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Animal Tourism - the good the bad and the ugly

Okay, fasten your seatbelts it’s time for some straight talking. I need to talk about what not to do when travelling, and it’s far more serious than wearing socks with sandals.

Animal tourism rorts. They are everywhere, and they need to be stopped. This is not a post to make you feel guilty, as even I have been a party to it in the past. It is merely a post to educate so that people stop participating, animals stop being exploited and hopefully one day in the future these animal attractions will no longer exist.

World Animal Protection recently commissioned Oxford University to do some research into these wildlife activities, and the results may surprise and sadden you. Some quick statistics:

  • The report uncovered global suffering endured by up to 550 000 animals that are part of irresponsible tourist attractions. That’s more than half a million animals living in misery.

  • Welfare abuses are happening in three out of every four attractions. And that is just those that were part of the study.

  • Some of the worst venues included elephant, bear and tiger parks.

  • Included in the top ten cruellest animal attractions are riding elephants; selfies with tigers; walking with lions; bear parks; dancing and ‘pet’ monkeys; holding sea turtles; kissing cobras; touring civet coffee plantations

  • Quite shockingly, 80% of these tourist attractions received positive reviews on Tripadvisor.

Wow. 80%. Even though some of these reviews did state that ‘it made them sad’ or ‘I felt uncomfortable seeing them chained up’ they still gave them 4 or 5 stars. And who doesn’t check Tripadvisor before they go somewhere? I know I do. It’s not that tourists don’t care about animal welfare; they are just unaware of the abuse and neglect behind the scenes. That is why education is so important.

Here are some more numbers for you:

  • There are 16 000 elephants in captivity worldwide. This is a quarter of the total number on the planet.

  • 75% of these elephants have been taken from the wild to be used in tourist attractions

  • There are approximately 3 200 tigers in the wild. However, in the United States alone there are 5 000 tigers in captivity.

  • In South Africa there are approximately 4 000 lions in the wild or natural reserves. Sadly there are more than double this number bred and kept in captivity.

Confession time now. Many years ago I rode an elephant in Bali, and I had no hesitation in putting my kids up there as well so I could get some great photos. Six months ago I was given the opportunity to do so again at a ‘sanctuary’ in Thailand. Being a lot older now and a little bit wiser, I declined and instead visited an elephant sanctuary in every sense of the word. One where you are not allowed to ride the elephants, but you have a chance to watch them interact in a natural environment and roam freely, whilst learning their stories and about the hardships they once endured.

Did you know that baby elephants are taken from their mothers and put through a process known as ‘the crush’, so that when they are older tourists will be able to ride them? The crush usually involves being tied up in ropes or chains in a small cage, and being beaten repeatedly. Pain is often inflicted with metal bull hooks to establish human dominance. It breaks the spirit of the baby elephant so they accept people riding them and direct contact with tourists. They receive little veterinary care, and the bull hooks remain a constant part of their lives.

The background behind the tiger selfie phenomenon is not much better. Tiger cubs are torn from their mothers and beaten into submission at a very young age. This is the only way an adult tiger will remain passive in a crowd of tourists. That and being drugged. When not on show they are usually kept chained and in small concrete enclosures. Thailand is the hub of cruel tiger tourism, although it is becoming more common in other places.

A civet coffee plantation is something I have only just been made aware of. Apparently a cup of civet coffee can cost as much as $100. Not being a coffee drinker this just seems madness to me, but there must be coffee connoisseurs out there who are prepared to fork out the big bucks. What this is doing though is encouraging farmers to capture the civets and keep them in small and overcrowded cages, where they are forced to gorge on coffee cherries. They end up malnourished and riddled with disease. In Indonesia there is a growing trend of tourists visiting these plantations and the caged civets, which only results in more of these shy little creatures being captured and mistreated. Please decline any invitations to tour these plantations, and encourage others to do the same. It’s the only way this cycle can be stopped.

The good news is a quarter of all wildlife attractions are doing the right thing and looking after the welfare of the animals. These include the sanctuaries that have rescued ‘pets’ and other animals from rogue tourist attractions. Statistics estimate around 13,000 animals including elephants, bears, lions, orangutans and tigers are now safe and being cared for properly.

When you are travelling, spend your hard earned dollar wisely at reputable and genuine sanctuaries. This source of income is the only thing that enables some of these places to continue their good work, and not only are they educating tourists, they are also educating the local community.

In these places you will be able to interact in a way that does not involve riding, taking selfies, or watching an animal perform. We had the chance in South Africa to feed orphaned lion cubs that had been rescued from the tourist trade, and in Mexico we visited a spider monkey rehabilitation centre, where the monkeys interacted with us, not the other way round. At all times animal welfare was the priority, not our enjoyment. The animals made the rules, numbers were limited, visits were supervised and controlled. Both of these places were accredited by local wildlife protection agencies, and we knew that the money we spent not only gave us a once in a lifetime experience, it was supporting a more than worthy cause and helping to provide a safe environment for these animals.

Luckily there has been a shift in the way many major tour operators conduct their businesses, and lots of companies around the world have committed to not including or selling elephant rides on their tours. They are finding other ways to provide animal-friendly experiences for their customers. We have to make sure this shift continues, and people power is the way to do it. For example, when the Thomas Cook Group refused to amend its tours, nearly 200,000 people signed the World Animal Protection petition calling on them to do so and they have since removed all elephant rides and shows from their books.

Thanks to World Animal Protection for most of the stats in this post, and the good work they are doing around the world. For more info on their good deeds and how you can help, simply visit their website. Below is their list of recognised companies in Australia that are elephant friendly.

Australia AAT Kings (offices also in NZ) Adventure Destinations Adventure World Travel Atlantic Pacific Travel Better World Travel Creative Holidays Helloworld Limited (offices also in NZ, USA, Fiji, Asia, UK and SA) Helloworld for business Harvey World Travel (offices also in NZ) Insider Journeys (Previously Travel Indochina-) Intrepid Group (Intrepid Travel, Adventure Tours Australia, Geckos Adventures, Peregrine, Peak DMC, the Family Adventure Company and Urban Adventures) Jetset Travel Qantas Holidays QBT Rail Tickets Scenic Tours (offices also in NZ, UK) STA Travel Tempo Holidays (part of Cox and Kings group) (offices also in UK, NZ, Middle East) Travelscene American Express (AUS) Travelworld (AUS) Viva Holidays

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