Animal rights have always been very important to me. I support causes like PETA, WWF, The Jane Goodall Institute, and even “adopted” an orangutan for a couple of years via The Orangutan Foundation International. At the age of 11, I became a vegetarian, and a little over two months ago, a vegan. I know I have slipped up along the way, due to my naïveté or simply my human nature. For instance, while in Hawaii at age 21, I went swimming with dolphins in captivity. And even recently while in Vietnam, I ate snake heart for my birthday. And I love snakes. The moral guilt still plagues me. We all make some not-so-wise decisions, but the more information we have, the better we can evaluate situations and make more eco-friendly decisions.
Recently, I came across Mike Huxley’s blog, Bemused Backpacker. Aside from being a charge nurse, he is the author of four travel guides, an animal rights advocate, and is partnered with RIGHT Tourism and Care for the Wild International. When it came to picking someone’s brain about how to avoid wildlife exploitation, I knew I had stumbled upon the right person.
Here is what Mike has to say about wildlife exploitation in the travel industry:
Avoiding Wildlife Exploitation While Travelling
by Mike Huxley
I have been travelling around the world for over ten years now and during that time I have seen and done so many things most people only ever dream of. Some of the most memorable, for a variety of reasons, have been my close encounters with wildlife. I am a huge animal lover, I always have been, and I have always tried to incorporate some form of wildlife interaction into my trips. I care for and about all wildlife and I am passionate about conservation issues, and I would never knowingly do anything to harm any animal. Yet despite this, to my eternal shame, I have contributed to animal exploitation and abuse.
If you have ever seen or interacted with wildlife on your travels, odds are, so have you.
Wildlife tourism has grown into one of the more lucrative aspects of the tourism industry, quite literally worth billions of pounds every year. However, this does not always marry well with conservation or animal rights issues. Exploitation of wildlife for profit is extremely common in the gap year and tourism industries, where profit and chasing the lucrative tourist dollar is put far above any concern for the animals, their rights or their welfare. Organisations offer ‘volunteer’ opportunities to untrained and unqualified travellers, regardless of any potential harm. There are countless zoos and aquariums that do not hold up to even the most basic of international standards. Animal welfare is secondary at best in animal shows and attractions. Busy tourist spots tout photo opportunities with cute little animals, regardless of the harm it is doing to the wildlife involved. Elephant treks through jungles, camel treks through deserts, animal sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres are nothing but thinly veiled facades for old fashioned tourist traps. These are just a small selection of the vast array of ways animals and wildlife are used within the industry. There are countless examples of wildlife tourism, where the general public are generally unaware, or even think about the conditions for the animals involved or how their actions are contributing towards the animals abuse and exploitation.
Would so many people line up for an elephant ride if they knew that many of the elephants are beaten with bull hooks? Or even exposed to electric cattle prods to make them submissive as they work for long hours wearing heavy, uncomfortable saddles? Would so many people line up for a photograph with a cute baby sloth or koala bear if they knew the conditions they were kept in or the often brutal ways they came into the possession of the touts exploiting them? Would safaris and whale or dolphin watching tours be so popular if people knew how some of them chase down wildlife for tourists pleasure and don’t adhere to government guidelines on not encroaching on or disturbing the animals habitats and behaviour? My guess would be no. Or at the very least I hope it would be.
One of the more infamous and controversial examples of the exploitation of animals for the tourist industry is the Tiger Temple in Thailand. A large enclosure run by monks who supposedly take in and look after tigers, supposedly caring for them out of nothing more than a utopian dichotomy. The image is pure advertising gold. It is one of the more popular tour group activities in central Thailand, and every year thousands of tourists flock to the gates, eager to have their photo taken sat next to these magnificent animals. Yet a quick peek behind the curtain reveals a much more disturbing picture. Far from having the tigers interests at heart, the monks rake in huge profits from the tourism industry and are using it to build a huge new temple on the grounds and expand the complex, so that they can bring in more tourists and more money. Reports of heavy drugging are still unproven and controversial, but one look at the lethargic and half comatose tigers that people pose for pictures with will allow you to make up your own mind. Links with the illegal wildlife smuggling trade however are being exposed daily. The fact that the monks are irreversibly harming the serious long term conservation efforts and breeding programmes for the species and the facts that the tigers are forced to live in unsuitable conditions, are chained up the majority of the time, are malnourished, beaten and physically abused however are indisputable. This YouTube video (warning, it isn’t nice), is one of a thousand pieces of evidence collected by distinguished animal charities and NGOs that are causing the majority to call for the temple to be shut down. Yet so many people are blissfully unaware of all of this as they queue up to get a nice new social media profile picture with a tiger.
