Animal tourism cruelty: How to choose the right wildlife encounter
No doubt you’ve seen them as you scrolled through your Instagram and Facebook feeds: pictures of smiling friends sitting next to tigers, draped with snakes or hugging baby monkeys while on holiday.
You might have seen photos of elephants in Thailand, holding giant brushes in their trunks, painting kindergarten-style pictures of trees. (What you might not see is the trainer standing behind their legs, prodding them on.) When Australians travel, we love to capture images of ourselves in unusual situations. Animals are cute, cool, scary or strange – where else could you get so close to a baby cheetah? Certainly not in the wild.
It shouldn’t have to be pointed out that animals aren’t props, yet there they are on social media. While you’re on holiday, it’s polite to ask locals if they don’t mind having their picture taken – be they dressed in traditional garb in a mountain village in Thailand or decked out in crazy costumes in Shinjuku.
Animals, however, can’t say no. Some of the worst offenders for animal cruelty reside in Australia’s most popular travel destinations in South-East Asia. Animal tourism is big business. In Thailand, elephants draw huge crowds, but not all operators treat their animals well. Many are broken in by being beaten into submission with sticks.
In other countries, wildcats are poached when young, then drugged into that sleepy state you may mistake for content domestication. A few years ago in the Philippines, I went to a crocodile farm where tourists posed with baby crocs whose snouts had been bound with string so they couldn’t open their mouths. Is that worth a photo?
There were reports earlier this year of a cute male Bengal slow loris, called Boris, having his teeth ripped out so he couldn’t bite tourists at yet another animal attraction in Thailand.
A World Animal Protection (worldanimalprotection.org) report recently rated the 10 cruellest animal-tourism activities. They include: riding elephants, visiting civet-coffee plantations, bear parks and crocodile farms, walking with lions, holding sea turtles, watching performing dolphins, dancing monkeys and charmed snakes, and, of course, taking tiger selfies.
To make sure you’re not part of the problem, it’s best to do your research before you go. There are a number of animal welfare groups that offer advice on where to go to see animals, and the places you shouldn’t encourage with tourist dollars. If you’re off to Thailand, try the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. In Indonesia, try the Bali Animal Welfare Association.
If you’re considering an African safari, head to the National Council of SPCA’s website. It’s always best to give your support to ethical animal sanctuaries and institutions that support animal rehabilitation in their country. World Animal Sanctuary Protection International has an overview of such places around the world.
And if you’re on Rottnest Island and want to take the ubiquitous selfie with a quokka, please keep your distance, let the animals approach you and never, ever touch.