With countless close-up animal selfies littering social media, it may be tempting to participate in animal tourism when travelling abroad. Many places in Asia offer the chance to lie alongside huge tigers, ride on the backs of elephants and give monkeys a cuddle – but at what cost?
The chance to gain an incredible hands-on experience with some of the planet’s most fascinating, elusive or wild animals is understandably alluring. But behind the glossy snaps hides a horrible truth that is far from the exciting, educational experience many tourists believe they are having.
What’s hidden behind the scenes?
Many forms of wildlife tourism are rooted in cruelty and exploitation. Elephants, tigers, monkeys and many other animals are snatched from their natural habitats to be exploited for money. Zoos, circuses, riding experiences and street entertainment are just a few of the forms that animal tourism can take; each have a devastating impact on individual animals and ecosystem as a whole.
When kept in confinement and abused, animals are unable to exhibit normal behavioural patterns that are crucial to their health and wellbeing. Kept in unfamiliar and inappropriate enclosures, with no natural foliage, enrichment activities, adequate space or opportunities to socialise cause the animals irreversible mental and physical harm.
Two of the most popular and prevalent forms of wildlife tourism are elephant rides and tiger experiences. Offered the chance to ride on the back of an elephant or take a stunning selfie with a tiger, many tourists jump at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. However, the discoveries made at Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple speak volumes about the treatment of their main attraction. In 2016, charges against the establishment included illegal possession of wild animals and animal trafficking – and frozen cub carcasses and pelts were also discovered.
So what are the compassionate alternatives?
If you’re an animal lover with a keen interest in helping conservation efforts, there are numerous ways to interact with these beautiful creatures in humane, safe circumstances.
There are many reputable sanctuaries that rescue animals from zoos, circuses and other parts of the entertainment industry to heal and rehabilitate them. Unfortunately for the animals, most cannot resume natural behaviours and be rereleased into the wild, so are instead offered a healthy life with the chance to live as naturally as possible. The public can bathe, feed and walk with the animals in an unobtrusive and unthreatening way.
Keep your eyes peeled for these signs of cruel treatment:
If the animal is being forced to exhibit unnatural or typically human behaviour, such as walking, dancing or wearing clothing.
If you are allowed to ride on the back on an animal, or if the animal is physically restrained with chains, sedation or bullhooks.
If the animal displays signs of clear distress, trembling, fear or pacing up and down in the enclosure.
Support places where animals show positive signs of humane treatment:
If the animal is kept in open spaces of an adequate size that mimic their natural habitat, with appropriate foliage, food and enrichment.
Opportunity to socialise
If the animal is kept in a group that mimics its life in the wild – e.g. a social herd animal kept with others, and lone or predatory animals kept independent.
Attitude towards humans
If the animal displays the correct reaction to human interaction according to its natural behaviour – e.g. social animals displaying positive and friendly behaviour, wilder animals displaying the correct level of wariness. No signs of sedation or terror.