The dark side of animal tourism: animals subjected to horrific and inhuman conditions in the name of entertainment
What are the first things that come to mind when you think about wildlife tourism? Interacting with the world famous elephants at Maetaman Elephant Adventure Park near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand? Swimming with the dolphins of the Rio Negro maybe? Or maybe it’s watching beluga whales perform in ephemeral aquariums that roam the Russian peninsula?
Wildlife attractions like the ones mentioned above have become a vital and lucrative segment in a booming global travel industry, with National Geographic reporting that twice as many people now choose such places for vacations compared to just 15 years ago.
What most, if not all of these tourists are unaware of are the horrific and disturbing conditions these animals they so happily interact with are subjected to when not looking at them. In front of the cameras, all is smiles and laughter, but behind, the extent of the abuses which condition these animals to become âfriends of the peopleâ is revealing. Take, for example, the elephants in many camps in Thailand that amaze tourists by throwing darts, kicking oversized soccer balls, performing very coordinated stunts and, yes, even painting self-portraits.
The nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) revealed to MEA Worldwide (MEAWW) that Asia, and Thailand in particular, is the world’s largest promoter of elephant camps and detailed the inhuman practices that these pachyderms undergo to submit them to their human masters.
âThe cruel phajaan (‘breaking love in between’) ritual is used to break the morale of baby elephants and force them to submit to humans,â the PETA statement explained. “Nursing baby elephants are forcibly pulled from their mothers, tied with steel ropes and cables, and immobilized in wooden cages.”
“They are beaten mercilessly for days or even weeks while deprived of food, water and sleep. Mahouts (manipulators) can snatch them with hooks – weapons that look like a poker with a hook. pointed at one end – or with studded sticks, and babies panic, collapse in exhaustion, defecate in fear and scream in terror and pain. Some do not survive, and those who do survive are forced to spend the rest of their time. their life in bondage.
PETA also reported on Amer Fort in the Indian state of Rajasthan, where many elephants were found to have indicators of psychological distress and each of the more than 100 elephants examined had a foot problem – such as bruising. and cracks, overgrown nails – which ultimately led to them being euthanized. In addition, nearly two dozen were blind, with almost half-sawn tusks.
This type of treatment is widespread and is not limited to these two Asian countries. World Animal Protection, an international nonprofit animal welfare organization, reported that three in four elephants studied in popular Southeast Asian tourist destinations live in harsh conditions where they are fitted with steel saddles or made of wood and tied in chains less than three meters long.
The plight of these elephants, however, is just one example among many and is not something that is likely to end anytime soon. The tourists who travel to these countries are partly to blame, but a lack of education and awareness certainly doesn’t help matters. âConscientious travelers are naturally drawn to places that claim to save animals and provide them with refuge,â PETA’s statement told MEAWW. “But any facility can be called a ‘sanctuary’ – and many unscrupulous outfits have gotten into the habit of doing just that – knowing full well that such a claim will lead unintentional visitors through the doors.”
Social networks are also to blame. So-called “influencers” with tens of thousands of followers often upload photos of themselves in these animal internment camps and legitimize the attractions despite the atrocities taking place behind the scenes. This is not surprising given its profitability – in 2018, brands spent around $ 1.6 billion on social media advertising by these influencers.
A recent analysis from the University of Oxford also showed that 80% of people have left positive reviews on wildlife sites known to have poor welfare standards and harm animals, which will inevitably influence future ones. travelers. And while it is undeniable that these tourists have a significant economic impact and create jobs – around 50 countries in the world have tourism as their main export – PETA maintains that, contrary to popular opinion, many of these camps and attractions are detrimental to conservation efforts. .
âReal, legitimate conservation efforts are aimed at helping animals in their own environment – not keeping them captive for entertainment. Exhibiting confused and often frightened animals – which frequently display neurotic and repetitive behavior due to the stress of captivity – does not teach people anything about their natural behavior, âPETA explained.
“Research shows that exhibiting endangered animals in unnatural environments that degrade and exploit them – like forcing them to perform in shows or driving humans – can actually hurt conservation efforts. , in part because it sends the dangerous message that animals are ours. to dominate and “tame” through the use of force. The only thing we learn is by confining these self-aware and socially complex animals in cages or in chains, it is acceptable to deprive animals of all that is natural and important to them for our entertainment. “
Governments have done little to stop the atrocities, but progress is being made. TripAdvisor no longer sells tickets for “swim with dolphins” attractions, elephant rides or encounters with tigers, and more than 50 travel agencies around the world have stopped offering tours involving cruelty towards animals. It’s not that all wildlife tourism is bad, however. PETA advises travelers to choose to see animals in their natural habitat and visit facilities accredited by the World Federation.
âSeeing animals in the wild, where they belong, is the best way to get to know and protect them,â PETA explained. “There are many other animal-friendly activities including visiting a nature reserve, spending the day at the beach, exploring natural environments where animals can be seen from afar and left untouched, snorkeling, hiking, canoeing , hiking, camping and bird watching – the sky is the limit! There are also countless nature and wildlife documentaries for those who want to see elephants, felines or other animals without contributing to their suffering . “