baby bottle. And in fact, taking a closer look at those pictures, I could see that the tigers were always chained, and they had a bit of an absent, sleepy expression on their face.
Using animals as tourist attractions
I was not born yesterday and I know that lots of attractions and shows exploit animals. Some are even considered part of the cultural heritage of a country (what with the corrida, or bull fights, in Spain and in Latin American countries) – though I can’t understand what’s cultural in killing a bull just for the sake of it.
But while some shows such as bull fights are visibly and vividly cruel, other shows or attractions look more innocent, there is no violence in them – at least none that is immediately visible. Tourist are inevitably attracted to them. They want to go on that romantic ride through the city, on a carriage pulled by beautiful horses (that have likely been under the scorching sun all day and that are stressed because of the traffic and noise); parents want to take their children to the circus; people want to see those animals that they otherwise may only see on tv, or in pictures.
All countries in the world are involved at some level in the ill treatment of animals for the sake of the tourism industry.
Indeed, as Mike Huxley, of Bemused Backpacker, says,
A huge amount of greenwashing is employed to prey on the naivety of tourists and travelers alike who think it is okay to ride on an elephants back, get a selfie with a tiger, cuddle a baby orang utan or swim with a dolphin, despite all the evidence that states these actions cause irreparable harm to the animals involved. Unfortunately too many people put their desire for a once in a lifetime experience with their favorite animal above any ethical concerns, and are either unaware of, or don’t care about the abuse and exploitation that occurs just so these wildlife tourism companies can turn a profit.
I hoped my gut feeling that the Tiger Temple was just another horrible tourist attraction to be linked to animal abuse may be wrong. I told myself I may well be paranoid for doubting one of the best known online travelers’ community in Italy. Surely, they would have made a clear statement against such tourist attractions if they really were exploiting animals, and invited their members not to pay for them, right?
I decided to investigate a bit. After all, I am terribly curious (I may well qualify to be a CIA agent). I did a very basic search on the web by inserting a few simple key words on the search engine. If I managed to clear all my suspects and doubts, my sister and I may well be able to pet a tiger and scratch her behind the ears, and spend the money we had been working hard to save for a good cause.
A few clicks and a whole bunch of information popped up – without really having to put much of an effort. Right there, available for anybody to read, was a piece on the Tiger Temple by National Geographic (not exactly comics or tabloid, in case anybody doubts its reputation) where the journalist told of a series of “bizarre” events in the conservation centre. Nothing to worry about (*sarcasm*) other than the fact that the tigers are “beaten, fed poorly, in need of veterinary care, and housed in small concrete cages with little opportunity for exercise or time outdoors,” and that they are likely drugged so that they wouldn’t be aggressive and the visitors would be able to pet or take the unmissable selfie without risking their life; or the sale of tigers to the Chinese black market where they’d be used to extract a little bit of everything. All in the name of conservation and protection.
The same issues had been already denounced in 2008 in a report by Care for the Wild International, which concluded that an attraction like the Tiger Temple was not only not contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild, but it in fact increased the illegal trafficking for the sake of keeping the captive population.
It looked like we wouldn’t be going to the Tiger Temple, after all. Because as long as tourists make it profitable for the monks to run such an attraction, they will continue in their abuse.
But we didn’t despair. We’d spend a month traveling across Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia and we would surely come across the possibility of living unique experiences.
So we left. And we saw some amazing places and lots of weird things too. And we got confirmation that this part of the world isn’t exactly a champion in environmental protection (I don’t think I have ever seen so much garbage as I have in Vietnam) and animal welfare and protection, including that of species that are at risk of extinction.
I had noticed this already during my trip to Indonesia, where the horses meant to carry visitors to the crater of Mount Bromo looked malnourished, sick and distressed. And already then I understood that for any one tourist that refuses to ride the horses because they are ill treated (guess who that was?) there’s at least 50 who don’t care at all. I was so angered by that situation that I even wrote a post about it.
