Most of us, given a chance, will always practice cruelty-free tourism. After all, no one wants to harm animals – at least I hope not.
Sometimes we don’t understand the impact we can have on animals. Or we don’t think.
Getting up close and personal with wildlife isn’t necessarily what it seems.
“Millions of animals are harmed in varying degrees through tourism,” said Chris Pitt of Right Tourism, an organization that helps make your travels animal-friendly, when we met recently. “Yet there are many ways to enjoy wildlife and animals when you travel without harming any of them.”
Of course I’m aware of the obvious – snakes with their fangs removed and mouths sewn up or monkeys chained and trained to perform or elephants trained to carry tourists. Yet some activities that seem innocuous can hurt animals.
Such as taking a simple photograph.
Like this one of a kincajou peeing on my shoulder. Was this photograph acceptable? I'm not sure. This animal was rescued rather than captured so I thought it would be all right. What I didn't think about was whether this might stress the animal... Today, I would ask so many more questions.
Let’s take the gibbon, a type of monkey, as another example. If someone suggests you pose for a picture with a captive gibbon, would you ask yourself how it got there? Gibbon families don’t easily let go of their young so the family was probably killed, the gibbon baby declawed and its teeth taken out (probably not humanely). If feisty or aggressive, the baby would be reined in brutally until obedient. It would then be kept in a small cage, used for long days, possibly drugged.
So… next time you see a gibbon - or any tame animal usually found in the wild - ask yourself how it got there.
Often a cub will be drugged and asleep to be approachable. That animal may have been kidnapped from the wild, its family murdered. Once the cub grows up, what happens to it? It can’t be released into the wild because it has spent its life in captivity. In some countries the adult lion may become a victim of canned hunting – where people pay to hunt. Hunting a human-friendly animal in an enclosed place is not an experience any compassionate person would relish.
“In one case in Thailand exposed by Care for the Wild, people were allowed to pet tigers. These were marketed as rescued tigers, lovingly tamed so tourists could photograph them,” said Chris Pitt.
“Yet no tiger was ever released into the wild so it wasn’t a conservation operation but purely a breeding and petting zoo. The tigers lived in small concrete cages, subdued, chained… yet people who visited did so because they loved animals – they were harming the thing they loved.”
Riding an elephant may look like fun and part of an ‘authentic adventure’ in some Asian (and increasingly African) countries but beware. In Thailand for example, elephants are brutally trained to obey: their spirit is crushed in youth, and they are physically abused with bull hooks, spiked sticks and other weapons designed to subdue them, all as part of a domination game humans inevitably win.
Trekking isn’t only about elephants.
Camels in the desert, for example, can easily be mistreated by being denied sufficient food or water, or sometimes being overloaded with two people. I recently took a trek into the Sahara Desert in Morocco and had no idea at that time that I should be looking for a number of things: general healthy appearance, strong walk, personality, the owner’s treatment…
Fortunately my camel seemed healthy and its owner treated it with great kindness and respect. If he hadn’t, however, I might not have known how to deal with it. Now I do.
It’s not always about riding, either. Animals can be made to pull exceedingly heavy weights or raised to fight – dogfights, cockfights and bullfights are some of the more common examples.
I remember writing a story about the Arabian oryx many years ago when I worked with WWF International. Tourists would rent 4x4 vehicles and stampede across the desert to chase this rare and beautiful animal, wearing it down until, exhausted, it would collapse – and often die. How fun.
According to Pitt, there are best practice guidelines for activities involving wildlife, for example how heavily loaded an animal should be, or how and how often tourist boats should approach whales or dolphins. Tourism professionals need to know what they’re doing before they work with animals, and we need to express our concern in a way it will be heard.
How do you make sure an activity is animal-friendly?
As some operators do things wrong, others work hard to do them well. Elephant Nature Park is one rescue center most people speak of highly.
The good news is that we are not powerless. There are things we can do to enjoy wildlife while making sure it continues to enjoy itself, as well as things we can do to help when we see animals being treated in unacceptable ways.
Next time I travel, I will do so more consciously, looking actively for cruelty-free encounters.
As Chris says, “When you travel, don’t leave your brain and your morals at home.”
Animals aren't only inhumanely trained or used - they are often killed for body parts.
Sadly, illegal wildlife trafficking is on the rise, endangering some iconic species and driving them to the edge of extinction.
According to a recent Chatham House report, poaching is worth between US$ 8-10 million a year, and illegal trading in ivory has more than doubled since 2007 (and is three times larger than its last peak in 1998): ivory's street value can now fetch more than US$ 2000/kg (1 kilogram is 2.2 lbs) in Beijing while black market rhino horn can sell for upward of US$ 66,000/kg in China - more than gold or platinum!
The immense value of this trade is fuelling an unprecedented expansion.
To do something about it conservationists have developed a smartphone app that allows people to report sightings of suspicious sales: snap a photo with the app (without putting yourself in danger, please!) and it is automatically uploaded to conservation authorities who track these things.
It's not THE solution, but all intelligence helps!