It might come as an alarming surprise to many tourists that their
holidays and once-in-a-lifetime experiences are contributing to the
suffering and abuse of many animals around the world. Whether it's a
selfie with a tiger or the chance to swim with a dolphin, these
activities are not as harmless as many believe them to be and can cause
lifelong pain and suffering for the animals involved.
Successful campaigns by the likes of World Animal Protection are going some way to uncover the truth behind animal tourism, and in 2016 a news story exposed The Tiger Temple in Thailand, when 40 frozen tiger cubs were found in the freezer of a monastery popular with tourists wanting to pose with big cats. For many, the story was an eye opener and a shocking realisation of how the industry operates. These animals were chained, deprived of food, and heavily sedated just so paying customers could update their profile photos.
I myself am an animal lover (my obsession with dogs is borderline ridiculous) and if you’d have asked me a few years ago if I wanted to cuddle a baby lion, I would have leapt at the chance – what could be cuter?! It’s only when you take a step back and think, ‘if I were to approach a lion cub in the wild, it would be the last thing I’d ever do’, that you realise it shouldn’t be possible. It’s the same with elephants, they are wild animals so the notion that humans can fasten wooden seats to their backs and load them up with tourists is nonsensical.
Like me, people are opening their eyes and finding other ways to engage with wildlife without causing harm. To see a wild creature in its natural habitat is a truly special thing and there are plenty of reputable companies out there offering safaris and trips to see them from a distance. We sat for two hours in Chitwan National Park waiting for the arrival of a tiger. It never came, but we saw lots of incredible animals along the way, and it’s an authentic experience that I would take any day over a guaranteed sighting of drugged-up cat at a tourist attraction.
After years of exploitation, there are animals around the world who
have been rescued from the abuse but are no longer able to survive in
the wild, therefore rehabilitation is needed. Many of these sanctuaries
and centres (some of which our teams work with on expedition) - open
their doors to tourists and volunteers to generate support and funding
in an ethical and responsible way.
I was fortunate enough to spend time living as an honorary member of a herd of 14 female elephants at a centre in Nepal, all of which had been rescued from commercial industries in India. Before we made our booking, I undertook a lot of research, I was so paranoid about being conned or tricked into supporting an organisation that was too good to be true – thankfully, my worst fears were not realised! The centre was the first in Nepal – and still one of very few – to ban elephant riding and chains – music to my ears! The elephants there are cared for by mahouts who spend years getting to know their elephants and forming an unbreakable bond built on mutual respect and trust. Unlike some places in the world, they are forbidden from using bull hooks and sticks to control them. When the elephants bathed, we sat and observed, when they walked, we stayed close and let them guide us – but only when the mahout was present. When they relaxed, they wandered freely in large paddocks away from humans.
We were constantly reminded that if a mahout wasn’t there, we weren’t going near them. While no longer wild animals, we didn’t have their trust and they can still be dangerous to humans. This particular organisation is working with Elephant Aid International to build on what’s already been achieved and it’s places like this, that can give tourists the experience they desire without the cruelty.
Outlook works with animal conservation centres around the world who are committed to the preservation of the animals in their care, providing
young people with opportunities and authentic experiences free from cruelty and abuse. To learn more, visit our destination pages where you can download itineraries and read about the conservation projects we work with.