The Darker side of Wildlife Tourist Entertainments
by Dr. Oishimaya Sen Nag
Several years ago, stroking a gorgeous cheetah, wrapping a giant python around my neck, and holding a vibrant macaw on my arm were "dreams come true" for me as I visited countries in Africa and North America offering such "animal encounter" adventures. Today, I dread even the thought of participating in such experiences. Although legal in most places where they are offered, the far-fetched consequences of such wildlife tourist attractions are usually detrimental, both from animal welfare and wildlife conservation perspectives. Now, better equipped with the knowledge of conservation science, I realise how a lack of awareness can cause even the most well-meaning of hearts to participate in activities that adversely affect animals. Even science has shown that each year, worldwide, nearly two to four million tourists financially support wildlife tourism attractions that are detrimental to animal conservation and welfare. Thus, keeping this fact in mind, the article mentions some wildlife tourist activities you must avoid if you care about the animals and the ecosystem as a whole.
CAPTIVE ANIMAL INTERACTION & SHOWS
You must have watched with awe social media photos and videos of people stroking giant captive tigers and boasting about touching the massive, deadly predator with their own hands. Then there are posts of children cuddling adorable lion cubs or feeding them milk in bottles, elephants putting on a show for spectators in captive settings, and families playing with cute captive dolphins, showered with all the happy emojis on social media. All these interactions and similar ones are invisible acts of cruelty and irresponsible behaviour, as shown in a 2015 publication by researchers from the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.
Animals in such interactions are forced to live in unnatural conditions, trained using cruel practices, and sometimes drugged to render them less dangerous to visitors, all detrimental to these animals’ health and well-being. Baby animals are removed from their mothers and cuddled and fed by visitors, often depriving them of the necessary rest and nutrition needed for a healthy body and mind. Such encounters with captive animals also pose a risk to visitors as such animals still retain their natural instinct and might display the same in extreme cases. Such activities are also bereft of conservation benefits and usually purely for entertainment and profit.
FARMED ‘WILDLIFE ATTRACTIONS’ & PRODUCTS
You might have heard about the exotic civet coffee “kopi luwak”often deemed the world’s most expensive coffee, and might be dying to try it out. The coffee is prepared from the partially digested coffee beans found in the faeces of the Asian palm civet. Most such coffee producers breed the civet in farms in highly unhealthy conditions , force-feeding the civets for greater output. Visits to such farms and drinking this coffee are thus acts supporting animal cruelty. They might also negatively affect civet conservation efforts, as civets are also caught from the wild to be bred, reducing their population. Hence, visits to farms of similar nature breeding wildlife for commercial purposes is not advisable.
Upon my first visit to the spectacular city of Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, in 2012, with a tour group, I was disappointed when I learned that the tour company had excluded an elephant ride in the historical Amer Fort of the city. Years later, today, I am thankful that I did not participate in one of the cruelest acts towards elephants. While writing an article on the ” Refuse to Ride” campaign launched by the NGO Wildlife SOS, I learned about the ruthless treatment meted out to the Amer Fort elephants throughout their lifetime, starting from snatching them from their mothers in the wild to being beaten mercilessly to make them submissive to housing them in extremely unhealthy enclosures and forcing them to walk on scorching hot surfaces of the fort for long hours with tourists on their backs. Many of these elephants suffer from foot problems, blindness, and other ailments and yet, are given no respite. I am sure such knowledge will discourage any concerned tourist from taking such elephant rides for entertainment the next time they are offered such an opportunity.
BUYING SOUVENIRS DEREIVED FROM WILDLIFE
Knowledge is power, and definitely so in this case. Not only can it save the lives of endangered species, but it can also stop you from landing up in jail. Carrying wildlife body parts is illegal in many countries, and not knowing the laws might really get you into trouble. Avoid buying souvenirs derived from wild animals , like reptile leather, bird feathers, seahorse and sea turtle curios or souvenirs, and similar products. Even the gorgeous seashell souvenirs and corals you discover on your beach getaway are possibly unsustainably harvested and depleting the ecosystem of its much-needed species. We all know how coral reefs protect the land from strong waves and serve as fish nurseries,
supporting the fishing industry. Thousands of tourists visiting seashores and buying souvenirs made of corals can thus reduce the lifespan of such reefs. The seashells are also often extracted by boiling alive the live animals inside them, which is against animal welfare.
It is not just animal products, but many plants around the world, including several species of hardwoods, orchids, etc., are highly threatened. Hence, items made from such threatened plant species can also attract penalties if caught and are also against conservation.
BRINGING NON_NATIVE SPECIES HOME
On your visit to an exotic botanical garden, you might be tempted to carry back a seed of the most striking-looking plant to your home and establish it in your garden. However, such a plant, if a non-native in the place where you are introducing it, can give birth to an ecological disaster if it spreads in the wild and acts as an invasive species, killing native plants by competing with them for resources and growing out of control. The same happens with animals.
For example, the accidental/intentional release of Burmese pythons, a Southeast Asian native animal, by owners of exotic pets into the wilds of the Florida Everglades in America has depleted populations of many native species as they compete with food for such species, leaving little for them to survive. Thus, it is best to enjoy the native wildlife of the place you are visiting and only bring back memories of the same to your home. As a species living in an era where our activities are causing great harm to the environment around us, we must take extreme care to not engage in practices that are harmful to the ecosystem. We must also cautiously avoid wildlife tourist attractions that
cause pain and suffering to other species sharing the planet with us. There are plenty of ways to enjoy wildlife and the ecosystems around us without causing any harm, like going on nature trails, visiting national parks, birdwatching, camping, swimming, and more. So, consider the above points as you indulge in the perfect vacation with your loved ones in your favourite destination and be a responsible tourist and spread awareness among
others as well.