Ever dreamed of cuddling a tiger for a cool photo to impress your mates? Ever wanted to take a selfie with a sloth? You aren’t alone, so many travellers dream of getting up close with these amazing animals on their gap years. Are you one of them? If so, well done. You’ve just contributed to animal abuse.
*Update: Since this article was published the charity and partners of Bemused Backpacker, Care For The Wild International, were unfortunately closed down and swallowed up by Born Free who do not share all of the same goals and principles of Care For The Wild International. Unfortunately this also means the amazing RIGHT tourism campaign is now defunct. This is a huge loss to the conservation world but their message of responsible wildlife tourism lives on.
Want a wildlife selfie for your social media page? You’ve just supported animal abuse.
Sound a little harsh? Good. It was meant to.
Travelling to exotic locations with the sole idea in your head of getting a great social media profile picture of you cuddling a baby orang utan ‘in it’s natural environment’ or sitting on top of a docile chained up tiger may seem fun. It may even illicit a few impressed ooh’s and ahh’s from the type of people who sit around in their underpants and watch Jeremy Kyle all day, but it is not cool, it is not impressive and it is not a good idea.
What it does is support the degradation, mistreatment and abuse of the animals involved and it can have a serious long term impact on conservation issues.
For some it may be the cute little animals offered for cuddling and photo sessions in tourist resorts by a seemingly lone tout, often with a sloth or a monkey or other small, cute animal. Busy tourist resorts, beaches, even restaurants are commonly used by these touts because they know these locations are jam packed with naive tourists with cash to burn who don’t know any better.
For others it may be taking part in a trek or activity that utilises animals in some way – an elephant trek or swimming with dolphins for example – where the end result of a unique experience and a nice photo for Facebook is prioritised over the concern or actual welfare of the animals involved.
Others still may frequent the types of attraction – such as the tiger temple in Thailand – which offers photo opportunities with obviously glamorous animals, but actively contributes to their abuse and exploitation.
What Happens To The Exploited Animals.
What most people don’t know or even care to think about is the conditions many of these animals are kept in and the treatment they endure to provide them with their little souvenir. Before you interact with any type of wildlife – especially the photo prop animals that are exploited specifically for tourists to have a souvenir photo taken with them – you need to know what happens to many of these animals in large parts of the industry.
- Many animals can be subject to long hours of being constantly handled by strings of tourists which can be obviously stressful and detrimental to their welfare.
- Wildlife used in the industry in this way are often caught in the wild and removed from their mothers prematurely, sometimes whole family units are killed by poachers just to take one or two young. When they are no longer small or cute enough they are often discarded and replaced with another small, cute version. That means the adult animals are no longer needed and are disposed of, often in the canned hunting industry.
- Those animals already in captivity often go through the same process, removed from their breeding machine mothers and replaced as necessary.
- Many animals are chained up for long hours at a time or confined to small, inappropriate cages or enclosures when not interacting with tourists.
- Some nocturnal animals are harmed specifically by the constant, bright flashing lights that their eyes aren’t able to handle.
- Animals are often drugged with immobilisers to enable tourists to handle them more easily.
- Larger, dangerous animals such as tigers or bears have been declawed or even had their tendons severed in a painful surgical procedure despite the fact it is illegal in many countries. Some animals even have their teeth removed.
These are just some of the terrible conditions and treatment that many animals exploited in the tourism industry have to put up with, and they shouldn’t have to.
Is It All Bad?
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with having the opportunity to see or interact with wildlife or taking photographs of the awe inspiring animals that are out there, there isn’t even anything wrong with being in that photo and interacting with the animals in some circumstances, if it is done right.
And that is the key issue here, if it is done right. Because wildlife tourism absolutely can be done right, but unfortunately not in most cases of photo prop animals.
I understand the attraction and fascination with wildlife, I have it myself, I am a huge animal lover. And I understand it because I haven’t always got it right either.
I’ve been to places that used animals as photo props, I’ve been on elephant treks and into sanctuaries and rehab centres that I realise in hindsight weren’t necessarily there for the animals benefit. I’ve had my photo taken with animals in the past. The difference now is that I am aware of what happens when the tourism industry and greed overrides the animal’s rights. I am aware of the abuse and exploitation that takes place in some places in the chase to tap into the lucrative tourist market. The difference now is that whilst the huge part of me that loves animals and wildlife is ashamed of my naivety in the past, I can use that to fuel my desire to only frequent places that put the care, welfare and protection of the animals concerned above any tourist photo opportunity.