Read more about my experience on Mount Bromo on my post “Ring of fire or circle of hell?”
I should have been prepared for more of this kind of scenes on my second trip to South East Asia. Yet, I was deeply saddened to see that the gorgeous complex of Angkor Wat was packed with elephants used to take around groups of tourists – in the scorching 40 degrees Celsius (plus the unbearable humidity). In a place where there hardly is any want for tuk tuk and bikes are easy to use, as the terrain is almost entirely flat and easy to ride, what is the exact need to ride an elephant? Oh right… people do it for fun. I am not really sure where the fun is in riding elephants, but hey different people have different tastes, right?
Read more about my experience in Angkor Wat and get some good tips on how to make the most of it on my post “Visiting Angkor Wat and other things to do in Siem Reap.”
Too bad that some of these “tastes” have a negative effect on animals. But not everyone thinks of these effects, not even well-meaning people. Mike recalls how during one of his first backpacking trips, he joined an elephant safari – something he is now ashamed of and an experience which he used to change his way of traveling altogether, now having become an advocate for responsible tourism.
Since riding an elephant is not to my taste, but I do love the idea of seeing them up close, I thought that I may be able to find an elephant camp in Koh Chang, to have fun in a more responsible way. I know that a few recovery and conservation centers have opened in South East Asia, so I was hopeful. Besides, Koh Chang is packed with “elephant camps,” so I figured at least one of them would be a conservation centre. I started enquiring about them, and concluded that I would not see elephants on this trip. All these camps would offer are elephant safari. Fun! (more *sarcasm*)
Read more about my experience in Koh Chang on my post “Why Koh Chang is one of the best islands in Thailand.”
Evidently, though, the revenue such businesses generate is still quite big, since they continue existing. And it didn’t take me long to meet people who had enjoyed such attractions. I would have thought that in 2016 getting online would be enough to be literally bombarded with news just about anything, including those about animal abuse in attractions where animals are involved.
The fact that elephants are subjected to any sort of abuse to be trained to carry people isn’t exactly recent news – but a fact that has been known for a while now. In order to be trained to carry people, elephants go through a training known as the Phajaan in Thailand, or more colloquially as ‘the crush’, which has the aim of crushing the elephants’ spirits and forcing them to be more pliable and submissive. They are then confined in small cages or pits, so small that they can’t move around. Finally, they are tortured and beaten constantly for a long period of time with bull hooks, bamboo stick and even cattle prods. Elephants are starved, they are not allowed to sleep, they are tortured and abused both mentally and physically.
All those elephants seen carrying around tourist have gone through this process. Furthermore, carrying people actually causes the elephants a lot of harm and physical pain. As Mike explains, their spines were never built to take the weight of carrying people all day, even less so when they have to do it all day long, every day, without the chance to rest and eat. Yes, they are huge but despite their size their backs hurt when they carry people as well as the wooden saddles strapped to their backs, causing skin and tissue damage. Elephants can end up with permanent spinal injuries and crippled as a result of these activities. Not to mention the emotional pain of being abused, the fear they feel constantly, and the stress that such a social animal – used to living in groups – feels when forced to live alone.
All in all, a tourist that decides to take part in an elephant safari is in a way stating that no, s/he really doesn’t care if his or her actions lead to the atrocious suffering of an animal. Or to death, even – just as it happened a few weeks ago in Angkor Wat, where an elephant died due to exhaustion.
It isn’t just elephants that are trained to do things that don’t come to them naturally just to entertain people. The same sad fate is faced by dolphins who work in dolphinariums. Giulia, of Travel Reportage, shares her experience:
As a person who had the chance of working with dolphins in captivity but also of encountering them in the wild, I have learnt about the way these beautiful beyond words animals are treated and threatened so that they will keep performing and entertaining the human spectators. Dolphins are trained to follow their trainers’ instructions, and if they don’t they will get no food or some other kind of punishment. They are very stressed as they have to work continuously, every day and many times a day.
