The dark side of animal tourism in Thailand
Animal tourism in Thailand – a big problem area. Daily Telegraph article looking at the way tourists are contributing to the abuse and cruelty of animals in the country – and perhaps how things might be changing:
Photogenic animals might be the perfect fodder for social media posts, but many of them are exploited and abused, according to an expat who’s devoted his life to saving them.
When Rihanna, the pop star, posted an Instagram picture of herself posing with an endangered animal in Thailand, last year, it caused an uproar. While the furore surrounding her faux pax might have long since died down, the issue she inadvertently highlighted has not gone away.
From snapping a pic with a slow loris – a protected primate – in Phuket, like Rihanna did, to elephant trekking in Chalong, there are numerous opportunities for British visitors to engage in some form of animal tourism during the course of their trip.
Photogenic animals might be the perfect fodder for Facebook posts but many of the animals in question, including elephants, are not indigenous to Phuket.
Before paying money to touts or travel agents, a responsible tourist should think about the indignities the creature in question might have had to endure to become so docile and obedient. Indeed two men were arrested on suspicion of animal exploitation in the Rihanna case, and she took the offending photograph down.
Elephants, for example, are routinely subjected to a prolonged period of systematic torture before they are adjudged sufficiently obedient to be entrusted with human riders. According to Edwin Wiek, a Dutch expat who runs the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), these are not the only animals that undergo serious trauma en route to the tourism industry.
“Most gibbons and lorises are taken from the wild, where poachers usually have to kill the mother of the young animals to take them away. Some elephants are also taken from the wild, we estimate 40-50 per cent, while others are bred in captivity,” he said. “The direct exploitation of wildlife, such as using them as photo props in public places, is horrible.”
Even British tourists who are determined to be ethical can come undone. Mr Wiek, who has lived in Thailand for 20 years, warns to be wary of claims that any income will be used to benefit the animals in question,
“In many cases tourists are told they are supporting elephant conservation or tiger breeding for conservation in these places, when all they are actually doing is supporting animal abuse and the breeding of wildlife in captivity which is counterproductive to conservation,” he said.
Edwin Wiek with a rescued monkey (EDWIN WIEK/TWITTER)
While some visitors to Thailand may be blissfully unaware of the damage they are doing by supporting the animal tourism industry, others are instinctively aware that mistreatment must be an integral part of the training process.
Sara Meier, from Oxfordshire, recalls a recent experience which made her particularly concerned for the well-being of the tigers she had paid to see perform.
“My husband and I went to a zoo in Koh Samui where we saw tigers being made to do silly tricks like jumping through fire for entertainment and they cowered when the trainer went anywhere near them. We wanted to walk out as it upset us so much,” she said.
The mistreatment of animals in Thailand could partly be due to the contrast between Western sensibilities and the attitude of people in a place where the minimum daily wage remains the equivalent of around £5 per day. However, Mr Wiek believes that it is corruption rather than ignorance which allows the industry to thrive,
“I think Asian people used to have less of an eye for animal welfare but that was mostly due to a different level of education. Times are changing now and I see a much better understanding of animal welfare compared with 10 years ago, but due to widespread corruption not many people think that they can make a real difference,” he said.
The consequences of speaking out against the animal tourism industry in Thailand can be severe as Mr Wiek discovered two years ago when the WFFT was raided and over 100 animals confiscated by officials after he had made critical remarks about the way in which elephants were being taken from the wild and tortured.
Ironically many of the animals seized were returned to the type of harsh conditions that they had been rescued from. Mr Wiek says campaigning against what is clearly a lucrative trade has come at a high personal cost,
“Our campaigns make it difficult for wildlife exploitation people to make a living and it stops corrupt officials from receiving bribes. They want to protect their income and will fight an ugly war against us,” he said.
A controversial proposal to construct a dolphinarium in Phuket recently hit the headlines after attracting online protests. Activists are adamant that dolphins do not belong in captivity and claim that, with eco tourism becoming increasingly fashionable, the existence of such a facility will damage Thailand’s global reputation.
The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) advises travellers to “think twice about participating in activities that might distress an animal” and visitors to Thailand would be well advised to conduct some independent research before deciding whether or not this is an industry which they want to support.
Original article in the Daily Telegraph