Responsible Travel Article
Rethinking wildlife experiences
by Rachel Kurzyp
Elephants and tigers are some of the most loved animals in the world, which makes total sense: no one can scroll past a video of a baby elephant having its first bath. When visiting Asia, you’ll likely be offered an elephant ride or the chance to feed tiger cubs. But before you say yes, you really ought to think twice before taking part in wild animal experiences.
Wildlife attractions account for between 20% and 40% of all tourism worldwide, with a whopping 3.6 to six million people visiting these sites annually.
It’s not surprising, then, that research shows almost half of us pay for a wild animal experience because we love animals. However, a recent study conducted by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found that every year two to four million tourists financially support attractions that aren’t good for animal welfare or conservation. And 80% of people who participated didn’t recognise that certain wildlife attractions aren’t good for the animals. It’s clear that we remain blissfully unaware of the abuse that goes on behind the scenes.
What is happening behind the scenes?
While it pays to do your research before you book your holiday (especially if seeing animals is a major part of your trip, such as when on safari), it’s also important that you use your common sense once you’re there. If an animal is doing something that it wouldn’t do in the wild, such as dancing, letting you ride it or posing for photos, then something’s not right.
To enable wild animals to ‘perform’ and be tame around humans, they have to be trained. Often they are taken away from their mothers at birth (typically their mothers are killed in the process), beaten into submission, and even drugged. In between acts or rides, these animals spend long days in overcrowded cages or are chained to concrete floors. Also many of our favourite attractions, like swimming with dolphins or turtles, directly endanger the animals’ wellbeing due to increased stress and weakened immune systems. It’s saddening to think our love for animals, and our eagerness to be close them, could be killing them.
No value in some conservation programs
Many wildlife attractions are attached to conservation units, but most aren’t actually doing ethical and reputable conservation work. In fact, a recent study of 188 different venues found that three out of every four attractions showed signs of animal welfare or conservation abuse. Tourists are often told that they are supporting elephant conservation or tiger breeding for conservation when what they’re actually doing is supporting animal abuse and the breeding of wildlife in captivity, which is counterproductive to conservation.
The scale of wildlife tourism is so large that there are around 16,000 elephants in captivity – that’s a quarter of the total number on the planet. Many of the animals that are a part of breeding programs aren’t reintroduced into the wild but instead are passed onto zoos and other animal parks globally. Tourists who want to experience animals while on holiday should be visiting the animals in their natural habitats through reputable tour operators, not through dodgy conservation programs.
Wildlife tourism attractions to avoid
World Animal Protection has called for an end to worldwide ‘irresponsible wildlife tourism’ due to the increase in animals suffering worldwide simply for our entertainment, which is now estimated to be around at least half a million. In a recent report, the organisation outlined the 10 most cruel wildlife tourism attractions:
1 riding elephants
2 taking tiger selfies
3 walking with lions
4 visiting bear parks
5 holding sea turtles
6 performing dolphins
7 dancing monkeys
8 touring civet cat coffee plantations
9 charming snakes and kissing cobras
10 farming crocodiles
In Thailand alone, tourists have the opportunity to participate in at least six of these animal activities. And they’re so common you don’t even need to leave your deck chair on the beach to find out about them – tour operators come to you. It’s now a million-dollar industry. Many of Thailand’s locals make their living from animal tourism and, unsurprisingly, are doing everything they can to keep the industry going. Nevertheless, Thailand recently introduced a new law making cruelty to all animals illegal. It’s a step in the right direction, but we’re still not doing enough.
How you can transform the industry
The biggest challenge to stopping wild animals being used for entertainment is to transform the tourism industry. Animals must be protected, and loved, from afar. Together, as global citizens, we need to think more carefully about the impact our travel adventures are having on animals. We must agree not to participate in wildlife tourism experiences, and to advocate worldwide to stop animal suffering. But most importantly we must help other travellers gain a better understanding of animal welfare and conservation practices. Because it’s clear that education is still our greatest barrier.
Rachel Kurzyp is a Melbourne-based writer and communications consultant with a focus on human rights, digital inclusion and ethical travel. Her writing has been featured in Frankie, The Big Issue, Daily Life, The Guardian and Dhaka Tribune. When she’s not travelling, she spends her time dreaming of her next adventure and helping others plan theirs.