Travel Ethics: Animal Tourism in Southeast Asia

  • December 11, 2017

Instagram recently added a feature to its search function that prompts a warning message when someone is looking for certain animal-related hashtags:

If you click “Learn More,” you’re taken to the Instagram help page, which provides information about environmental and ethical concerns associated with interacting with wild animals.

Having spent a significant amount of time living and traveling around Southeast Asia, I’m no stranger to attractions like riding elephants or cuddling with tigers. You’ll find them all over Thailand and Cambodia, and for a very reasonable rate by Western standards. But there remains quite a bit of controversy over whether or not it’s ethical to participate in these types of tourist activities.

When I traveled to Thailand in 2014, I went on an elephant trek in Krabi. I did quite a bit of research before booking, and wanted to make sure that I chose a reputable company with good reviews. The one I found only ran two tours a day, and each elephant did just one trek each day. It was a small group of us — myself, my friend, and a family of four —and we didn’t travel an especially long distance. When we reached our destination in the middle of the jungle, we fed our elephants fruit.

It seemed to me that these animals were being treated fairly, but is it ever ethical to ride elephants? Elephants have been used as work animals for millennia, not unlike horses or cattle. Is there a difference between riding a horse and riding an elephant? There is certainly concern over the hooks that the mahouts use to control the elephants, and for good reason. I’m still a little unresolved about this one, but I don’t think I would ride elephants again. If anything, I’d seek out a sanctuary where I could donate my time and money instead.

To me, other cases of animal tourism are more clear cut. The recently rebranded Tiger Temple, for example, was shut down and reopened under another name following accusations of animal mistreatment. This attraction (of which there are many in Thailand) allows tourists to cuddle and pose for photos inside enclosures with tigers. These facilities claim that they don’t drug the tigers, but it seems obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a #tigerselfie that these animals are under the influence of some kind of sedative — otherwise it would be a photo of a tiger mauling the tourist. (Although if the animal did attack the human, I’d be more inclined to blame the human. In the words of Chris Rock, “That tiger ain’t gone crazy, that tiger went tiger!”) In these cases, they’re not even pretending to create a natural habitat or hospitable conditions for the animals. But companies know there’s a market for tourists who just want to Instagram the experience.

Then there is the non-sanctioned interactions with animals that tourists stupidly take on themselves. When you visit the Batu Caves in Malaysia, you’ll find wild monkeys everywhere. They’re especially fascinating to Westerners, since they’re such a novel sight for us. But does that mean you should try to feed or pet them? Not unless you want a monkey bite and subsequent case of encephalitis. Speaking from experience, the Batu Caves monkeys don’t even like having their photo taken.

Standards for animal treatment in Asia remain far behind Western standards, yet Western travelers are often the ones keeping these animal tourism industries alive in Southeast Asia. If you’re considering participating in some kind of tourist activity involving animals, do your research. Instead of riding elephants or cuddling tigers, consider visiting a reputable animal sanctuary instead, like Elephant Nature Park or Wildlife Friends Foundation. If you find that you’re more interested in posting a cool photo than you are in learning about the animals themselves, then stick to the beach. You’ll still get tons of likes, I promise.

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