Want to ride an elephant, cuddle a tiger cub or photograph a slow loris? Think again. Tourism can have a devastating impact on wild or captive-bred animals, and tourist dollars frequently end up supporting an industry that thrives on cruelty.
Article and photographs by Ben Davies.
It is one of the great quandaries facing tourists. You are on holiday in Thailand and want to experience the thrill of riding an elephant. Should you ignore those niggling concerns about animal welfare and take the once in a lifetime opportunity? For many visitors, the lure of elephant trekking is simply too much to bear.
Yet Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, who runs a sanctuary for elephants near Chiang Mai, has one bit of advice. Don’t do it. Over the past 30 years, Lek, a well known campaigner, has seen elephants hideously deformed as a result of the trekking and logging industries. Worse still, she has documented how baby elephants are frequently taken from their mothers and subjected to heart-breaking abuse to ensure they follow commands. “Is it natural for elephants to carry tourists on their back or to play football or to paint pictures with their trunks,” Lek asks, visibly upset by what visitors so often fail to understand.
But the issue of what is responsible or ethical in wildlife tourism goes far beyond elephant rides.
As recently as May 2016, hundreds of visitors a day would pay to have their photographs taken cuddling tiger cubs in Thailand’s notorious tiger temple. The shocking exploitation only came to an end when police raided the temple and discovered 40 dead tiger cubs in a freezer. Whilst the tiger temple is now closed, plenty of other so-called ‘zoos’ offer similar entertainment experiences, with animal lovers unwittingly funding an industry that thrives on cruelty.
Edwin Wiek, a prominent animal rights campaigner who runs a wildlife rescue centre in Southern Thailand, bristles at the thought of tourists taking selfies with gibbons and slow lorises. “If it is illegal in your own country, avoid it here,” he says. “Most gibbons, lorises and langurs are seized from the wild, where poachers usually have to first kill the mother.”
Fortunately, there are ethical options. Like much of Southeast Asia, Thailand has national parks where animals can be seen in the wild. It has sanctuaries where elephant rides are not permitted but where visitors can feed or bathe these majestic creatures (See ). These days, tourists can even volunteer to work in a wildlife rescue centre. “Everyone can make a difference by making the right choice when they travel,” says World Animal Protection wildlife expert Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach.
Ben Davies is a writer and photographer based in Thailand. Recently published works include Black Market: Inside the Endangered Species Trade in Asia. Black Market is an unforgettable journey inside the grisly Endangered Species Trade and which chillingly exposes the unsettling truth about the cruel exploitation and bureaucratic indifference surrounding the multibillion-dollar underground industry that drives wildlife exploitation.