The dark side of wildlife tourism: Animals subjected to horrific, inhumane conditions in the name of entertainment

Wildlife tourism isn't all that its made out to be. What's not caught on the camera is the systemic exploitation and torture of animals that will never know true freedom


                            The dark side of wildlife tourism: Animals subjected to horrific, inhumane conditions in the name of entertainment

What are the first things that pop into your mind when you think of wildlife tourism? An interaction with world-famous elephants of the Maetaman Elephant Adventure Park near Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand? Swimming with the dolphins in the Rio Negro perhaps? Or maybe it's watching Beluga whales perform in pop-up aquariums that travel through the Russian peninsula?

Wildlife attractions like the ones mentioned above have become an essential and lucrative segment in a booming global travel industry, with National Geographic reporting that twice as many people are now choosing such locations for a vacation in comparison to just 15 years ago.

What most, if not all these tourists, are not aware of are the horrific and disturbing conditions these animals that they so gleefully interact with are subjected to when they're not watching. In front of the cameras, it's all smiles and laughter, but behind it, the extent to abuse that goes into conditioning these animals to become "people friendly" is eye-opening. Take, for example, the elephants in numerous camps in Thailand that amaze tourists by throwing darts, kicking oversized soccer balls, performing highly-coordinated stunts, and yes, even painting self-portraits. 

A large portion of captive elephants in southeast Asia are kept in deplorable conditions (Source: World Animal Protection)

The nonprofit organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) revealed to MEA Worldwide (MEAWW) that Asia, and Thailand, in particular, is the world's largest promoter of elephant camps and detailed the inhumane practices these pachyderms undergo to make them submit to their human masters.

"The cruel phajaan ("breaking the love between") ritual is used to break baby elephants' spirits and force them to submit to humans," the statement from PETA explained. "Still-nursing baby elephants are forcibly dragged from their mothers, bound with ropes and steel cables, and immobilized in wooden cages."

"They're beaten mercilessly for days or even weeks at a time while being deprived of food, water, and sleep. Mahouts (handlers) may gouge them with bullhooks — weapons that resemble a fireplace poker with a sharp hook on one end — or with nail-studded sticks, and the babies panic, collapse in exhaustion, defecate in fear and scream out in terror and pain. Some do not survive, and those who do are forced to spend the rest of their lives in servitude."

PETA also pointed to Amer Fort in the Indian state of Rajasthan, where it was found that many elephants displayed indicators of psychological distress and every single one of the more than 100 elephants examined had a foot condition — such as bruised foot pads and cracking, overgrown nails — that eventually led them to be euthanized. Furthermore, nearly two dozen were blind, with tusks of nearly half sawed off. 

All of the elephants in Amer Fort had a foot condition (Source: World Animal Protection)

This kind of treatment is widespread and not limited to these two Asian countries. World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal welfare organization,  reported that three out of four elephants surveyed in south-east Asia's popular tourist destinations are living in harsh conditions where they are fitted with steel or wooden saddles and tied in chains less than three meters long.

The plight of these elephants, however, is just one example of many and is not something that is likely to end anytime soon. The tourists that travel to these countries are partly to blame, but a lack of education and awareness certainly does not help matters. "Conscientious travelers are naturally attracted to places that claim to rescue animals and offer them refuge," the PETA statement revealed to MEAWW. "But any facility can call itself a 'sanctuary' —and many unscrupulous outfits have taken to doing just that—knowing full well that such a claim will bring unwitting visitors through the gates."

Social media is an equally guilty party as well. So-called "influencers" with tens of thousands of followers often upload pictures of themselves in these animal internment camps and legitimize the attractions despite the atrocities that go behind the scenes. It's no surprise considering how profitable it is — in 2018, brands spent an estimated $1.6 billion on social media advertising by these influencers.

Social media is legitimizing these attractions (Source: World Animal Protection)

A recent analysis by Oxford University also showed that 80% of people left positive reviews of wildlife venues that are known to have poor welfare standards and harm animals, something that will inevitably influence future travelers. And while it's undeniable these tourists do have a significant economic impact and create jobs — approximately 50 countries in the world have tourism as their number one export — PETA argues that, contrary to popular opinion, many of these camps and attractions are detrimental to conservation efforts.

"Genuine, legitimate conservation efforts are focused on helping animals in their own environment—not keeping them captive for entertainment. Exhibiting confused and often frightened animals—who frequently display neurotic, repetitive behavior as a result of the stress of captivity—teaches people nothing about their natural behavior," shared PETA.

PETA has urged travelers to not visit captive animals (Source: World Animal Protection)

"Research shows that displaying endangered animals in unnatural settings that degrade and exploit them — such as forcing them to perform in shows or give rides to humans — can actually be detrimental to conservation efforts, in part because it sends the dangerous message that animals are ours to dominate and "tame" through the use of force. The only thing we learn from confining these self-aware, socially complex animals to cages or in chains is that it is OK to deprive animals of everything that's natural and important to them for our entertainment."

Governments have done little to stop the atrocities but there is progress being made. TripAdvisor no longer sells tickets to "swim with dolphins" attractions, elephant rides, or tiger encounters and more than 50 travel companies around the world have stopped offering tours involving cruelty to animals. It's not that all wildlife tourism is bad, however. PETA advises travelers to opt to see animals in their natural habitat and visit facilities that are accredited by the Global Federation.

"Seeing animals in the wild, where they belong, is the best way to learn about and protect them," shared PETA. "There are tons of other animal-friendly activities, including visiting a nature preserve, spending the day at the beach, exploring natural environments where animals can be seen from a distance and left undisturbed, snorkeling, hiking, canoeing, backpacking, camping, and bird watching — the sky is the limit! There are also countless nature and wildlife documentaries for those who want to see elephants, big cats, or other animals without contributing to their suffering."