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Hot topic: How to avoid unethical wildlife tours

We all like to think we’re animal lovers, but are we supporting wildlife cruelty when we travel?

Hot topic: How to avoid unethical wildlife tours
Image: Getty

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I have a confession: I’ve stroked a tiger. And I’ve ridden an elephant.

Why? Ironically, because of a love of wildlife, I have, in the past, participated in wildlife experiences that, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d certainly never engage in today. While most of us have long boycotted bullfights, dancing bear shows, and circuses using elephants and lions, many of us have unwittingly been supporting animal cruelty on our travels, whether by visiting attractions like Thailand’s Tiger Temple, riding the country’s famous elephants, or even visiting certain zoos and marine wildlife parks.

Last year, Thomas Cook stopped selling tickets to 16 wildlife experiences. This July, it stated that, from next summer, it would be scrapping all trips to SeaWorld and all other wildlife parks with captive orcas. Thomas Cook said this was prompted by a survey it commissioned showing 90% of its customers wanted their holiday company to take animal welfare seriously.

“This announcement followed months of campaigning that included over 100 protests,” Elisa Allen, director of animal rights organisation PETA, tells me.

Thomas Cook’s decision may seem a no-brainer, but even though we’ve come along way since 2013’s Blackfish (the documentary that got the killer whale welfare ball rolling) — with SeaWorld halting its orca breeding programme and many tour operators loudly promoting their animal welfare credentials — some major travel firms are still selling questionable trips.

“Tui has been far less forthcoming about animal welfare than Thomas Cook,” says Justin Francis, founder of online travel agency Responsible Travel, adding, “Virgin Holidays has taken a strange position: it still sells tickets to SeaWorld but has also helped fund a sea pen to house formerly captive cetaceans.”

This May, Which? Travel investigated 10 major travel firms and found all apart from Audley Travel were selling tickets to unethical wildlife facilities — where animals were reportedly kept in poor conditions, or forced to perform or entertain.

“Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to do our own research and speak out when we see such activities promoted,” says PETA’s Allen.

Although even the most conscientious of us can be duped. I visited Sri Lanka’s Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage as a tourist back in 2005 — when it was seen as an ethically run sanctuary for orphaned elephants — and saw nothing unduly concerning. But a 2010 report by animal welfare charity Born Free found elephants were being treated poorly.

When, in early 2012, I visited Kanchanaburi’s celebrated Tiger Temple, a sanctuary run by Buddhist monks, I was appalled to find tigers chained down in 40-degree heat, being swarmed and petted by tourists. The facility has since been closed down after a 2016 raid in which 40 dead tiger cubs were found in a freezer, with evidence suggesting the Tiger Temple had participated in the illegal trade of animal parts.

Even Responsible Travel, a company specialising in ethical tourism and keen to support conservation initiatives, used to sell trips to turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka, until they learned from a 2017 customer report that many are not adhering to best practices. This single review set off a chain of events, which resulted in three holidays being removed from sale on Responsible Travel’s website, and 18 itineraries being amended.

This is the salient point to remember: Responsible Travel and Thomas Cook have scrapped trips based, at least in part, on travellers’ feedback.

We have the power to shut down businesses that thrive on animal cruelty by using our voices as valuable customers, by campaigning, by researching tour companies’ animal rights claims, and by — when necessary — keeping our wallets closed.

Q&A

What can I do to help?
• Check your tour operator’s animal welfare policy, never pay to see animals performing, or pay for photos with a captive animal, and report any exploitation.

• Beware of animal attractions that use words like ‘sanctuary’ or ‘orphanage’ — this doesn’t automatically make them ethical.

• Avoid horse-drawn carriage rides. Horses suffer from respiratory ailments due to exhaust fumes, and develop leg problems from walking on concrete. PETA’s Elisa Allen says, “Donkeys at Petra in Jordan suffer hugely, and visitors who ride them are contributing to their misery.”

What advice has ABTA issued?
In 2013, the UK’s largest travel association published Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism — practical advice for travel businesses and suppliers of animal experiences. Developed in consultation with Born Free and other animal welfare experts, the document covers six areas of concern: Animals in Captive Environments, Dolphins in Captive Environments, Elephants in Captive Environments, Wildlife Viewing, Working Animals, Unacceptable and Discouraged Practices.

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)