Standing in the middle of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, we were gutted.
All we’d wanted to see was a Bengal tiger in the wild and enjoy a leisurely paddle down Chitwan National Park’s Rapti River. We definitely didn’t want any part of the many elephant rides we’d watched droves of tourists participating in down the main street of Suaraha – but despite our best intentions, it seemed our pledge was about to come very unstuck.
We’d spent the morning gliding down the river as the jungle stirred for a brand new day. What had been a peaceful morning took a turn, however, when our canoe drifted toward a bank and our guide announced we’d made an unscheduled stop at the Chitwan Elephant Breeding Centre.
‘Don’t worry,’ he’d said with a smile when we protested, ‘no cruelty here’. Supposedly, the elephants here were treated with care, except, he admitted, that some might be chained up ‘for misbehaving and being naughty.’ We knew straight away we weren’t going to like what we were about to see, and yet at the same time, felt a responsibility to go in and document everything we saw.
From the minute we witnessed a mother, chained by her two front legs, trying desperately to reach her 12-day old calf (also chained) we knew that these elephants were not well looked after. Rows of elephants rocked incessantly in their shackles, grunting in sheer distress at their captivity. Others were openly whipped. A baby was struck hard on the head for ‘misbehaving’. And all the while, a group of young women happily ran around posing for selfies with elephants, giggling and exclaiming “how cuteeee!” while remaining completely oblivious to the cruelty inflicted in front of their eyes. We lifted our cameras and starting snapping.
The mistake we’d made was an easy one; we’d put trust into our tour provider, yet hadn’t done the research ourselves. Lesson definitely learnt. The good news is, a few months ago, Trip Advisor announced a ban on wildlife attraction ticket sales, firmly placing the topic of wildlife tourism on the frontline. If you’re keen to be an animal-friendly traveller yourself, learn from our mistakes and follow these tips!
HOW TO BE AN ANIMAL FRIENDLY TRAVELLER
Research pays! Take Thailand’s Tiger Temple for example. Sounds like a safe choice, right? I mean, it’s a temple… right!? A quick Google search will provide you with more than enough horrifying information to make the decision not to visit. Ditto with Tripadvisor. And guidebooks.
Consume all the information you can and you’ll begin to realise that most wildlife tourism is not okay, including riding elephants in Asia or walking with Lions in South Africa.
World Animal Protection is a great place to start your research.
#2 USE TRUSTED OPERATORS
If you are travelling as part of a tour, follow step one and do your research. What type of attractions does the tour visit? Has the tour operator signed with any wildlife protection bodies? A good benchmark is a travel company like Intrepid Travel, who is leading the way when it comes to responsible tourism and the push for animal protection across the industry.
LEARN MORE: HOW TO MAKE EVERY DAY EARTH DAY
#3 ASK QUESTIONS
If you’re booking your tour through an operator or agent, ask questions; do they have an animal welfare policy? Are the animals treated well? If you feel they do, go ahead and book. If you can’t find enough evidence, give them a call and ask for more details – and don’t book if you don’t hear what you want, or they can’t give you all the answers.
Word of mouth is always a wonderful way to source information, so ask your friends and family or throw it out to the internet; they’ll most likely to be able to provide you with an experience from themselves or someone they know.
#4 STOP. RIDING. ELEPHANTS
Quite simply, tourists need to stop riding elephants. To ‘train’ an elephant to accept riders, elephants are taken from their mothers at a very early age (we saw the proof of this in Chitwan National Park!) and physically and psychologically abused. They’re chained, hit with clubs spiked with nails and hooks, and screamed at. They’re exceptionally intelligent, emotional animals and this training is extremely damaging and traumatising.
Please. Do not support the training that ‘breaks’ young elephants to train them for you, do not be complicit in a terribly cruel industry, do not ride on the back of an elephant. It’s as simple as that.
KEEP READING: WHY TRIPADVISOR’S BAN ON WILDLIFE ATTRACTIONS IS AWESOME
#5 STEER CLEAR OF ANIMAL ‘PERFORMANCES’
It might seem a bit of harmless entertainment at the time, but you need to remember that animals do not exist for our entertainment, so steer clear of any animal related performances. Dancing monkeys and bears in the street, circuses that use animals, theme parks like SeaWorld, tiger temples, canned lion hunts – it doesn’t matter what the format is. More often than not, these animals have been removed from their families and social structures, and ‘trained’ via often cruel or violent acts to perform for tourists.
#6 WATCH WHERE YOU SHOP, EAT, AND SLEEP
Steer well clear of souvenir shops selling souvenirs made from wild animal products, such as fur, ivory, shells, seahorse, teeth, rhino horns, turtles. Likewise for restaurants – don’t eat there if the menu contains items that are sourced from endangered animals or produced via inhumane means.
#7 LIMIT YOUR WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS TO THE WILD
Some of the best experiences you’ll have as a traveller are witnessing a herd of elephants walk across the plains of the African savannah at sunset, a tiger pausing to drink at a river in India, an Orangutan swinging through the lush canopy of Borneo’s jungles, or whales as they migrate towards warmer tropical waters. Avoid zoos and wildlife parks, and stick to viewing animals in their natural habitats (at a safe distance for all!).
#8 CRUELTY IS CRUELTY, REGARDLESS OF CULTURE
In some parts of the world, cockfights, bullfights (and even the running of the bulls), or the use of animals in religious festivals are all considered part of the traditional local culture. But just because they’re centuries old traditions, it doesn’t mean that they’re ok.
Don’t accept culture as a reason to validate animal cruelty. We live in 2017, and understand animals far better now than we ever did in the past. Taking animals from their habitats and social structures negatively impacts whole communities, and barbaric treatment for entertainment is cruel and outdated. What is inhumane in one culture should be inhumane in every culture.
#9 SAVE THE SELFIES FOR THE HUMANS
Having a selfie with a rare, endangered but really cute animal might sound like a good idea, but it’s 100% not.
Generally, the animal is illegally taken from the wild, had its teeth pulled so it doesn’t bite tourists, drugged with sedatives, and made to work ridiculous hours without food or water. Is knowing that worth a photo? No. As this article from Right Tourism suggests, once asked, tourists were far less likely to take a photo once they knew the consequences. Have a selfie with your human friend instead!
#10 SPREAD THE GOOD, AND BAD NEWS!
The only way we can all change this industry is to be open and share our experiences. If you see an animal in distressing circumstances, speak up. Make a note of the time and date, take photos and videos if you can. Share your story with friends and family, on social media, and report it to the tour company you’re with or animal protection agencies. Likewise, if you see an animal that’s well looked after or a tour company who are conducting themselves in an animal-friendly way, be sure to praise them and encourage others to give them their business.
Together, we can put an end to animal cruelty around the world, by travelling compassionately and encouraging others to turn their backs on cruel and inhumane practices.
Have you had a negative experience with animal attractions while travelling? Or more tips on how to be an animal friendly traveller? We’d love to hear them – share your stories in the comments below!
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