A leading animal charity is calling on tourists to think twice before they take part in wild animal experiences, as part of a campaign to expose the hidden suffering behind many attractions.
The campaign by World Animal Protection, which launches today in conjunction with World Animal Day, draws on research that found almost half of people pay for a wild animal experience because they love animals, but they remain unaware of the abuse that goes on behind the scenes.
Mike Baker, chief executive of World Animal Protection said: “What we need to do is alert people to the wildlife suffering in this industry. We don’t want that once in a lifetime experience to be a lifetime of misery for the animal.”
Targeting tourists before they book, the campaign focuses on the five worst examples of wild animal attractions, with an emphasis on elephant rides – one of the most popular forms of wildlife tourism.
The charity is also launching a guide to being animal friendly on holiday, which includes advice on what to ask a tour operator before booking and things to look out for when you are abroad. However Baker says tourists should also use their common sense.
“If an animal is doing something it wouldn’t do in the wild then it’s probably not right and something has gone on to make them behave that way,” he says. “Take elephant rides – you couldn’t just jump on a wild elephant’s back, there’s a process to get them there. They’re chained up, beaten. And what we’ve realised is most people don’t want that.”
Another form of wild animal tourism that has become particularly widespread in recent years are parks or “sanctuaries” where visitors can pose for photos with tigers – popularised by the “tiger selfie” trend. This is similar to experiences in which tourists can walk with lions.
According to World Animal Protection, both these types of attraction involve removing cubs from their mothers at a young age, where they are beaten and punished to train them. In some cases the animals are drugged to make them more compliant.
Other types of wild animal experiences the charity hopes to end are swimming with captive dolphins and dancing macaques shows.
“This report is the first time we’ve been able to confirm the reality of these practices and underpin it with research,” says Baker. “We’ve also realised the scale of it. There are around 16,000 elephants in capitvity – that’s a quarter of the total number on the planet.”
According to Baker there has been a marked shift on this issue in the travel industry. Earlier this year, tour operator Intrepid Travel announced it would no longer offer elephant rides on any of its trips. In May STA Travel, which provides holidays for 2.5 million students and young people each year, stopped offering tours that include elephant rides or trips to the Tiger Temple in Thailand, as well as ending trips to SeaWorld Orlando and San Diego.
Tourists who want to experience animals while on holiday should be visiting the animals “carefully and ethically” in their natural habitats, says Baker.
“I’ve been on whale watching trips and safaris and when you see a dolphin skipping in the sea, or a tiger in the wild it makes the entertainment side just seem a little grubby in comparison.”
Wild animal tourism in numbers
Number of elephants in captivity worldwide – a quarter of the total number on the planet
of captive adult elephants used for tourism entertainment have been taken directly from the wild
Number of captive tigers in the US alone. In the wild there are just 3,200
Estimated number of bottlenose dolphins being used for entertainment worldwide
Number of visitors to SeaWorld San Diego in 2012
Approximate number of lions kept and bred in captivity in South Africa – double the number of those in the wild or natural reserves
Source: World Animal Protection