Summer holidays are right around the corner (yay!). Many of us will be headed to India, Thailand, Dubai, Morocco and other locations known for their wildlife and animal experiences specifically marketed to tourists.
Can you include animals experiences in your travels without causing harm or distress to the animals? Is there such a thing as responsible tourism when it comes to animals? We answer some of the most frequently asked questions below. More questions coming soon!
Anything else you want to know before you pack your bags? Email us.
Q1. I love animals - when I travel I want to experience the local wildlife and if possible, get up close and personal with the native animals. Is it ever ok to interact with wildlife or other animals?
A1. The short answer is no. The longer answer is maybe if you're willing to do your research.
We advise strongly against popular animal experiences such as elephant rides, swimming with dolphins and encounters with monkeys.
A wild elephant will not allow a human to mount his back and ride him around the jungle. Similar to the way a wild horse is "broken", a wild elephant must also be broken - and to do this successfully, it has to start when the elephant is a baby. They are removed from their mothers and herds in the wild and tortured into submission. The process is called Phajaan, or “the crush”. A video is available if you want to see what this entails (although we don't suggest watching it).
Many organisations offering elephant rides in Asia have caught onto the bad press and will often market themselves as "responsible" and treat the animals with great compassion. This does not excuse the abuse the elephant endured during the Phajaan nor does it make up for the long term health issues experienced by many riding elephants. Despite their massive size, an elephant's spine is not made to support the weight of humans.
BUT... there is a good news for Thailand-bound elephant lovers - you can visit the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai; a natural sanctuary for elephants, buffalo, dogs, cats, birds and many other rescued animals.
Whilst it may seem like a more natural experience because you're in the ocean, dolphins used for swimming experiences are very much captive. They are housed in enclosures less than one percent the size of their natural habitat range which are far too shallow. They are either bred in captivity or captured in the wild using nets. Captive dolphins are kept constantly hungry as part of their training and to ensure they perform.
One former dolphin trainer told The Dodo that the dolphins he worked with suffered psychosis and even suggested that mothers would prevent their new babies from surfacing for air becuase "they didn't want their babies to live in captivity".
What about swimming with wild dolphins? International Wildlife Law reports "there is a growing body of research that states that even swimming with free-roaming dolphins has negative effects on their well-being. This is due largely to the fact that many of these dolphins become dependent on human sources of food, and because the large numbers of tourists that come at once can be a stressful encounter."
Primates are often used as street entertainment and photo props. Much like elephants, in order for monkeys to be tame enough to be passed around from person to person for photo after photo, they must be taken from their mothers at a very young age.Their "training" involves enduring several months with heavy chains placed around their necks whilst they are attached to a ceiling, forcing their bodies to adopt a straight posture. When they are not out in public the monkeys are kept in boxes, often alone, which is especially distressing for such social animals. Heatstroke and death from dehydration is not uncommon.
Monkeys used for photo props are often kept heavily sedated so that they are more amiable to the handling and are subject to tooth removal if their teeth could appear menacing.
Remember: where you spend your money matters - revisit high school economics when you learned about supply and demand. If there is no demand for baby monkeys wearing clothes for tourists to cuddle and snap a photo, there will be no baby monkeys wearing clothes doped up on sedatives kept in cramped cages and discarded when they are no longer baby monkey.
What about that selfie?
The International Fund for Animal Welfare also warns that taking that profile pic-worthy selfie with a wild animal can also cause distress: "It can be really tempting to snap selfies when you find yourself in the vicinity of a stunning creature. Resist the temptation. You don’t want to disrupt their behavior or encourage your friends to get too close to wild animals either. Instead, point the camera away from you and capture the animals in their habitat so that you can appreciate them again once you’re back at home and feel good knowing that you didn’t interfere with nature."