Something that I feel really strongly about is the use of animals for entertainment, performances or excursions as a form of tourist attraction. We must be kinder in the way that we treat and respect animals, especially as they do not have a voice, and bear this in mind when abroad.
Ultimately there is a dark side behind all of these encounters and the reason why I have chosen to write about this is because I have seen this first hand myself as well as observed photos sprawled across Instagram of selfies with sedated tigers or lions, or of people riding elephants in Asia way too often. If only those people knew the cruel fate and treatment of these animals before participating in and funding these activities. I wish I did in the past before I swam with dolphins but I have certainly learned a great deal since then and this has shaped my mindset and choices when travelling going forward.
This has also encouraged me to become an advocate for educating others about the impacts. I sincerely hope that by sharing this information I can positively influence your thoughts to not do these activities when you travel.
I’ll start with elephants, as this is what I see the most on social media. Sure everyone loves elephants and it is lovely to be able to see them up close and interact with them. However it is high time you took riding an elephant off your bucket list.
There are ways to see elephants in an ethical way in several safe havens such as wildlife sanctuaries or rehabilitation centres, an example being the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, or Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, whose purpose is actually to protect these animals.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is a charity that looks after and rehabilitates orphaned elephants in Nairobi, Kenya, and is an organization which has changed my behaviour when travelling when it comes to elephants, and after learning so much about these magnificent animals, I will NEVER ride an elephant or ever encourage any one to, and will instead make it my mission to make sure that as many people learn about the treatment of elephants that are used for these rides. In return, I would never purchase ivory, or encourage anyone to buy any ivory products, as a lot of the elephant orphans at the centre are orphaned because their mothers have been poached for their ivory.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was founded in 1977 in memory of David Sheldrick and it was run by the late Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her daughter Angela Sheldrick now continues this amazing work. The elephants arrive at the orphanage either because they have been the victim of their mothers being poached, or from being separated from their herd. The elephants range from nursery orphans to slightly older ones. They stay here with their dedicated keepers before being moved on to be slowly rehabilitated back into the wild.
It is the places that masquerade as “sanctuaries” where alarm bells should start ringing, especially if they offer elephant rides or charge you for photos with elephants while they are chained to the ground. This is extremely unethical and I will tell you why. The elephants that are used for rides are taken away from the wild, where they belong, or bred in captivity and then, to break their spirits so that a tourist can ride them and get a shot for the “gram’, they are cruelly beaten into submission. Their handlers, who are rough with them, discipline them using a bullhook (a stick with a sharp metal hook on the end – sounds painful right?). When they are not being used for rides, they are chained down with chains wrapped around their ankles.
As much as I hate naming and shaming such sanctuaries, I feel it is necessary to educate travellers if they are considering going to a destination in order to discourage participating in these activities and in an ideal world, for the demand for this to decline or disappear.
The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka misleads with the name “orphanage’ when in reality elephants are chained and flaunted for payment in lieu for photos. Surely this is not what an orphanage should do?
Similarly in Thailand, the Phuket Elephant Trails offer various rides and I would strongly recommend not booking any! This has recently started being offered in South Africa too so if you are headed to any of these destinations be mindful.
If you really want to see elephants please please do your research in advance and find places where you can see them in an ethical way, but please also educate friends, family and other people whenever you see them sharing photos or videos of having ridden elephants.
According to the World Animal Protection Charity: “If you can ride it, hug it, or have a selfie with the wild animal, the chances are it is a cruel venue. Do not go.”
A great step in the right direction is that Instagram now flags up a message if you use or search #elephantriding. Hopefully this will go some way in alerting users of the impacts.
I leave you with this fact: The Asian elephant is now an endangered species with an estimated population of approximately 50,000 alive, of which 50% are held in captivity.
Tiger selfies or photos with Tigers when in Asia are another popular one I have seen across social media but again, the treatment of the tigers behind the scenes, as well as the fact that they are sedated, is so unethical and so another one that we must educate and share the message on in terms of curbing this trend.
The place most popular for Tiger selfies in Asia is the Tiger Temple and so I strongly discourage you from visiting and taking photos with the tigers. It is just not worth the cruelty to get that “perfect shot’ for the gram.
Monkeys are often used to perform in street acts, circuses or even in films, and behind the scenes they are kept in harsh conditions, in cages, with not much light, in between performances. Also the cheeky “smile” that you sometimes see them having is not actually a smile but the way they show grimace. We often mistake it and think that they are enjoying themselves.
Please don’t pay to see these performances and boycott any movies that are released with animals being used to perform, as it is just not fair as monkeys deserve to be in the wild, not in a cage.
Born Free actually have a Primate Sanctuary where any primates that have been exploited or abused are brought to for safety and care. You can find out more here.