There Are Responsible Alternatives.
There are countless zoos that treat the animals well and contribute massively toward habitat conservation and breeding programmes, and a photograph or two of yourself with a giraffe or a lion in the background is fine. There really are responsible and ethicl rehab and conservation centres, animal sanctuaries and organisations that allow animal encounters in such a way that does not harm or exploit them, and if you happen to get a photo and see these magnificent animals up close after their care and welfare has been assured, then all’s good.
It is up to each and every traveller to support these operators.
The point is even if the sheep like masses head out into the world with very little thought or reason behind their actions other than seeing an animal ‘in its natural habitat’ or getting a cool profile picture for their social media pages, there are ways to mitigate the potential harm that mentality can do. There are ways in which the majority of people who want to care and protect these animals can do so, and still see these amazing animals, still get that perfect photo souvenir, just do so in a way that doesn’t exploit or abuse them!
There are so many places out there that are getting it right, allowing travellers to see and even interact with wildlife in a way that doesn’t exploit them, that respects and cares for the animals and helps support true conservation efforts. There are even many stuations like this where it is still possible to take that photo without the associated negative impact, and it is important to support the ones that are getting it right whilst avoiding those that don’t.
The key for travellers and tourists alike is to do their research and only support those facilities which genuinely help wildlife and conservation, and don’t patronise any place or opportunity that exploits animals in this way.
- Don’t take a photo with a chained or drugged wild animal.
- Don’t patronise roadside vendors who charge for snaps with wildlife.
- Don’t visit facilities specifically set up for tourists to do so.
By supporting these businesses and individuals with your money, you are supporting the continued exploitation of the wildlife involved. If there was no money in it, they wouldn’t do it.
So when you head off on your gap year or backpacking trip, please just think a little about what you are doing and what your motivations for wanting a photo with a wild animal are. Do your research, support the right places and help and support wildlife, don’t mindlessly contribute to their exploitation and abuse.
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
Is This The End Of Thailand’s Tiger Temple?
It IS Finally The End Of The Tiger Temple: But What Happens To The Tigers Now?
Responsible Orang Utan Spotting In Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.
Thailand’s Cruel Tiger Temple Finally Shut Down.
Thailand’s Tiger Temple Is Reopening.
The Elephant In The Room: Why You Shouldn’t Go On An Elephant Trek In Thailand.
The Horrible Truth About Animal Sanctuaries.
Top 10 Ethical Wildlife Experiences For Your Gap Year Bucket List.
Why Tourism Is Essential For Improving Animal Care In Wildlife Travel.
Why Zoos Are An Important Part Of Responsible Wildlife Tourism.
Wildlife Tourism On Your Gap Year, The RIGHT Way.
Wow – this was a great and powerful post! I completely agree with everything that you have said in the above, there are ways to interact with animals that take into account their nature. WWF runs quite a few programs around the world with rescued animals – so there is always the choice for doing in the right way instead of the easy/cheap way!
Thank you! I’m glad you liked it. I totally agree, the key is to make sure everyone knows that there is a right choice so they can make an informed decision. Thanks for the comment. 🙂
Thanks for writing this! This is a very interesting read. Love your advice about choosing “right places” to take photos with the animals – such sound advice!
Thank you, I appreciate the comment. 🙂
I believe that in the short-term it’s a no-win situation since the moment people stop paying to have their picture taken next to an exotic animal, the poacher/owner will have no more remedy than to kill/abandon said animal.
What? Seriously Raphael? So the only option is to continue the abuse or kill the animal? No! That is absolutely wrong! Many of these animals that have been abused and exploited by the tourist industry may never be able to return to the wild (some over time can be rehabilitated) but at the very least they can be taken care of in a humane way that protects their rights.
In the short term, if those same people starting funneling their tourist money into sustainable conservation and wildlife tourism instead of supporting animal exploitation like these photo prop opportunities, the people taking part in animal exploitation may get learn that they can still make a living from tourism whilst respecting and protecting the animals and helping to conserve habitats. It is a proven business model, there is no need at all to exploit animals for profit.
