Like many of us, there are things I did as a young global traveller that I wish I could take back, and would certainly avoid doing again if the opportunity came up.
I blame naivety, but I have ridden elephants in Asia, seen dolphins performing at SeaWorld and had my photo taken with big cats at the Tiger Temple in Thailand, which was shut down a few months ago amid claims of animal cruelty and illegal trafficking.
It may sound crazy, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that the tigers may have been drugged, as is often suggested. Looking back now I have to wonder how it was so easy to wander from animal to animal having our photo taken as they just lay there placidly.
Facebook was still relatively new at the time, but I remember receiving an overwhelming number of comments from friends about what a cool experience it was.
After watching countless The World Around Us and David Attenborough docos growing up, I was determined that when I went to Kenya for a safari it would be during the annual Great Migration, when more than a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras move from Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains over the border to the Masai Mara National Reserve in search of food and water as the seasons change.
Unfortunately, everyone else seemed to have the same idea, and there were around 100 jeeps filled with camera-toting tourists there to witness a spectacular river crossing, not to mention the documentary filmmaker scaring the animals with drones flying overhead as they made their first tentative steps to cross. How can such mass tourism not be having an impact on this unique eco-system?
While it was an amazing encounter, I would encourage others to visit outside peak season or consider an alternative destination, such as nearby Amboseli National Park.
But perhaps the worst thing I have done on my travels is seeing a bullfight in Spain.
For many Aussie expats living in London, it is pretty much a given that you pop down to Pamplona for the annual running of the bulls San Fermin festival. While there, we eagerly bought tickets to a bullfight. The ensuing ‘show’ reminded me of pulling the wings off a fly as the matador tempted and teased the animal, and planted barbed sticks into it.
I will never forget my friend turning to me at one point and meekly asking: “They’re not going to kill it, are they?”
Like I said, we were naïve. I know it’s tradition, but to me it’s astounding that animals are still being tortured and murdered in the name of entertainment.
Fortunately, there seems to have been a societal shift and social media has led to greater awareness of unethical tourism experiences.
Since adventure travel company Intrepid took the lead and banned elephant rides and trips to elephant entertainment venues from their tours in early 2014 more than 100 global tour operators and travel companies have stopped promoting the activity, including Contiki, G Adventures and World Expeditions.
This should help reduce the number of elephants who are taken away from their mothers at a young age and physically and psychologically abused in the name of training.
TripAdvisor recently announced it will stop selling tickets to many cruel animal attractions after a petition by World Animal Protection was signed by more than 500,000 people worldwide.
While certain venues that involve cruel entertainment attractions will still be bookable via TripAdvisor or its Viator brand, the company has vowed to end the sale of experiences where tourists have direct physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species.
World Animal Protection estimates 110 million people visit cruel wildlife tourist attractions each year, unaware of the abuse involved. It has compiled a list of the ten worst attractions and experiences, including riding elephants, taking tiger selfies, walking with lions, visiting bear parks and crocodile farms, holding sea turtles, seeing performing dolphins, watching dancing monkeys, touring civet cat coffee plantations, watching snake charmers and kissing cobras.
Instead, it encourages people to view wildlife in a natural habitat and not to initiate contact with them. It also suggests only visiting animal sanctuaries and shelters that house animals in captivity if the objectives of the organisation are in the animal’s best interests, such as rehabilitation or releasing them into the wild.
World Expeditions has introduced four trips for 2017 that include only responsible wildlife encounters. Itineraries include a day at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand wildlife rescue centre to learn about the plight of elephants in the tourism industry and how they are rehabilitated and returned to the wild, and visiting Libearty bear sanctuary and a Save the Dogs shelter which cares for strays in Romania.
It’s up to us to keep demanding operators take such steps, and to support those that do.