By Amy-Rose Lane
Eco tourism is a big business. According to the International Ecotourism Society, it’s defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of local people.”
In the last decade alone, eco tourism has swelled under the influx of responsible travellers, who now wish to include some interaction with animals in their experiences. And why not? It’s difficult to feel connected to nature and all its creatures when you live in a city overcrowded with humans. But when there’s an upswing in demand for anything — be it a designer handbag, or exotic getaway — the competition becomes fierce. Many seemingly “ethical” animal tourism spots actually come with dramatic and even tragic consequences for animals. Marketing for these places is usually greenwashing at its finest, leading animals lovers to believe they’re helping conserve the animals they love when just the opposite is more likely to be true.
While animal lovers would obviously never support something so heinous as orangutan boxing matches, cock fights or bear baiting (though sadly, these things actually exist, though they are often illegal) they may mistakenly believe that ‘gentler’ animal based activities are ok because the animals are not being visibly and directly hurt – but looks can be deceiving.
Here are some of the most common and accepted forms of animal tourism to avoid at all costs.
If You Love Animals, Avoid These Animal Tourism Traps
What nature lover wouldn’t want to see majestic whales in the wild? We’re sure as hell not going to Seaworld, after all. Whale watching is a beloved past-time for animal lovers across the globe and it’s also highly profitable for those offering tours — whale watching as an industry has a global revenue worth $2.1 billion.
But finding a responsible whale watching tour isn’t easy. Whale watching is largely unregulated, with only 38% of whale watching codes are enforceable. The rest of the rules are mostly at the discretion of tour managers.
The environmental consequences of whale watching are varied. Boats frequently chase down the animals in order to get a better look. This has resulted in many boats and cruise ships hitting the whales, which can severely injure them. The noises caused by engines can disrupt mating routines, and animals are driven away from feeding areas in order to escape the boats.
How can you choose a responsible whale watching tour? Ask the tour provider about what whale watching codes are enforced, and see how they respond. A responsible eco tour company will usually state that they won’t “chase” the whales, but rather anchor off at a safe distance to watching the whales without disturbing them.
Tigers are one of the most majestic creatures in the animal kingdom. If you wanted to see a tiger up close, it would seem reasonable to visit a tiger sanctuary. However, the word ‘sanctuary’ is grossly misleading — especially in areas like Thailand.
These sanctuaries are truly sick animal tourism traps. They claim to be helping the tigers, and for a fee, you can sit next to a tiger and pose for a photo. But the truth is nothing short of barbaric.
Tigers are natural hunters. In the wild, they can sprint up to 45 mph to catch prey. They’re also one of the only subspecies of big cats that love to swim!
You won’t see a tiger running or swimming in a foreign tiger temple. In order to keep the animals docile for the tourists, the tigers are chained to the ground and pumped with sedatives. In order to mitigate the risk of a tiger encounter going wrong, the tigers often have their teeth and claws removed. As if that wasn’t barbaric enough, the captive tigers have the tendons in their wrists cut so they are unable to swat or run with speed.
Seeing a tiger pace the cage in a zoo is heartbreaking enough, but tiger sanctuaries are unbelievably cruel. Never ever support the industry of Tiger Temples.
Currently there are more tigers kept as American pets, than there are in the wild. Although tigers may be beautiful to behold, they’re dangerous and should be respected. If you love tigers, watch a documentary about them, or donate money to a research charity. Leave them in the wild, where they belong.
Of course, no responsible traveller in their right mind would support big game hunting, which makes the relationship between cub-petting and canned hunting even more despicable.
Cute and fluffy lion cubs are handled by humans on ‘lion camps’ from birth. Tourists can visit these resorts and pet the cuddly cubs while taking photographs with them. Travellers are tricked into thinking their donations are helping a lion sanctuary, but have no idea that the cub nestled within their arms is destined to become a wall mount.
Yep, that’s right: when the lions reach maturity, they’re later sold to big game hunters. They’re easy to hunt, having spent their lives accustomed to positive interactions with tourists. The hunters trap the lions in an enclosed area, and spend hours following the animals from the safety of a truck before they shoot the lions with shotguns or crossbows.
The demand for canned hunting is high. Big game hunters from overseas are willing to shell out thousands for the “prize” of a dead lion’s pelt. To meet the demand, lion camps will operate something akin to a big cat puppy mill. The cubs are immediately taken away from their mother, so she becomes fertile more quickly, and the cycle continues.
