Oxford University have recently published a study concluding that at least 4 million tourists who visit tourist attractions involving wildlife are likely to be contributing to large-scale animal welfare abuses. The study also found that despite being typically unaware of their impacts on individual animals, millions of tourists across the world are also contributing to the decline in species’ conservation status.
Elephant rides: Unethical tourism
Authors Note: Farial Zaman is a guest blogger for My Green World. She is a recent graduate of the Masters of Development Studies from the University of Melbourne and is currently working in the Education Management field in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.
Wildlife tourism is a growing niche within the tourism industry, and can be described as ‘tourism undertaken to view and/or encounter wildlife… which can take place in a range of settings, from captive, semi captive, to in the wild…and encompasses a variety of interactions from passive observation to feed and/or touching the species viewed’.
Tourists are consumed with the insatiable desire for the quintessential sensory experience with nature and wildlife. Getting up close and personal to ride and feed animals are popular and profitable attractions. However, there is a lack of ethics in tourism, which is exemplified by the continuation of elephant rides at various tourist-based camps and retreats.
Many tourists are blind to the behind-the-scenes practices undergone in the wildlife tourism industry and genuinely are excited to see the elephants. Elephants have an enormous public appeal and are well known for being intelligent, social and playful animals. Add that to an exotic setting of an overseas country and their appeal only heightens.
INSIDE THE WILDLIFE TOURISM INDUSTRY
Elephants used in riding programs are either captured as infants or born into captivity. In order to train them, they are broken through a practice called “phajaan”, where calves are taken from their mothers, isolated, tied up, starved and severely beaten.
Elephants will then live out their long lives in captivity, spending days on end chained, saddled and ridden.
Elephants in places like Thailand can no longer be freed due to urban development, where wild populations have diminished due to their land being encroached upon. Instead, a string of ‘retreats and camps’ have been set up, who advertise themselves as agents of eco-tourism, which is particularly attractive to tourists. Most of these institutions do not prioritise animal welfare, and instead, exploit wildlife for profit.
THE PRINCIPLES OF ANIMAL WELFARE
Current principles of animal welfare do not adequately protect animals, particularly throughout Asia, and they continue to allow the commodification of animals. Tourism is an industry which relies on the bottom dollar, hence for the foreseeable future, current practices will most likely continue.
Furthermore, Oxford University have recently published a study concluding that at least 4 million tourists who visit tourist attractions involving wildlife are likely to be contributing to large-scale animal welfare abuses. The study also found that despite being typically unaware of their impacts on individual animals, millions of tourists across the world are also contributing to the decline in species’ conservation status.
CHALLENGES TO CURRENT ANIMAL WELFARE MODELS
The greatest challenges are governance and education. Currently there is no governance or code of ethics relating to animals. In 1999 The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) adopted a code of ethics, but there was no mention of animals in this (Macbeth, 2012). Thus, there will be a continuation of countries selling elephants to other countries for the use of commodification. For example, Zimbabwean government sold twenty four young elephants to the Chimelong Safari Park in China, predicted to be used for entertainment (The Guardian, 2015). This lack of global governance combined with in-country challenges and the need for tourist funding continues to pose serious problems for animal welfare.
Education is imperative to raise awareness to everyone involved in the cycle of elephant rides; elephant owners, elephant keepers and tourists. For instance, ”phajaan” the breaking of an elephant, is an age old method, and it is an accepted norm to elephant owners and elephant keepers. However, that does not make it ethical. Education about animal rights and retraining is needed from the ground level; directly to those affected. And then of course, to educate tourists about what which activity is ethical and which activity they should support with their sought after foreign dollar.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Firstly, it is important to support businesses that do not exploit animals. Before undertaking any sort of animal-based tour, make sure to thoroughly research the business and their practices. Do not ride elephants or support operators who keep their animals chained in captivity, even if they promise you that it is ‘ethical’.
Support programs that prioritise conservation and promote wildlife in the wild. Current unethical tour operators are only in business because we provide the business. That being said, we do not want to send these operators into bankruptcy, but ensure that they transfer their business models into an ethical model.