Gap years are popular – whether acting as a bridge of sanctuary between compulsory and higher education, a time to refine skills and gain extra qualifications or to see more of the world. In fact, travelling is a large part of many gap year experiences, and why not? If you have the desire, the drive, the curiosity and the funds, it all seems like a picturesque and wonderful experience. Many of these same travellers will decide to follow a generic itinerary of things to do. Especially in countries in the Southern hemisphere, a staple attraction might be a ride on an elephant, or hands-on animal petting. For many, it’s almost something which you have to tick off the checklist. However, many of us are not aware of the terrible realities that exist within these industries and which, really, we shouldn’t ignore.
Over the last few years, my involvement with animal advocacy groups has opened my eyes to some of the saddening conditions which many wild animals face. Animals which – if we do not seriously start making a change in our choices as a human race – we will no longer share the planet. They simply will no longer exist, making this topic a terrifyingly serious one, a topic which we often treat as being secondary to George Osborne’s latest budget or taxes on fizzy drinks.
Many of these species are depleting in numbers due to industries such as poaching and logging. For example, the loss of the habitat of Asian Elephants has led to there being around 2000 left in Thailand. Whilst the destruction of these animal’s habitats are commonly known causes of endangered species, most people are not aware of how tourism heavily contributes to their struggle. The vast majority of these animals face the penalty of death through this heavily selfish and cruel industry.
These animals are both social and intelligent individuals. So much so, that tourists are willing to part with their hard-earned money in order to ride an elephant, watch one paint or perform tricks. The ability of an elephant to perform human-like actions somehow has become more pleasure-filling and rewarding than seeing this animal in the wild. The truth is, an elephant will not want to naturally carry a human on its back – although they are tremendously huge animals, biologically, it is not made to carry the burden of such a weight.
In order to make animals suitable for their daily grind, Phajaan, or “the crush”, has to take place. Sadly, since these animals are not left to their own natural instincts and devices, they must be taken at a young age in order to ‘train them’ to willingly let humans ride them. And that’s where “the crush” takes place: these babies are stolen from their mothers in the wild and are often confined to a small hole or space where they are beaten into submission, starved and deprived of sleep. This brutality does not end at an early age – the same fear of torture will continuously be used throughout the animal’s life in order to scare them into performing tricks or welcoming rides for tourists travelling from all continents of the world.
The past decade of so has seen a dramatic rise in the number of ‘swimming with dolphin’ trips. Whilst they kiss your face, let you swim with them or nuzzle up to them – do they want to? The reality, sadly, is desperately far from this. These wild animals arrive in these small spaces by being rounded up into nets and transported in boats where many of them – usually babies – will die as a stress-induced result of inhumane travel. These dolphins, in their new environments, will be bred to sustain the livelihood of the company. One heartbreaking story found that many mothers would stop their new babies from breathing, which was believed to be since they did not want their newborns from living in such a harsh, bewildered and ruinous place.
In animal-petting parks, female cats are usually intensively bred, whilst babies are bottle-fed by tourists. This is all before they begin to be walked by park-goers and inevitably become too big to be treated as cute and fluffy cats. Many of these older females will therefore be filtered off to breed, whilst the males will be sectioned off to be shot in enclosures – there is no chance for these animals to escape. Their heads are typically used as a cynical trophy of dominion, whilst their body-parts are used in Chinese medicine – usually marketed off to treat impotence.
Although a lot of this mistreatment is concealed from the public eye (that wouldn’t make a very good advertisement now, would it?), many of these tourist parks use the media to portray them as the “rescuers” of these animals, operating in humane “sanctuaries”. It all sounds very nice and cuddly; the animals are pleased to be rescued from torture and destruction, they’re happy to be petted each day, where each animal has a good life thanks to the money you contribute to such a company.
The clue is in the company part – these are not trusts or humanitarian charities. Many of them adopt the name “lodge” or sell merchandise which may look something similar to that of WWF or PETA. It’s not a surprise that many of us fall into the fantasy of familiarising ourselves with these animals – which we would not usually have the chance to see. However, it is vital that you check where you are visiting in order to ensure that these places are ethical. Greenglobaltravel.com is a great website to educate yourself about where you are going and places such as Elephant Nature Park in Thailand still enable you to experience these animals – but don’t expect them to be standing with paintbrush in mouth, waiting for you to stand and watch. This is not what such animals should naturally be doing.
As somebody who adores these animals and their beauty, I wish that these terrible environments did not exist. But what worries me more is that they will continue to thrive through their callous continuation of breeding; this means that even after these animals have perished in the wild – we will become more desperate, more eager and more excited to visit them elsewhere. The governments around the world, especially those which are corrupt, need to take more serious action in order to protect our wildlife. Populations which are densely growing in some countries, causing chaotic struggle, mean that there is often a face-off at hand between the well-being of a country’s people and their animals – the animals will certainly be treated as the least important.
Words by Lydia Ibrahim