Trips to exotic destinations often come with the irresistible opportunity to visit and interact with some of the world’s most incredible creatures. In countries where tourism makes a significant contribution to the local economy, many make the most out of visitors’ curiosity for local wildlife, offering once in a lifetime opportunities such as elephant rides and up-close-and-personal encounters with tigers. Though, while animal tourism can be seen to provide great photo opportunities and stories to tell, it can often come at a price much greater than the fee being charged.
For a wild animal to become disciplined enough to interact with humans ‘safely’, it often has to be made victim to brutal regimes of torture, confinement, and doping that reduce the lives of these magnificent animals to years of fear, resentment, and heartbreak. In no way can such treatment be considered justifiable for the exchange of some-hundred likes on Facebook or Instagram, and the constant engagement of those who do believe it to be so or of those who remain unaware of the fact, mean that these practices continue. For those seeking to break the chain of these unethical practices, this quick guide will provide some inspiration to help plan an ethical, and much more memorable, animal tourism experience.
How to spot unethical animal tourism
As those who provide unethical animal tourism experiences do so in a way that creates a facade of positive practice, it can sometimes be difficult to identify the good from the bad. Admittedly, I myself have engaged in unethical animal tourism when I have been unaware of the ramifications of particular activities. Fortunately, with travel comes the constant opportunity to learn and grow and with both experience and research – for those seeking to start this journey of discovery, here are some tell-tale signs of unethical practices:
- the animals are chained, appear to be drugged, or recently harmed
- the animals aren’t behaving naturally, they are performing ‘tricks’ or human behavior
- there is no information provided about the conservation of the species of animals in focus
- the animals are kept in small enclosures with little opportunity to roam in a natural-like habitat
These may seem like fairly obvious signals, but facilities can often present themselves in ways that make their practices appear more compassionate than they are. For example, my visit to the Nairobi Animal Orphanage was done under the pretense that the facility operated in the interests of the animals’ livelihoods, but upon reflection, the small enclosures they were kept in have lead me to believe otherwise. Additionally, the Coffee Plantations in Bali create fascination around how the coffee beans are extracted from civet cat excrement, but often keep the cats in small cages for tourists to observe them from.
Wildlife sanctuaries provide safe havens to animals that have been victim to unethical animal tourism, or at risk from other life-threatening practices such as game hunting and ivory poaching.
Many elephants used in tourist attractions in South East Asian destinations are forced to endure a violent and horrific process known by locals in Thailand as Phajaan, or ‘crushing’. In this process, young elephants are taken from their families and, in order to ‘crush’ their spirit and condition them into submission, are beaten, slashed, starved, mentally abused and caged for up to 6 years. In the final stage of this process, the elephant is ‘released’ from its torture and provided with its first substantial meal by a keeper, whom it will see as it’s savior and will submit to. It is with this process that attractions such as animal treks and animal circuses are made possible.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand gives visitors the opportunity to meet, feed and bathe elephants that have been rescued from cruel tourist attractions that persist throughout the country and protects newborns from the potential of becoming subject to Phajaan.
For African elephants, the biggest threat to their welfare is the demand for ivory. In 2015, at least 20,000 elephants were killed for their tusks, and in Tanzania, their population has dropped by over 50% across the past 5 years. Last year, Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta set alight 105 tons of seized ivory in a demonstration of the countries crackdown on the poaching crisis.
In the country’s capital, conservationists at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust provide a home to some of the rescued elephants and rhinos (who are hunted for their horns) who have been orphaned due to the poaching of their parents and traumatized from the events.The Trust is recognized as one of the most successful rehabilitation programs for orphaned elephants in the world, and at 11 am every day, keepers bring some of the baby elephants to meet visitors who are able to watch and touch them (from behind a rope barrier) while they are fed.
In Bali, Indonesia, one of the most ethical and enjoyable animal experiences that can be had takes place in the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud. Here, the main ethical concern is about how the grey-haired macaques treat their visitors as opposed to how they are treated as animals! As the monkeys roam freely in their environment they are often more than confident to snatch belongings out of tourists’ hands and even jump on or bite those who don’t give up their goods so easily. The forest hosts over 300 macaques and visitors are able to offer them fresh fruits and vegetables in exchange for their attention, though this transaction is entirely on the monkey’s terms.
The only ethical issue on behalf of the monkeys here is the feeding of non-natural or potentially dangerous foods (such as sweets in wrappers) by tourists who aren’t so concerned about the monkeys’ health.
In my opinion, the most ethical animal-based tourist attraction puts the human in the confine and let the animals roam freely. Safari parks are an ideal way to practice animal tourism without greatly disturbing animals’ natural behavior and surroundings.
Africa is, of course, a host of many incredible safari opportunities, some notable locations include: Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda for unforgettable gorilla trekking experiences; the Duba Plains Camp, Botswana famed for its abundant lion prides and buffalo herds; the Maasai Mara in Kenya which is a hotspot for big cats and hosts the indigenous Maasai people; and, also in Kenya, Lake Nakuru which offers the opportunity to witness a flamboyance of hundreds of thousands of flamingos across the lake’s shore.
You are usually required to pay a park fee in addition to the price you pay to be guided throughout your safari, and may sometimes require additional permits also. In an ideal world, all of these fees would go towards the conservation of the area that the animals occupy, unfortunately this isn’t always the case and there is often a lack of transparency about where the money actually goes and what other activities it is funding so the level of ethical political practice there is shady. Nonetheless, safaris offer an excellent opportunity to see animals in their natural habitat with minimal disturbance to their lives.
In the world of ethical animal tourism, foundations gather multiple tourism operators under one common set of standards. By seeking animal tourism options though one of these foundations you can have confidence that the activities you are participating treat the animals involved ethically.
For those hoping to take their experiences off ground, the Pacific Whale Foundation is a non-profit international organization with a mission of protecting whales from their possible extinction. The foundation conducts research Hawaii, Australia, and Ecuador and also operates a series of ‘eco-tours’ across these locations that include experiences such as whale or dolphin watching, as well as snorkeling.
These eco-tours act as an alternative to the conflicting practices of whale watching, such as the experience I had in Okinawa, Japan that seemed more like whale hunting, and ‘swimming with dolphin’ experiences that can cause great distress to the dolphins involved.
Have you had any memorable and ethical animal tourism experiences while traveling? Let me know in the comments below!