On a recent trip to Santorini I saw old donkeys being used for rides, often uphill, and they looked tired, weak and worn out. This appears to be a popular tourist activity in Santorini, and in the harsh heat, I didn’t even see the donkeys being hydrated much at all either. I strongly urge anyone thinking of visiting Santorini to not go on a donkey ride. The more people choose not to do these activities the better as eventually the demand will die down.
Another activity which I am guilty of having done myself in 2010, is interacting and swimming with captive dolphins at a marine park. I know now the full extent of how this impacts dolphins, who are not used to being confined to small swimming spaces compared to the wide ocean, and how not being able to be social with other dolphins can really affect them. I fell for the “these are rescued dolphins from the hurricane’ story and I know now to be very suspicious and always assess the conditions in which animals are kept. There are so many places that offer this and I really hope that through this post I can discourage people from paying to do this activity. I for one regret it and will never be swimming with dolphins ever again.
Don’t buy wildlife souvenirs or products
If you suspect that a holiday memento or jewellery is made of ivory or animal skin please don’t buy them! The types of souvenirs that fit this are:
- Ivory and other mammal or reptile teeth and bones.
- Quills, feathers and bird beaks.
- Reptile skins.
- Turtle and Tortoise Shells.
- Wildlife in Medicines.
- Corals and Seashells.
Plastic pollution and litter
As tourists in a destination we have a responsibility to not litter everywhere and especially, since watching Blue Planet 2 and seeing the impact that single use plastic has on marine life, we should limit or completely stop using single use plastic where possible.
I now travel with paper straws in my bag and decline a straw at bars and restaurants when giving my order. Same with plastic disposable cutlery and single use plastic plates.
This also applies to litter in general. Please just hold on to your trash until you find the closest bin. Don’t chuck stuff in the sea, out of your window or on the streets. Lets save our planet.
My list above is not conclusive but just highlights some of the animals impacted by tourism in this negative way. There are many more that are used in this unethical way. I just urge you to be mindful when booking any activities that include animals having to perform or where they are kept in a confined space or are used to earn money as photography props.
Born Free USA
Born Free USA is an organization who passionately take a stand against these activities and I asked CEO of Born Free USA Prashant Khetan his stance on animals being used in this way for tourism and this was his view:
This is yet another tragic manner in which humans exploit animals for our entertainment and/or comfort. There is nothing natural about using an animal in such a manner, nor does it benefit either the human or the animal in any meaningful way. And one should really question what happens to the animal once they are no longer deemed cute or young enough to be used – to remove any suspense, those animals are often killed or left to wither away outside of the public’s view. Instead, we must keep wildlife in the wild, where they belong, without human intrusion.
You can find out more about Born Free USA’s stance on this topic here. http://www.bornfreeusa.org/a1_entertainment.php
I also spoke to the amazing Bella Lack, a 15 year old conservationist who is also extremely passionate about animal welfare, and who is a big advocate for animal welfare.
Bella told me her views on the matter:
I am youth ambassador for the Born Free Foundation, who work to eradicate the unethical and inhumane treatment of animals in captivity, and also conserve the precious wildlife that we share this planet with. Since I was very young I’ve felt the need to treat animals and the natural world with respect and admiration. This feeling developed and expanded until I could no longer sit back and watch as our race decimates rainforests, pollutes oceans and imprisons wildlife. That is why I utilise my social media presence to engage and empower others to take action.
This Summer I will be visiting Thailand to highlight the barbaric ways in which elephants are treated in order to amuse tourists. They are enforced to endure a ritual called ‘Phajaan’, which essentially means to ‘crush their spirits’. They’re put through the most brutal torture imaginable, and all for the entertainment of humans. There are so many ways for us to enjoy the beauty and magnificence of our fellow creatures – but exploiting them is not one of those ways. It’s time to eradicate the unethical and immoral treatment of animals in the tourism industry. For once, there IS a silver bullet to this seemingly complex problem; don’t create a demand for corrupt practices. If we all visit ethical sanctuaries and natural reserves, the demand will no longer be fuelling cruelty, it will be nourishing compassion and sustainability.
What to do if you have participated in one of these animal tourism activities in the past?
If you have experienced any of these activities in the past, the best thing you can do is just not share the photos on your social media channels anymore so as to not promote this unethical treatment of animals, and perhaps go as far as delete them entirely.
In addition, please do share the message about why they are so wrong with your peers.
You may also wish to support the work that various charities and organizations do to curb this, such as Born Free USA, and you can join them here.
There are plenty of resources that you can read before travel to ensure that any excursions or activities you book are animal friendly. UK World Animal Protection has a handy guide which you can find here.
You can also choose responsible tour operators who have a no trophy hunting policy, for example, or who do not allow such excursions or activities to be booked. I am really pleased that Tripadvisor does not allow these to be sold on their website and I do hope that more and more organizations adopt this.