But, as Giulia adds
Most people will take part in the so called “dolphin encounters” and “dolphin shows” without knowing nor asking themselves what is behind this reality.
I only know too well. Years ago, as part of a tour I was doing, I was taken to a dolphinarium. I don’t even know why or how I ended up there. The show kind of made me sad – seeing those gorgeous animals in a tank, and the entire environment around. But when I was approached by a member of staff asking whether I’d want to swim with the dolphins, I was happy to do it. I don’t know what had gotten over me, I can’t really explain why I did it, even though I had a gut feeling that it was wrong. I just did. Years later, I am still ashamed of what I did.
Giulia underlines the importance of raising awareness when possible, and of
Encouraging others to take some important factors into consideration: No dolphin (or any other animal) would choose captivity over freedom (so simple right?). Furthermore, it is possible to meet dolphins in their natural habitat. They come close to the boats out of curiosity, following them, jumping, playing with people, disappearing and reappearing, often in large groups formed by old and young individuals – so obviously families! – speeding just below the water surface… This makes us understand how the vastness of the oceans is where dolphins belong; no tank, of no size, will ever replace the sea.
What about seeing animals in their natural environment?
After my shameful experience of swimming with dolphins in a dolphinarium, I have seen dolphins in their natural habitat, in many countries – Peru, Panama, Argentina above all, and recently even in my very own hometown. Seeing them in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, and every time that happens, I get very emotional and tear roll down my cheeks, expressing how thankful I am to see them and how sorry I still feel for having contributed to their ill treatment in the past.
Yet, the fact that it is possible to see animals in their natural environment doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not being endangered.
Emily, of the incredible duo Along Dusty Roads, regrets her experience with whale sharks:
We still feel ashamed. A quick survey of the options down by the beach and we all too quickly agreed to meet a man at 5 a.m. the next morning. “And we’ll definitely see them out in the sea?” “100%”, he told us. And the price was cheaper than we had expected.
We first thought something may be amiss when the boat had been going for a couple of hours without a word from our captain. However, we were on holiday in the middle of the ocean with some serious sun-bathing to be done. Why stress?
Once land came into full view – plus dozens of other boats and tourists – it was clear that our request to see whale sharks swimming in the wild was not really understood. Instead, huge majestic creatures, doped up on constant food chucked from rowing boats, surrounded by far too many snorkeling humans and penned into a small section of water was the “attraction”. We too went in the water, but the guilt was already weighing us down.
Jules, one of the two bloggers behind Don’t Forget to Move, stopped himself short of doing the same:
When I first heard that you could swim with whale sharks in Cebu, Philippines I was set on making the experience part of our itinerary. The thought of being able to experience the world’s largest fish up close is just incredible! But, like any animal tourism activities that you come across during your travels, it’s always best to do research to make sure that engaging in an activity that doesn’t have a negative affect on the animals.
Unfortunately, the more research we did the more we learned that the whale shark experience in Oslob isn’t an animal-friendly activity. After speaking with marine biologists from the Philippines we discovered the tour guides actively feed the whale sharks to encourage them to stay in the area for the tourists. This may not seem harmful at first, but the practice is having detrimental effects on the whale sharks. It is changing migratory patterns of the whale sharks, which may alter their breeding habits in the future, as well as providing them with an insufficient diet for repopulation.
When we passed through Oslob on our trip, after deciding not to participate, we could see the scene from shore. All of our lingering regret for not doing the activity faded then and there when we saw snorkelers crowded in a small buoyed area, crammed in with dozens of other boats, all vying to get up close with these majestic animals. All unknowing that they could actually be contributing to the decline in their species.