I’m hardly innocent of supporting this exploitative wildlife tourism industry myself. In the past, just like thousands of other travellers and tourists do every single year, I have bathed with elephants and ridden them on jungle treks. I have visited zoos that had less than ideal conditions and enclosures for the animals, watched shows where animals perform and even visited sanctuaries and rehab centres that were there more for the tourists than the animals. And at the time I had no idea that I was supporting an industry that was hurting the very animals I was seeing and interacting with. That is a guilt I will have to live with now that I know the truth.
The truth is that the wildlife tourist industry often does a lot more harm to the animals – as well as their habitats and wider conservation efforts – than good; and it isn’t just the animals who are exploited, it is often the tourists too.
Just like my past self, the vast majority of people don’t have any ill will toward wildlife, they don’t want to see animals hurt, abused or exploited. The majority actually love wildlife and just want to seize the chance to see and interact with some of their beloved animals up close. The problem is the lack of knowledge and education that feeds that naivety, the fact that the vast majority of the time most people simply have no idea of the repercussions of their actions.
The good news is that these very same tourists and travellers who are being exploited by the wildlife tourist industry are the very ones with the power to make a difference. The exploitation of animals in the tourism industry only exists because there is a profit in it, and if tourists took that money elsewhere, it would stop. If tourists and travellers supported wildlife attractions that were getting it right, then the tourist industry would see that it would be in their best interests to care for the animals involved, to protect their habitats and their environments. They would see there is profit in caring for wildlife, not exploiting it.
I may have to live with the guilt of contributing – even unknowingly – with animal exploitation in my early travels, but that does not mean I can’t make a difference now. I have learned from those experiences and they have given me a perspective that will ensure I never allow it to happen again.
There are a lot of animal attractions, tourist activities, sanctuaries, rehabilitation centres and organisations out there who are getting it right. There are so many places that respect and care for the animals in their charge, that put animal welfare and care above profit, zoos and aquariums that not only uphold the World Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s codes of ethics but surpass them with amazing contributions to conservation and animal welfare. Not-for-profit NGOs such as the Bali Animal Welfare Association that work tirelessly for the welfare of animals. Animal sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres that genuinely look after and protect the animals and wildlife in their care rather than exploiting them as a tourist attraction. There are so many genuine organisations out there who are getting it right. There are places that contribute significantly to the wellbeing of the animals as well as the wider conservation efforts. These are the types of organisations that are a credit to the wildlife tourism industry, the places that all tourists and travellers alike should support.
As a traveller you have the chance – the duty – to avoid bad practices and reward positive ones.
The wildlife charity Care For The Wild International have been running a RIGHT tourism campaign for some time, with the express purpose of highlighting the many issues surrounding wildlife tourism. As part of this campaign they have established a set of guidelines for every tourist and traveller, a list of dos and don’ts for you to follow to ensure that your trip is wildlife friendly, and they offer an extensive list of tour groups, businesses, animal attractions and organisations for each country that are getting it right, as well as a list of those that should be avoided.
Care For The Wild International are not the only organisations doing this, the WWF, WSPA and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums all have information, advice and guidelines for interacting with wildlife on your gap year.
If you plan on visiting any animal attraction or interacting with any wildlife on your trip, it is essential that you do as much research as you can beforehand to ensure that you are supporting the places that are getting it right and giving those that aren’t a wide berth. As travellers we really can make a difference by voting with our feet, and you can help to ensure that the exploitation of wildlife within the travel industry is stopped for good.
What do you think? Is there a way that you avoid exploitation of animals while on the road?
I’d like to thank Mike Huxley for sharing his knowledge with us. You can visit his website, Bemused Backpacker, for more extensive information. Mike can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.