Riding elephants and other mistakes seasoned travelers are still making

Tiger selfies in Thailand, donkeys buckling beneath heavy riders in Greece, guests doing yoga atop elephants at a luxury resort — these instances, and others, were the impetus behind new animal tourism guidelines published last week by adventure travel company, Intrepid Travel, and the global animal welfare organization, World Animal Protection. 

The Animal Welfare Policy Toolkit says that now — when the tourism industry is experiencing records lows as a result of the global pandemic — is the right time to steer tourist demand away from captive wild animal encounters that have proliferated in the past decade.

Under the principle that “Tourism will return. Cruelty should not,” the publication asks travel companies to avoid venues that allow tourists to be (often unknowingly) complicit in practices that harm the estimated 550,000 animals used in the tourism entertainment industry today.  

Riding elephants — and horses, donkeys and camels

“It is never acceptable to ride wild animals on our trips,” said Intrepid Travel’s CEO James Thornton. The company’s stance is that elephants are not, and never have been, domesticated. It banned elephant riding from its tours in 2014.

A short ride through the jungle may appear to be innocuous, but mounting evidence shows elephants in the tourist trade suffer greatly by having to undergo a painful process called phajaan — which means “crush” in Thai — to break them into submission.

After heavy tourists injured donkeys’ spines, Greece passed a regulation in 2018 that prohibited anyone over 220 pounds from riding them on Santorini.

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Domesticated animals are a different story. Intrepid Travel allows rides on domesticated horses, donkeys and camels to if the animals are in good health, not overworked, and not trained or controlled by physical force (such as hands or sharp sticks).

Those animals should carry one rider at a time, the agency says, with weight limits that should be lowered for older animals or arduous walks that are steep, performed at high altitudes or in extreme temperatures. Animals’ legs should be checked for “firing,” or evidence of burning with hot metal, a practice intended to strengthen the animal.  

Selfies with tigers and petting lion cubs

In an interview with Intrepid Travel, Ian Michler, a safari operator and consultant for the 2015 documentary “Blood Lions,” described a chain of exploitation in Africa’s lion-breeding industry that often culminates in animals being killed for the lion bone trade.

“Cubs start being petted and handled from about a week old, but by the age of four to five months, they become boisterous and can bite handlers,” he told the tour company. “This is when they move them to walking operations, and they stay here until they are about 18 months.”

Smiling travel photos can mask a system of overbreeding, cubs taken from mothers at birth and animals that are declawed to prevent them from harming tourists.

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The joint toolkit states that once a lion ages out of tourist walks, it cannot be effectively released into the wild (despite claims by many operators) and may be sold to zoos, wealthy collectors or “sent to canned hunting camps to be shot by trophy hunters in an enclosed environment.”

Another situation that involves photo opportunities is when a local thrusts a baby monkey or other wild animal at unassuming travelers, then charges a fee for a quick pic. 

The document warns that in each of those situations the animals “are sometimes taken from the wild, bred in intensive conditions, taken prematurely from their mothers as babies, and submitted to cruel physical and psychological conditioning to make them compliant and perform on cue.”

Swimming with dolphins

Wildlife should be viewed, not touched, according to the 16-page toolkit, which applies to animals on land and in the sea.

Dolphins and other marine mammals (such as whales and polar bears) used for entertainment incur physical and psychological suffering. The document recommends avoiding marine parks and aquariums altogether, especially those that keep large marine mammals, since they “cannot adequately simulate the vast ocean or provide for their complex social, behavioral and intellectual needs.”

Even non-captive dolphins experiences can be problematic; “sunset dolphin cruises” in the Maldives sometimes entail boats chasing pods through the open sea.

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The Humane Society of the United States asks that people pledge not to buy tickets to marine mammal shows too.

While marine theme parks have become less popular in parts of the world due, in part, to the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” more than 60 marine parks and aquariums were operating in China in 2018 — with dozens more scheduled to open in China by the end of this year.     

Animal shows

Watching animals has limits too. Both Intrepid Travel and World Animal Protection caution against watching animals perform, fight or race. That includes orangutan boxing, dog fighting and bull running as well as circuses, rodeos and elephants painting or playing polo.

Intrepid Travel does not support any venues that use elephants to paint pictures, kick balls or perform for tourists.

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While not a show, elephant bathing is falling out of favor too; some sanctuaries in Thailand have stopped the practice in recent years.

Visiting animal sanctuaries

Sanctuaries that operate in animals’ best interests are fine, the toolkit says; the problem is distinguishing those from the many that don’t.

“It is accepted around the world that true sanctuaries do not breed, trade or interact with wildlife,” said Michler.

A chimpanzee pedals a bicycle at Thailand’s Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, a tourist attraction featured in a June 2019 National Geographic expose on animal cruelty in the tourism industry.

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The toolkit makes one caveat to breeding. It’s permissible if part of an official program where animals are responsibly released back into the wild. 

Buying animal products

The toolkit advises tourists to avoid buying products made from wild animals, especially those made from endangered species or which cause suffering to animals. Those include animal and reptile skin, horns, spiders and butterflies, turtle shells, seashells and coral, ivory and some traditional medicines. 

Farms, restaurants and hotels that involve wild animals

Facilities where captive wild animals are bred to make commercial products — such as civet coffee, crocodile, bear bile and turtle farms — are inadvisable, according to the publication. 

It also warns against venues that serve food that causes animal suffering, or that threaten the survival of a species, including bush meat, foie gras, tiger wine, shark fin, whale or turtle meat, snake blood and civet coffee (kopi luwak).

Restaurants and hotels that display captive wildlife should also be avoided, the publication says.

What’s an animal-loving traveler to do?

The toolkit encourages travelers to find sanctuaries and rescue centers that do not breed animals and that are certified by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

Elephant enthusiasts can research tips on how to locate responsible elephant venues and review World Animal Protection’s list of elephant-friendly venues

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