If you want to visit a real lion sanctuary, beware of any organization that offers cub petting or “lion walks.” A legitimate animal sanctuary won’t have forced interactions between big cats and people. For more information on real lion sanctuaries, visit www.cannedlion.org
Elephant Rides & ‘Painting’
This is possibly one of the most common – and most cruel – of all the animal tourism traps. Elephant rides are extremely popular in places like Thailand, where they’ve become part of the traditional tourist experience. In order to sustain the foreign demand for elephant rides and performances, elephants are illegally captured and horrifically abused.
The plight of an elephant destined for tourism is agonizing to read about, so grab the tissues before you keep reading. Elephants are both highly intelligent and sensitive. They also have an amazing capacity for memory – hence the expression “an elephant never forgets.” Which also means that they can remember every horrific thing that happens to them.
A baby elephant is ripped away from their mother by poachers. They’re confined into a small pit and routinely tortured until they become submissive. This process is called Phajaan, or “the crush” by captors. Phajaan includes being beaten by clubs pierced with sharp bell hooks. If this hasn’t made your stomach turn, this image will.
After the elephant has been “crushed” they’re taught to perform tricks like ‘painting’ pictures, dancing or playing piano, or to accept human riders, whose weight eventually causes back and joint problems for the poor pachyderms. Recently, one poor elephant in Cambodia died from heatstroke after being forced to ferry tourists around in 40 degree heat. This has raised calls to ban elephant rides.
But don’t despair if you love elephants. There are actual elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, like the SaveElephant Sanctuary, where you can interact with elephants in a controlled setting. This experience does not include elephant rides, which is how you can tell it’s legit. (Image: World Animal Protection)
Of all the animal tourism traps, this is the one we should be most aware of. After Blackfish, we should all be familiar with the barbaric practices of Seaworld. In addition to covering up multiple deaths, and general inhumane practices, Seaworld and other marine parks still offer dolphin swims to paying members of the public.
In a-typical vacation destinations, like the Caribbean, dolphin swims are commonplace. But think twice before you sign up.
All dolphin pens are too small and shallow for a creature that can swim 100 miles in just one day. What’s more, dolphins are ritually starved and mistreated in order to be able to perform tricks for entertainment.
Dolphins are among the smartest animals in the animal kingdom, and as a result of being forced to perform in captivity, they can experience psychosis. Captive dolphins have even committed suicide as a result of this psychosis.
As visitors continue to attend dolphin shows, the industry will continue to profit out of the suffering of cetaceans. We’ve seen huge strides towards progress through the public’s rejection of Seaworld in recent months. If we continue to boycott cruel attractions, we can empty the tanks for good.
Equestrian Arts Shows
The relationship between man and horse has been a long one, and many horse riders have very affectionate relationships with their horses. We’re torn about horse riding itself (stirrups do not feel nice and as we no longer need horses for transport, so what’s the point?) but we are sure that Equestrian Arts shows like the popular one in Versailles, France, are odious. The horses are trained to perform with electrical shocks to their anuses (only France and Portugal still allow for this technique; other EU nations have banned it), the horses are forced into positions that are highly unnatural for their physiology (doing a curtsey, bowing, etc) and the show ends with a long display of fireworks, the sound of which surely spooks these sensitive animals.
Civet Coffee Plantations
Kopi Luwak – or civet coffee – is valued by coffee lovers for its mild taste. The coffee beans are eaten by civet cats or luwaks, then are pooped out and processed to be ground into drinkable coffee. It sounds gross (and it is!) but the worst part is, these wild animals are held captive in cages like battery hens and are force fed coffee cherries so they can ‘produce’ this coffee. It’s not fair to the animal and it’s a silly, exploitative way to make coffee – especially unnecessary since there are already so many delicious forms of coffee around. You don’t even need to be on holiday; the results of this kind of animal cruelty may even be on your local supermarket shelves. Just say no.
Cirque du Soleil is all fine and well, but when animals are involved, the circus becomes a dark place. Elephants, tigers, chimps and bears do not dance, ride bikes and perform tricks because they want to; they do so because they are afraid of the consequences. They are ‘trained’ to do these tricks with whips, prods and even electrical anal probes! It goes without saying that a visit to any circus that uses any kind of animal is off the list for the responsible tourist.
How to Responsibly Enjoy Animals on Your Holidays
Firstly, when venturing into the wild for an experience of a lifetime, it’s crucial to remember that these are wild animals. They are not rides, or props for a selfie, despite what typical animal tourism traps will tell you. Any tour that lets you ride, cuddle, or manhandle wild animals should be avoided – most animal orphanages and sanctuaries that let you observe the animals from a distance should be ok.
The sad part is that most tourists venturing out to these destinations are animal lovers. But by respecting nature, and keeping a thoughtful distance, you get a much better experience observing your favorite creatures.
Main image: Yem Sanok. Other images: Wikicommons