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.
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