What Wildlife Tourism Means for Animals Everywhere
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
There are no images for this post because of copyrights reasons, however, at the bottom of the page you will find a list of resources with images. As a warning, some of these images are brutal or disturbing, but it is important to educate yourself on the issue and the images will show exactly the extent of this worldwide crisis.
When scrolling through your Instagram feed, you see an incredible picture of a smiling family you follow with two elephants doing tricks behind them. You instantly want your family to have that same experience. In the comments, your friend has the name of the organization. You go to your laptop and book your next family vacation to see these elephants. You wonder for a second about the wellbeing of the elephants but quickly put it off since the elephants seem to be healthy when you scroll through the website. When you read the the FAQs, you find that the site has a plentiful amount of information about how they care for the elephants. You conclude that the organization knows what they are doing and the elephants are in good hands.
This is the assumption many people make when they go onto these websites. They see the elephants are healthy and book the next available time. But what happens if you look deeper than the surface? What will you find?
You will find an industry full of lies. This industry known as wildlife tourism is filled with many hidden secrets that they go to great lengths to hide from the public. Before I continue, I want to clarify the term wildlife tourism. Wildlife tourism is when the animals are forced to perform or do tricks that they would normally not do if they were in the wild. In other words, animals are doing activities to entertain people that are not natural behaviors. This does not include safari tours, where a tour guide is driving a bus of people through an animal’s wild habitat to view the animals. The main difference between the two types of tourism is that in one the animals are doing their natural behaviors and the people are not interacting with the animals in any way, and in the other, animals are expected to perform tricks for the public.
Going back to the elephant sanctuary that you originally booked your vacation to go visit, what is not shown on the website or can be seen on people’s Instagram pictures is the way these animals are being treated. These animals are chained, beaten and forced to do things beyond their will. Remember that these so-called “sanctuaries” are businesses in disguise. These companies are focused on the consumer rather than the animal. If more customers prefer animal rides, then that business will provide more animal rides without considering the fact that animal rides can be physically difficult for the animal. These animals are the center of these businesses. If they stop doing tricks, then the company will do whatever they can to get them to perform.
This idea that the consumer comes before the animal means the animal’s health and wellbeing is often sacrificed. Their medical needs are often overlooked, therefore leaving the animal to suffer in silence. A detail that is often overlooked is the way an animal shows pain. There is no universal sign to show pain. If a baby is crying, then we know that the baby is upset. However, animals can’t show when they feel pain. An elephant’s way of showing pain may not be translated as pain through our eyes. When you look at that Instagram picture, you may almost immediately assume that the elephants are happy because the image has a light mood. Plus you don’t see any tears or explicit discomfort on the elephant, as you would on a distressed baby. But an elephant and a child have very different ways of expressing themselves and many people don’t make that connection.
As time has passed, this industry has been growing larger and larger. Why have people become aware of the secrets of wildlife tourism only now? The answer is simple. People have been blind to what has been right in front of them since they are so set on the prize and only now have they been able to fully see the cost of what is in front of them. People become so excited that they may have the experience to swim with dolphins, for example, that they don’t even consider the fact that these dolphins are being held captive in unhealthy conditions. Or when people see a bear stand up on its hind legs, they sit in awe as the bear walks off the stage like a person without even questioning whether or not that is good for the bear’s health. The truth behind that trick is that the bear is chained in an upright standing position to gain muscle strength for the bear to be able to do the trick. This makes one wonder, what do these animal sanctuaries force animals to endure for the purpose of showing off a trick at an animal show? What is the line when it comes to these animal shows?
A secret that has only surfaced in recent times is the lies about a specific animal sanctuary. A sanctuary called EcoValley is supposed to be a safe place for elephants to exercise natural behaviors but also to allow people to see them. EcoValley is highly praised for its treatment of the animals on many sites. This place may sound very promising as nonabusive but I am afraid this is not the case. A short way down the road is its neighbor, Maetaman, which is a true tourist attraction. At this place, animals are expected to do tricks, give rides and interact with the people. What many don’t know is that these two seemingly rival institutions are actually owned by the same company and the animals move between the locations, a fact many don’t know or wish they didn’t once they find out. That is just one secret that has been uncovered, but think about the many secrets that have not been uncovered. Think about the many secrets this industry still has left for people to uncover.
