Animal welfare and environment conservation vs. Your perfect holidays

During my journey across South and South East Asia I often had to face a moral dilemma: whether my wishes and desires are more important than the fate of the animals and the planet? Often people don’t even realise just how destructive tourism could be so I decided to write a separate post on the issue with plenty of concrete examples and some tips on how to become a more responsible tourist.

Elephant riding spot in Phuket, Thailand

I’m a nature lover and nothing could make me happier or more excited than watching the wildlife or visiting the last wilderness areas on the planet. This being said, I’m aware that there are millions of other people who think exactly like me and that my actions do have an impact on the environment, often an undesired one.

Dubious animal attractions

Not every tourist attraction deserves to be ticked. In Asia various forms of animal tourism abound and most of them range between mild and extreme animal abuse.

Elephant riding/feeding/bathing

What could be a more iconic photo or a memorable adventure than riding an elephant in Sri Lanka or Thailand? And yet, however much you’d be yearning for the exotic experience, you should keep away from all domestic elephants. However unthinkable that might be, most of the elephants in Asia are still captured in the wild as babies and undergo a brutal training known as ‘breaking’ to become docile tools in the hands of human.

Riding an elephant is one of those ‘cool’ things so many people choose to do on their holidays

Breaking involves systematic torture: food and sleep deprivation and physical violence. At the end of the process, elephant learns that his mahout is his master and that disobedience would be treated with plunging a metal spike into the softest, most sensitive parts of its body. You can read more about this process here

Elephant and its mahout in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Even assuming that the elephant was born in the captivity, its life would still be hard. Sadly, most of the domestic elephants spend their lives in chains. Often, they are chained by one front and one hind leg in a way which does not allow them to make even a single step. Even if they move from place to place, they might still have to carry the chains.

Temple elephant at Kande Viharaya temple in Sri Lanka

Elephants are highly intelligent and social animals. Keeping them whole day long all alone at one spot seriously limits the range of experiences. Elephants aren’t fish that only need to be fed to be happy. Of course, in countries where even dogs are kept all their lives on a short chain, the awareness that something is amiss with a chained elephant  simply isn’t there. But if it’s obvious for you that a dog deserves a loving owner who’d entertain him and let him roam freely, it should be even more clear that the same would be true for an elephant.

Even if you shunned elephant riding for the sake of just feeding and bathing them (doing them good, right?) you have to ask yourself where did those elephants come from, what their life was like outside the bathing hours and most of all, would it really need YOU to take care of it. There are just a handful of genuine shelters for pachyderms who suffered abuse throughout their lifetime and many more which just pretend to be humane while in fact are far from it. Do your research well if you want to join as a volunteer one of them.

Animal shows

Nothing is more sad than a sight of a monkey with a chain on the neck, taught to dance or make some acrobatic tricks. Monkeys aren’t and will never be domestic animals. Just as with elephants, it’s likely they were captured from the wild. Moreover, keep in mind that training always involves at least some degree of violence or deprivation.

A trained monkey looking at the religious procession in Sri Lanka

Crocodile/snake/tiger farms

Animal farms, extremely popular in Thailand, but existing throughout South East Asia and in India make for another pathetic form of making money. The animals in the farms aren’t technically wild as they were born in captivity. They are fed and treated in case of illness. The farms owners would claim contact with those animals would be not only entertaining but also educational.

Why would you support breeding animals for the sole purpose of entertainment? They are living, feeling creatures. They don’t enjoy being held or touched by hundreds of people every day. Imagine being grabbed, lifted in the air and showed to a loud crowd by creatures many times your size. It is stressful. It is scary. It is unnecessary. The cute tiger puppies bottle -fed by the farm visitors should be breast- fed by their mother, hugging to their warm bodies. They certainly shouldn’t be kept hungry for hours just to wait for the moment when tourists come along to touch the soft fur and take the sweetest selfie ever. Baby tigers aren’t kittens! Be aware that many safari zoos, although they give plenty of space for the animals to roam freely, often boost their income by various shows and photo -posing opportunities. If you really need to see a zoo safari, read the reviews first.

Volunteering at conservation/ animal welfare projects

Amazingly enough, even some of the volunteer conservation project might be geared towards profit rather than animal well-being.

The great example of questionable volunteering projects of that sort are turtle hatcheries dotting the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Overall, one cannot complain: the hatcheries are involved in picking up the eggs from the beaches, taking care of them until hatching and releasing the hatchlings into the wild.

One of the listless turtles from the hatchery tank

Each such hatchery has a small tank with wounded turtles which are star attractions in those mini-zoos where the visitors can touch and lift the animals as much as they wish. Also the baby turtles stay in tanks for some time before getting released for no apparent reason (more on that here).The volunteering projects, somehow all geared towards Chinese groups, do not contain much meaningful work but rather a mixture of extra activities and a few idle hours at the hatchery. The organisers give the volunteers ample opportunities to touch the turtles and take plenty of instagrammable photos. How does affect the animals is never an issue.

After posing as attractions, turtles are finally released.

Let’s take the example of night patrols where the group of around twenty people or so walk along the beach to spot a turtle laying eggs. Why so many people need to be there? Of course they are not needed. The volunteers just want to witness the turtle laying eggs and that is the sole reason of them being there. That is what they pay their $200 per week for. The volunteers aren’t there to help, really, but rather to have a cool, unique experience.

