The place is Thailand’s Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo. The year is 2018. An emaciated four-year-old elephant stands in the bowels of a performance stadium with an untreated gash on his temple. One of his legs is bent and heavily swollen; the other is chained to a wall. His name is Gluay Hom and his health is painfully deteriorating.
A year later, it takes a plaintive National Geographic article written by Natasha Daly to help give Gluay Hom a voice he never had previously. When the world learns of his mistreatment, the founder of Save Elephant Foundation purchases him, and relocates him to a sanctuary. Thai law stipulated Gluay Hom was property, so being purchased was his only feasible route to salvation.
The issue is we’re not investigative enough
His story is indisputably sad. Yet, sadder is the fact his story is akin to many other animals’ around the world. Brazilian tour operators will often dangle baitfish in the Rio Negro. Amazon dolphins will swim towards it and be suddenly accosted by a multitude of tourists, causing them to become distressed by what feels like a predatory ambush. Russian pop-up aquariums sometimes house Beluga whales. They are caught illegally in the wild and endure a limited lifespan in certain kinds of captivity. They are even sometimes trained to perform ball tricks against their will.
While visiting Peru, Daly encountered an inquisitive giant anteater getting up close and personal with tourists. The man in the article’s photograph appears to be feeling blessed at the encounter. This is understandable, given that it must be incredible to be so close to such an elusive creature. But, as Daly reports, it lived off an unsuitable diet of flavoured yoghurt, and many giant anteaters in South American attractions are plucked from the wild. Since such behaviour is occurring routinely, it’s likely the ecosystem is being disturbed, which could have dire consequences for the earth in years to come.
It is believed that around 75% of wildlife tourism attractions are detrimental to the health and well-being of the animals therein. More shockingly, it is believed that around 80% of the attractions’ visitors do not see the suffering that goes on.
Global wildlife tourism is an astoundingly lucrative industry
When we visit nature-based attractions, some of us may take it upon ourselves to ask about the welfare of the animals. A bear cub may seem depressed in the circus-like show he’s performing, but his handler assures us we’ve caught him during one of his many infamous moods. We’re mostly convinced. Behind the scenes, however, a different narrative unfolds, and the bear is fastened to a wall, kept in a standing position for an excruciating amount of time – just so his handler can make him strong enough to walk on two legs.
Most human beings are benevolent. The issue is not that we enjoy witnessing suffering. Nor is the issue we’d rather turn a blind eye to it and go about our day as though everything is fine. The issue is we’re not investigative enough. We ask a zookeeper or animal trainer if the animals in question are treated lovingly. They go into great detail about their supposed care, a warm smile upon their face, and our anxieties are subsequently quelled.
Very few of us question if they’re reading from a script in their heads – a script rehearsed to death because of how many people have asked the same question.
Despite our adulation for animals, we should approach the wildlife tourism industry with acute suspicion.
Global wildlife tourism is an astoundingly lucrative industry. It gives rise to five times more revenue than the illegal wildlife trade on an annual basis. People love animals. We love their cuteness and nuance and uniqueness. If given the chance to get up-close and personal with a baby sloth, most of us would jump at the chance. The wildlife tourism industry allows us to live out such desires at a relatively cheap price.
I learned from a sanctuary worker while visiting Costa Rica last year that baby sloths are taken from their mothers in the trees. They are held up on the sides of roads where people pay to take selfies with them. Then, when the day draws to an end, they are often throw into the bushes, left to die. There is no more custom and no more value for the shaken orphans who will now never get the chance to graze even the outskirts of adulthood.
Despite our adulation for animals, we should approach the wildlife tourism industry with acute suspicion. Doing our own research on a particular attraction before visiting it may be the best thing we do. The internet may not be entirely unproblematic, but it’s blessed us with access to so many sources of information. There’s no harm in having a look and considering a visit somewhere, because whilst many attractions and organisations exploit animals, many care for them. They employ kind workers who are properly educated about wildlife.
The money raised from tourism can help promote education about animal welfare and conservation
Elephant Valley in the Thai city of Chiang Rai is a sanctuary for – you guessed it – elephants. They’re commonly rescued from the industry, and the only way tourists can have direct contact with them is by feeding them through a wooden fence. They’re safe from the abuse they’ve suffered in the past, but the trauma still nestles in them like an immutable virus.
The Born Free Foundation is a charity that works closely with international sanctuaries and organisations. They help “keep wildlife in the wild”, and support removal operations for animals kept in abysmal conditions. For a small monthly donation, people can adopt a specific animal and receive a free cuddly toy, as well as an adoption pack. They can also offer donations to the charity as a whole.
Wildlife tourism isn’t all bad. The money raised from tourism can help promote education about animal welfare and conservation. Plus, sanctuaries financially thrive off tourists visiting, and some can end up closing if people do not visit. Essentially, we just have to be careful with who we give our money to and the attractions for which we write five-star reviews.
Ryan James Keane
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