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Rules for Animal-Friendly Tourism
How to make sure your travels are cruelty-free

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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.”

Animal cruelty can take many forms

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.

Another example: the lion cub

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.

Rescued parrots - animal-friendly tourismParrots in Panama, rescued from captivity and trafficking ©WOTR

“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.”

What about elephant trekking - how harmful is that?

Elephant drawing - animal friendly travel

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.

Overburdened donkey - animal friendly tourismThose four legs sticking out from the load belong to a donkey. Surely it shouldn't be carrying this much? ©WOTR

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.

Dolphin watching - how to make it safe

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?

  • Think. Ask yourself questions. Does it feel right? Why is this animal here? Beware of anything that brings you into contact with captive animals. Don’t take anything at face value.
  • Does the animal look healthy and well looked after?
  • What about the organizers? Does the tour company or operator think in terms of conservation and sustainability? Check out their websites: if they’re behaving well, they’ll be vocal about it.
  • Is the animal stressed? Just because a dolphin looks as though it’s smiling doesn’t mean it’s happy. A slow loris may go all floppy and cute when it’s tickled but it is petrified.
  • What if the culture allows it? We all want to be culturally sensitive but plenty of animal cruelty is inflicted under the guise of tradition, such as bullfighting in Spain or cockfighting in Thailand. Would you condone that at home? Just because it’s someone’s tradition doesn’t make it right. I grew up in Spain where bullfighting was common - I didn't realize how cruel it was until I began researching these issues.

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.

9 steps to responsible tourism

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.

  1. Do plenty of research before you go. Right Tourism has country pages that can alert you to what is going on at your destination. YouTube has many animal cruelty videos – just watch one to understand what is going on. Watching more might break your heart.
  2. Choose experiences that don’t harm animals, such as a reputable research zoo or conservation project rather than a shoddy operator bent only on commercial gain. Zoos can be wonderful places that initiate us to that first contact with animals and influence us for the rest of our lives. If you think an animal is being harmed by an activity – stay away.
  3. Ask questions before you book. If interaction with wildlife is involved in an activity, find out how this is possible. Is the animal drugged? Has it been ‘altered’ in any way – declawed or defanged, for example?
  4. When viewing wildlife, keep your distance. Stay on the tracks. Don’t try to befriend them or get close in any way. If your guide stays away and respects the animals, tip him or her generously. Some guides think that by taking you closer (even if they know it’s wrong) they’re pleasing you. Show your displeasure.
  5. Respect wildlife habitat. Many animals today are endangered not because of hunting (although that too) but because their habitat has been degraded or destroyed, robbing them of room to move or things to eat. There’s a great saying for this: “Take only photos, leave only footprints.” But - as you saw above - even photos must be thought through.
  6. Don't try to rescue stray animals – give money to a local rescue charity instead. If the animals look in any way harmed or sad, contact the tourist board or tour company and tell them this is not acceptable and that you won’t return unless something is done. Tourist dollars have a loud voice in many countries and complaints have succeeded in eliminating certain harmful activities and even changing laws.
  7. Rethink what you do and how you behave. I stopped eating commercial chicken when I found out about the way battery hens are treated and I’m now trying to mend my ways on other food fronts. I’m not there yet but each day, the question of an animal’s wellbeing is more present in my mind.
  8. Take a stand. Speak out. Just because something is acceptable in some countries doesn’t necessarily make it right.

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.”

On a final note...

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!