Ella, one of our great volunteers, tells some of her tales from Thailand, as she reflects on eco-tourism and the things you can do to avoid animal mistreatment.
Recently, there has been a lot of media attention concerning unethical tourist attractions that exploit animals in countries like Thailand. Indeed, this is an extremely important issue that needs highlighting. Across Southeast Asia there are countless attractions that boast close contact with tigers, and allow you to ride elephants on dusty tracks through pristine jungles. It sounds too good to be true, and it is.
Tourist attractions like the infamous Tiger Temple (which has very recently been shut down) are cruel exploits, reducing magnificent creatures to mere objects of entertainment. The tigers are heavily sedated and beaten into submission. It has been reported that many of these attractions even cut tendons in the tigers legs in an attempt to limit their physical prowess and prevent them from running out of the enclosure or harming visitors. New born cubs are cruelly snatched from their mothers in order to prevent them from imprinting, making it much easier to control and dominate the tigers at an early age. Furthermore, the mere practice of keeping tigers in captivity, as opposed to living wild in the jungle, is detrimental to the indigenous tiger population which is already extremely depleted, if not completely non-existent, in many regions of Asia where they once thrived. Unfortunately tigers are not the only creatures who suffer at the hands of the animal tourism industry.
Countless Asian Elephants are ridden by tourists every day, and the process of turning elephants into submissive instruments of entertainment is absolutely horrifying. From an early age, the elephants are beaten, taught to associate metal hooks with pain, restrained in a tiny cage and abused so that they will accept being ridden by humans. This process is called "The Crush" with the main objective being literally to break their spirits. The cruelty doesn't end with this process. The elephants are kept in sub standard conditions throughout the rest of their long lives, in small enclosures tied in chains, with little or no veterinary care and limited access to water. They are forced to breed artificially and their babies are torn from mothers at an early age. Elephants are creatures of vast emotional intelligence and many are known to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of this treatment.
Recently, my travelling companion and I were riding scooters through the jungle near Pai, Northern Thailand, when we came across some sheds by the side if the road. There, we saw a few elephants standing hunched in the enclosure with chains around their feet. The poor animals had barely any room for manoeuvre, and no access to water despite the 40 degree heat. We both pulled over and one particular elephant turned to look at us with soulful eyes, gently reaching out her trunk for us to hold. It was the most touching, beautiful gesture of shared humanity and a moment I won't forget. The saddest part is that despite the trauma and suffering this poor creature had endured, it was still able to reach out, still willing to befriend us. There was almost a flicker of hope in her eyes. My friend told me she was close to tears, so we said our goodbyes and we went on our way. But the moment stuck with us. It was such a contrast to our experience at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
So here is the good news. If you are travelling, there are places where you can see elephants in great conditions, living happy lives amongst their family. One such place is the sanctuary we went to. The elephants were free to roam where they pleased, with no hooks or chains, so at any point they could disappear into the forest if they wanted. (Our guide told us one male teenager had recently done so after being overwhelmed by the urge to find a mate.) At places like this, the humans and elephants have a reciprocal relationship, a mutual agreement if you will. The elephants stay for the free food and the humans get money from visitors wishing for contact with the elephants.
Our day consisted of feeding the creatures, walking with them to the river, swimming with them and washing them. Honestly, the elephants seemed genuinely happy, playful and full of life; in stark contrast to the poor beasts we saw by the side of the road. I understand that a lot of tourists unknowingly feed unto the animal tourism trade due to simple ignorance. It dosen’t meant they are bad people, they just haven’t been educated. But after reading this you have no excuses! if you're travelling, or planning on going travelling I implore you to pay a little extra, do some research, and go to a proper sanctuary (one with no chains and no riding as this is actually very bad for their backs and posture). When it comes to seeing monkeys in shows or going to tiger petting zoos please just avoid it. Surely you don't want to contribute to such cruelty? Travelling is about absorbing local culture and enjoying nature, not feeding into negative industries. Thank you!