How many more to rub one turtle? The practice is supposed to prevent algae growth on a carapace

I can only imagine there are hundreds of similar projects involving other species all around the world. Again, before you sign up for a volunteering project it’s worth to ask yourself: whom does it benefits more: yourself or the animals?

The wildlife safari dilemma

So far, I wrote only about individuals, companies and organisations which are purely business- oriented. However, even the government-managed organisations might be at fault. Let’s take a look at the safaris in national park and wildlife reserves. It might seem logical that the animal abuse and suffering is out of question there. The animals roam freely and the visitors just watch them. Moreover, the tourists’ money helps to maintain the national park and protect the very species we admire. If only things could be that simple…

A diving sperm whale spotted at the whale safari in Mirissa

Unfortunately, wildlife safaris (both in their land and marine versions) are also a huge business. Wherever there are many private companies competing for the wildlife watching market you can be sure there is space for abuse. Profit will be almost always paramount for those tour operators. The tourist pay money to see a wild elephant or a whale. The tour operator will do anything to provide it and make their customer happy. This is true even for the safaris ran directly by the national park rangers, as is the case in Indian national parks.

Poor regulations allow plenty of jeeps/boats to go in search of animals every day. Hundreds of people get on board of loud, polluting vehicles and get into the heart of animal ‘sanctuaries’, chasing them relentlessly. Once an excited animal is spotted, the word spreads like wildfire. One jeep or boat, becomes two, five, even fifteen. Each vehicle is full of excited, loud humans. The animals have nowhere to escape, no place of peace or respite. It’s not my imagination. Any honest tour operator will admit that dolphins or whales dislike the noise of the engines and want to get away from it and the same is true for the land animals.

Spinner dolphins in Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka

You might find more ethical tour operators who -for whatever reason- try to be more respectful of animals boundaries and not to stress them out. But essentially, people will be satisfied only when the animal is spotted: the closer the distance, the better.

Example: wildlife tours in Sri Lanka

Personally, I still struggle with this dilemma. I tend to stay on the ‘ethical’ side of the business and choose less frequented parks or visit them off-peak but at times I just decide to skip a safari altogether.

When I was in Sri Lanka, I deliberated a long time whether I should go for a whale watching safari in Mirissa. Eventually my wish to see blue whale prevailed. However, I chose the most ethical company I could find. What won me over was that some Trip Advisor reviewers claimed the owner cared more for the whales than for the customers. That’s exactly what I was hoping for and I was not disappointed.

Dolphins thankfully enjoy human presence to some degree and would accompany a lone boat

I also went for a dolphin watching trip in Kalpitiya on a very low-key, off-peak tour and again I did not regret it.  Conversely, I preferred to avoid overcrowded Yala National Park (famous for its leopards) and the elephant safari near Minneriya. I also decided against night watching of the turtles laying eggs on the beach in Tangalle since the reviews sounded horrifying and the common sense dictated against it.

Reading the reviews helps but the truth is, you never know how bad it is really going to be until you try. To be honest, deep inside I know I’m deceiving myself and what I do serves only my pleasure, not the animal conservation efforts. Thankfully this kind of dilemma occur only in Asia and Africa, where most of the safaris take place. Visiting national parks on foot, as is usually the case in Europe or North America,  would have much lower impact on the animals even if it brings too many people near the wildlife.

Cumulative effect of mass tourism on environment

The coral reefs destruction

Directly disturbing animals in their natural habitat is just one of the forms in which wildlife/nature business has detrimental effect on the animals and the entire environment. Seemingly innocent scuba diving and snorkelling usually doesn’t directly affect the animals but the high volume of swimmers using fins (especially beginners divers who struggle with buoyancy) bit by bit destroy fragile coral reefs.

Snorkelling tours are a lot of fun but not necessarily for the animals

I still feel guilty about taking part in an organised snorkelling tour on Ko Tao where 15 people surrounded a sea turtle which was feeding on a grass bed. I also felt an accomplice in the reef destruction after both me and Sayak accidentally hit the corals a couple of times during our open water diving course.

Learning to dive inevitably results in some coral damage

I felt relieved I decided to skip a visit in Ko Phi Phi. We were considering it as it was such a famous sight but eventually the blog descriptions of that loud, overcrowded island put us off. This decision spared me remorse after I heard the news that the iconic Maya Bay – one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and a nature reserve- was closed to visitors for the indefinite period. The high volume of tourists completely destroyed the reef  and scared off many species. Thankfully the Thai government acknowledged that the environment needed time to re-generate and made a wise decision.

Other fragile ecosystems

The tourism induced environment destruction isn’t restricted to marine habitats. I heard that huge amounts of visitors to the Himalayan region of Leh in India caused the glacier to disappear much quicker than it’d have normally done. How come? The visitors arrive in jeeps running on diesel. The particles of soot land on snow, causing it to melt much faster than usual (as the black colour absorbs sun).

Off-peak time on Ko Nang Yuan islands in Thailand. Imagine the place in full season!

Mass tourism is incredibly destructive to the natural environment. If some place already receives a very high volume of visitors, you’d do the planet Earth a favour if you found a less visited alternative.

How to become a responsible tourist?

Pretty much everything we do has an impact. Being more aware of the consequences of our choices as tourists is the first step to reduce that impact. Much animal suffering and environmental damage could be avoided without sacrificing anything during our dreamed holidays, or only through makings some minor adjustments. It’s worth to put an effort to have a guilt-free holidays which are not going to leave the place worse than you found it.

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