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The Gair Rhydd column: The dark truth behind the Western ‘gap yah’

Our Western thirst to 'aid' is exploiting animals, communities and children, and we have absolutely no idea.

It is rarely disputed fact that ‘gap yah’ students are instantaneously both the coolest and most irritating people in university. There is categorically nothing worse than a gap yah story during pres from Angus from Ealing, who explains how he “didn’t realise how crap other people’s lives were” until his trip to Burma in 2013 that “changed his life”. He will then curse as he spills a drop of his cîroc and tonic onto his Ralph Lauren polo and giggle about how much banter him and the lads are going to have when they hit up their private booth in Pryzm.

I went abroad to volunteer (queue eye roll) the summer after my first year at uni. As I myself experienced the transition of turning into a gap yah kid, I began to appreciate the true pain of never being able to start a sentence with “when I was in…” without cringing, or being unable to upload a picture of my travels onto Instagram without one of my friends commenting something sarcastic like “omg did you go travelling?” Ha ha.

It is difficult to discuss ethical travel without sounding pretentious and annoying, but as the ‘voluntourism’ industry is worth an estimated $173 billion, and is the fastest growing sector of tourism, it is more important than ever to be aware of some of its darker truths.

Research by Oxford University’s Wildlife Unit found that three out of four wildlife volunteer attractions cause conservation concerns or involve animal abuse. This means that over half of all the backpackers that intend to work to promote the conservation and well-being of animals are instead contributing to their exploitation.

Asia – Thailand in particular, is one of the most striking and popular destinations for student travellers. Apparently, when in Thailand, an elephant ride and/or selfie is a must. Have you really visited Thailand if you don’t have an elephant selfie on Instagram with comments like “omg! aw! (love heart eyes emoji)” or “omg please bring him home!”

Although an attraction can superficially appear to be ethical, assuring that your money funds conservation and promising that the animals in question actually love being used against their will for the entertainment of humans, be vigilant, because people lie. I do maintain there are a few fundamental questions you can ask yourself to determine how moral an animal establishment is. Can I do this in the UK? Could I do this without assistance? Would I be comfortable doing this if the animal was not chained, sedated or monitored by an armed staff member? Would I be able to do this in the wild? If the answer is no to one or all of those questions, just don’t do it. If you can ride it, hug it, or take a selfie with it where this would be impossible in the wild, just don’t do it.

These animals are stolen from the wild. This is a fact. At no tourism spot in Thailand did an elephant stroll in and ask politely to be chained, ridden and exploited for entertainment. Naturally, wild animals do not want to be ridden by humans, or even touched by them. In order for young elephants to be tamed, they are beaten, starved and controlled by bull hooks and ropes. Their spines are often permanently damaged, as nature did not intend for these majestic creatures to be chained and jockeyed by Mike from Stockport.

As with any wild animal, a consequence of their torture is their unpredictability. Just this week a British man was trampled to death by an elephant in front of his daughter, during a ride in Thailand. A tragedy for the family, of course, and a tragedy for the animal that will be punished or murdered for acting instinctively.

It’s not just elephants that kill or seriously injure tourists on a regular basis. Tigers in ‘sanctuaries’ maul tourists to death on an almost yearly basis. The dark reality behind those adorable Instagram photographs of students lounging with tigers or rubbing noses with cubs is that they are contributing to an establishment that promotes animal cruelty. Most of those charming tiger cubs have been ripped from their mothers at just two-weeks-old, and are thrust into the hands of uninformed tourists. These cubs are then bottle fed over and over, all day, until the milk spews back out of their mouth, and travellers squee at how adorable this is and video it to show their Facebook friends.

The same concept applies with chained up primates in areas like Phucket. Anyone who has worked within animal rehabilitation will know the absolute agony, patience and years and years of therapy it will take in order to even begin to rectify the emotional and physical trauma that these animals have suffered at the hands of mankind. Often, most distressingly, this exploitation is led by animal lovers, who have absolutely no awareness of the horror they are encouraging.

It’s brilliant if you love elephants, or tigers, or primates, and there is absolutely no reason why you should avoid volunteering or working with the animals you love where you can. With a bit of savvy Googling, it is possible to find authentic and ethical sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres, where you can monitor where your money goes and be assured you are not snatching the creatures you love from their parents in the wild.

Unbelievably, it is not only animals that are being used to exploit gap year travellers, but human children too. Perhaps the most concerning is orphanage placements. In a recent study, charity organisation Unicef found that around half of the children living in ‘orphanages’ in countries such as Cambodia and Nepal are not orphans at all, but instead have been plucked from their families to act as posing orphans to satisfy the Western volunteer trade and generate income for manipulative individuals.

A friend of mine visited Cambodia last summer, volunteering at an ‘orphanage’ and building the children a new school. Upon his return he realised that each time the ‘school’ is built by volunteers, upon their departure it is demolished, in order to be rebuilt by the next set of well-meaning individuals.

Another friend was surprised to receive a hostile reception from children in South Africa when volunteering in a school, she was later informed that all the local teachers employed by the school had been dismissed, in order to create income from paying volunteers.

To have spent all of your savings that was intended to be used to help others on a deceitful scam that exploits both the victims and the traveller is heart breaking. In so many cases, what experts refer to as our ‘Western thirst’ for volunteering simply feeds a corrupt and immoral trade, which is not only ripping well-meaning tourists off, but encouraging dangerous exploitation of both animals and children.

All of that said, there are thousands of absolutely brilliant organisations that offer totally safe, authentic and valuable volunteer placements and travel experiences, that are valuable to both the community in question and the traveller themselves.

Ultimately, what you do when you go travelling is your prerogative. As long as you research well and are mindful of the countries and communities you are visiting, it will be brilliant.

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