And even the places that feign a responsible tourism badge are not entirely trustworthy. Michaela, of Travel Intense, remembers her negative experience in Dominica:
During my trip to Dominica I stayed at a resort that claimed to take part in sea turtle conservation. Their beach is a major nesting ground for leatherback and green turtles. So, they created a small group that is supposed to save the eggs and turtles from local hunters and at the same time educate visitors and let them experience the nesting and hatching process. During our stay, a couple large leatherbacks came ashore; the resort notified me and some other guests, and we all headed for the beach. However, we did not receive a briefing on how to behave around turtles. Originally, I thought this was because the staff knew it wasn’t my first turtle-nesting encounter.
But when I saw the crowd around me taking pictures with flashes and using flashlights without red filters (even when the turtle wasn’t in “trance”), and chatting away like they were at a beach party, I realized that none of the guests had been briefed, and they had no idea about how to safely watch turtles lay eggs.
Too make matters worse, the staff even allowed people to touch the turtles. I started to really feel very bad about this uncontrolled frenzy and retreated under a palm tree down the beach. While lost in thought, pondering how people could show such interested in wildlife and nature and yet be so careless, I suddenly heard a tired sigh just a few feet away. Another leatherback had made its way to this quiet part of the beach and started to dig a nest.
I left my flashlight and camera where they were, enjoyed Mother Nature’s show under the moonlight, and decided to keep my little secret and not risk letting anyone potentially disturb this already exhausted mother (even though the staff was supposed to take measurements and bury the turtles eggs in a different place). I simply felt that sitting there in the dark and letting the turtle do what her ancestors have done for countless generations without man’s interference was the best call.
The duty of travelers and travel bloggers
What can we do to make sure that animal abuse and practices in the tourism industry that have an adverse effect on animals stop for good? It actually is more simple than we think. We must read. We must ask ourselves questions. And we should never participate in activities that have a negative impact on animals.
Emily has learnt from her mistakes, and now makes it a point to show other travelers the way to become more responsible tourists:
Since [swimming with whale sharks], we’re happy to say that we haven’t actually visited an attraction like that; the lesson has been well and truly learned. Our golden rule now is that if animals are involved in an attraction, it’s likely something that we shouldn’t be doing. And, if we want to see them in the wild (the proper wild), we do our research online to ensure that the tour is done in a wholly ethical, responsible and safe manner – unfortunately, the majority are not.
As Mike puts it, travelers should
do [their] research before [they] travel, take the time to educate [them]elves on the issues involved, don’t support organizations that profit from animal cruelty and abuse, and instead search out and support the truly responsible wildlife tourism activities. Watch and observe from a distance instead of getting up close and personal, walk alongside elephants instead of riding on top of them, support good zoos, not unethical ones.
Travel bloggers in particular should never miss the chance to educate other travelers on responsible wildlife holidays, especially when it comes to tourist activities that involve animals.
Hoping that within the next few years all dolphinariums and other kinds of animal confinement will not exist anymore, Giulia says that
In order to reach this very important goal everyone can do their part, first of all by not paying for such shows and encounters, but also by educating the new generations teaching them the true value of nature, whose beauty reaches its greatest expression only when far away from our exploitation.
Similarly, Jules points out the importance of educating the wider public about the consequences of irresponsible tourist practices. He adds:
That’s why we prioritize responsible tourism practices in our travels and articles that we write. Not to make people feel bad about their choices, but to educate them. Little by little we can all start to shift the tourism industry to become more responsible.
Thankfully, more travelers, more people working in the tourism industry and even more authorities are now understanding that responsible tourism isn’t just a trend. As Mike points out,
It is still possible to have an awesome experience, and at the same time help the animals instead of contributing to their abuse, exploitation and ultimate extinction.
Some may argue that local communities still need these kind of attractions to make a living, but indeed, local communities can still earn a living and the tourism industry profit if attractions involving the use of animals are run in an ethical way, that emphasizes the need of caring for them and if they actually offer tourists the chance to interact in an actually constructive way.
Soon enough, responsible tourism will be the only way to travel – or else, we should be ready to say goodbye to dolphins, elephants, tigers and so many other species that make this world a wonderful place.
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