If you have ever been to an animal show where the animals are performing tricks like doing handstands, walking on their hind legs, painting, walking on a leash or any others, did you ever consider how the animal learned that trick? Has anyone here ever seen a bear walking around on its hind legs in the wild? Animals learn these tricks through forced action such as being chained in that position, like in an upright stance, or their “trainers” will use forceful discipline such as hitting or beating to get the animal to cooperate. In worst-case scenarios, these animals endure both the beating and the chains.
Continuing this idea: What happens when the people have left and it is only the animals and the staff? The animals are supposed to be given some time to relax and recover, however, this is not always the case. Though the company may be saying this, it is not always done. Often times, the animals are chained to their enclosure with not even enough slack to walk around. Even with aquatic animals, these animals are put into enclosures that are much too small for them to move around as they would in the wild. They are practically forced to swim in circles, which is unfair to them and is frustrating because this is preventable with your help.
Social media is a big contributor to the rise of tourism due to the easy way it allows experiences and information to spread quickly. When someone posts an image of him or her petting a dolphin, for example, the viewers are instantly drawn to the image and immediately think “I want to do that.” Therefore, someone’s Instagram post has sparked more interest and now more people know about the said site and want to participate. This is a dangerous slope since this is how these places have been able to get so many people through their doors. To add to this, many countries have little to no laws or regulations on captive animals or the act of capturing animals for the purpose of entertainment. For example, China has no laws regarding captive-animal welfare, which means anything is fair game. That is dangerous for the animals because this means humans have full freedom to catch as many animals they want. In China, there are over 70 marine mammal parks and over 25 in construction. Before we start pointing fingers, it is important to recognize our role in the situation and how we can impact the cause.
How can an individual help this cause? By being reading this article, you have taken the first step toward the goal which is to close these “sanctuaries” and free the animals. As an individual there is so much you can do to help this cause. A big action you can take is educating yourself and others. The more you and others know, the better, more educated decisions can be made. Beyond spreading awareness, it is important to find out for yourself the trustworthiness of these “sanctuaries.” Question everything. Question the authenticity of the company. Question the values of the company. Question the well being of the animals. Question why you want to go there and what your specific draw was to the location and institution. Questions will lead you to answers. If you have a sliver of doubt of a company’s core values, it's most likely not worth your time and money. Look for red flags on the website such as overselling or if the place offers many attractions that allow interaction between the animals and people. Also, if there are animal shows where the animals perform tricks that are not natural behaviors, then this company is untrustworthy and you should steer clear. Research many different places on multiple websites to get many points of view and information on a specific place.
When you ask lots of questions and do thorough research, you will be able to uncover secrets for yourself. I know that it may seem excessive, but this is what it takes to end what is essentially worldwide animal abuse. Your simple actions can have a ripple effect that could lead to some major changes. My goal for you today is that after reading this, you will be more educated about wildlife tourism but also be willing and capable of educating yourselves.
Please use the resources below to educate yourself further and see some first hand pictures of this worldwide animal abuse.
Courtesy Oxford University Press. “How Killer Whales Went from Hated, to Adored, to Endangered.” Orcas, Once Hunted and Now Beloved, Are in Danger, 10 Aug. 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2018/08/orcas-killer-whales-endangered-cetaceans-news/.
Daly, Natasha, and Kirsten Luce. “Suffering Unseen: The Dark Truth behind Wildlife Tourism.” National Geographic, 4 June 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/06/global-wildlife-tourism-social-media-causes-animal-suffering/.
“ETHICAL ELEPHANT RIDING FACTS.” Elephant Adventure, www.elephantadventure.com/ethical-elephant-riding-facts/.
Luce, Kirsten. “What I Learned Investigating the Wildlife Tourism Industry.” National Geographic, 23 May 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/what-i-learned-covering-wildlife-tourism/.