From dolphins to tigers, Thailand’s animal shows taking their toll
Report on the state of animal attractions in Thailand – one of the most popular places for wildlife lovers to visit, but one of the worst places for the animals. Good to see the Bangkok Post picking up this story.
The proliferation of such places, where animals are paraded for photo opportunities and their wellbeing allegedly neglected, has drawn growing protest. NGOs are mounting campaigns and protests to stop the opening of a separate dolphinarium in Phuket due to open in October.
“We are teaching children all the wrong things,” said Richard O’Barry, head of the conservationist group DolphinProject.org.
“Children come to these shows and go away from them thinking that these places are where the animals belong,” said Mr O’Barry, also the host of the award-winning 2009 documentary The Cove, which portrays the annual traditional killing of wild dolphins in a Japanese town.
The crowd at the Pattaya dolphinarium shows no awareness of the controversy. Laughter and squeals of delight fill the air as the dolphins perform tricks.
“That was amazing,” said Victoria Maltseva and Roman Lizander from Russia, holidaying in Thailand. They had each paid 2,500 baht for the chance to swim with the animals, which include endangered species.
The dolphinarium displays two Irrawaddy dolphins and a Indo-Pacific humpback. The Indo-Pacific humpback is listed as near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Irrawaddy dolphins are listed as critically endangered, and their commercial trade is forbidden.
“The rise of tourists from countries with less awareness of animal welfare issues has resulted in more of these cheap shows,” said Edwin Wiek, head of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, which works to rescue injured, tortured or trafficked animals and rehabilitate them to the wild where possible.
At Pattaya Dolphin World, the trainers say most of their clients hail from Russia or China.
“A lot of people from these countries do not care about the animals but rather just want to see a show,” says Mr Wiek.
Dolphin World officials dismissed charges of trafficking endangered animals, saying all their dolphins were rescued from beachings or fisherman’s nets.
The Pattaya Dolphin World and Resort is one of many animal-centred tourist destinations to open up or expand in recent years.
In Bangkok, Pata shopping mall has a zoo on its rooftop where space is limited and facilities outdated. A gorilla named Bua-noi has been living there for the past 27 years in a concrete enclosure with only a rubber tyre for company.
Sriracha Tiger Zoo, 100 kilometres east of Bangkok, shows cubs being raised and nursed by sows alongside piglets.
The sign on the display, written in English and Mandarin, says that this is an experiment conducted by the zoo to make the tigers less aggressive.
“I am enjoying it, but maybe I shouldn’t,” said Sarah Gibbs, a teacher from Britain who had her picture taken with a tiger cub.
Mr Wiek estimates that some of these businesses make as much as 400,000 baht per day. None of them “have anything to do with conservation,” he said. He also alleged the tiger parks are involved in trading the animals to China where their parts are harvested for traditional medicines.
“A lot of these tiger farms will let tourists play with the cubs and when they get older ship them off [for sale]” Mr Wiek said. “Individual tigers can fetch up to $6,000 on the black market.”
A spokesman for the Sriracha zoo said its high profile meant a lot of media attention but also the close scrutiny of the authorities.
“I can guarantee that under no circumstance are we involved in the underground trading of these animals.”
Zoo operators in Thailand need a licence and permits from the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department. The process includes an inspection, but there are no clear laws on animal welfare, a department official said.
Activists say that widespread corruption means enforcement of any regulations is poor, and cub births are often unregistered.
A study by the wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC found that body parts from over 1,400 tigers were seized around Asia between 2000 and 2013, with Thailand, Cambodia and Laos representing major stops along the illegal overland routes.
“They want to sit on an elephant, sit next to sleeping tigers and get photographs of these animals without caring how they got there or if they’re being looked after,” Wiek said.
“These kinds of attractions will only hurt Thailand in the long run,” said Nancy Gibson, founder of the Love Wildlife Foundation. “As the world shifts towards eco-tourism and people become more aware, these attractions will only diminish Thailand’s reputation.”
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