Great article! I really felt your passion on it.
Thanks Ben, glad you liked it 🙂
That is such a sad photo of the elephant, it makes my heart sink. Good blog post though, have to keep raising awareness to make change.
Thanks Charlie, raising awareness is what this is all about. Thanks for the comment. 🙂
Very sensitive topic here. I went to an elephant village in Luang Prabang, and I cannot tell you how just much I researched that place to ensure the elephants were treated soundly. I witnessed there nothing but care for the elephants, and I was happy to purchase some food for my elephant after she took me for a ride through the jungle.
I would not go as far as preaching the shutdown of such places, but more preaching education that the place you are going is an ethical place (which you have done). There are so many places that are wrong, and unethical, and should be shutdown, but there are others that are also ethical, that mean well, that try to preserve a magnificent species with the funds from travelers like me who just adore elephants.
It is such a sensitive issue. The funding from travelers really does fuel support and preservation for a species, even if it is at the cost of the animal being in the wild. That debate between a species potentially going extinct in the wild, vs. kept alive and preserved using funds from the tourism industry. Throwing all animals back into the wild is not the answer. Neither is exploiting their rights for use in tourism industry.
The debate goes on and on and on…
No one is suggesting shutting every place down and throwing them all back into the wild Alli, I absolutely agree with you that the tourism dollar has a great role to play in conservation, education and even securing the local community’s support with conservation efforts by providing jobs etc. What I am saying is that there are ways for tourists to see and interact with wildlife in such a way that protects and cares for these amazing animals, ensures that their welfare is always paramount, promotes and funds serious conservation efforts and ensures community support by creating jobs and wealth if they conform to doing things the RIGHT way by protecting the fragile balance they have with their environment instead of exploiting it. As tourists and travellers I think we really do have a right and a responsibility to ensure that we try to support the good businesses and attractions that are getting it right, and shunning those that are displaying blatant bad practices. I totally agree also that it isn’t always black and white, it is sometimes hard to see through the fake conservation messages to the truth behind, and it can be difficult to tell which is good and which is bad. But that is where – as you rightly say – education and awareness comes into the mix. Thanks so much for the reasoned comment. 🙂
“I think we really do have a right and a responsibility to ensure that we try to support the good businesses and attractions that are getting it right, and shunning those that are displaying blatant bad practices.“ I completely 100% agree with this statement of yours! That is basically IT in a nutshell.
I also want to add (and I know you were being harsh intentionally) but it is not always about obtaining that perfect Facebook photo for people. Elephants are my favourite animal, I adore them and think they are the most magnificent and beautiful animals ever, and also being able to contribute funds for the preservation is the sole purpose I chose to visit Elephant Village.
Yes I was being harsh intentionally, and don’t get me wrong there are some times when photos with or of animals are acceptable and doing them no harm. this is more about the very specific photo prop industry. But the majority of the time many backpackers, gap yearers and tourists alike don’t realise the harm they are doing to the welfare of the animals involved just so they can get that perfect photo opp, and the animals welfare takes a back seat. I’m not innocent of this myself and I am certainly not perfect, I have made mistakes too in the past – often out of ignorance – and have ridden elephants, held cute animals, etc. Now I know differently I am ashamed of the potential abuse I supported, intentionally or otherwise. All I can do know is try my best to be as informed as possible, shun any organisation or activity that abuses or exploits animals or wildlife, and try to get the message out there as much as I can. 🙂
I agree! Great post – very well done!
This is a great post! I’m also about to write a similar post about the treatment of elephants in Asia and have written about tourists taking photos of baby gibbons and slow lorises in Thailand.
It’s sad the number of people who don’t realise that they are contributing to suffering – but I know that it’s easily done because once I was one of them too.
Thank you KarynJane, I know exactly what you mean but it isn’t about judging what we or others have done in the past, I mean I have ridden elephants and posed for photos in the past. Through ignorance I thought I was even contributing to the animals welfare. Obviously now I know different and have changed my practices. That is all we can hope for, to educate as many people as possible and slowly change behaviour until we reach that tipping point where enough people realise the harm they are doing and stop supporting any business that exploit animals. Thanks for the comment. 🙂
Thank you so much for writing this post, it’s so important to raise awareness to educate people and finally make the change.
I totally agree. Thanks for commenting. 🙂