Animal Tourism: Is it ever right?

Emma Forbes investigates the truths behind South-East Asia’s tiger and elephant tourism industries.

When heading off on an ‘epic’ trip around Southeast Asia, it is easy to get caught up in the fun, eagerly handing over money to those who promise to give you the ultimate experience of a life time. Lying down next to a fearsome tiger or riding a majestic elephant are unsurprisingly two of these much desired experiences. With this generations travel code summed up by the phrase ‘YOLO’, it is no surprise that these once in a lifetime experiences are avidly sort after. Unfortunately, many travellers are kept blissfully unaware of the dark secrets that some animal tourism companies harbour. Those travellers who are conscious of the welfare of the animals will often look for a sanctuary which claims that the animals are well fed and cared for. But are these empty claims or reassuring truths?

Credits: Dexter Panganiban

Every elephant paradise and tiger sanctuary is not corrupt in its practises, with The Thai Elephant Conservation Centre stating that: ‘most Thai elephants are very well cared for, partly because most Thai people are intrinsically kind…but also because elephants are simply too valuable to abuse’. However, with such ambiguity surrounding elephant tourism and its moral practices, it is impossible to take any one organisation’s statements as the ultimate truth. Many newspapers, magazines and travel companies have begun to question the morality of elephant and tiger tourism. Behind the smiling selfies with tigers and elephants, there are heartbreaking stories of abuse. The Independent recently published an article revealing a process called Phajaan, or ‘the crush’. Often adult elephants are gunned down, so that their babies can be illegally captured and brought to tourist camps. Their spirits are then systematically broken as they are deprived of sleep, food and water, whilst suffering inhumane beatings. Many of the tourist camps are set up as commercial enterprises, which look at the short term rewards, rather than the long term damage caused by animal tourism.

However, this does not mean that there is no hope for elephants. The more awareness that is raised about the ill-treatment of these beautiful animals, the more people will come forward to rescue these gentle giants and restore them to their former glory. One such lady is Lek Chailert, otherwise known as the Elephant Whisperer. In the 1990s, Lek set up the Elephant Nature Park, a safe reserve to which she brings elephants rescued from the tourist trade. With her team she strives to restore the broken bonds between elephants and humans, by feeding, bathing and gently talking to them. Lek ‘feels safe amongst them’ as one feels safe amongst friends. Visitors are welcomed to the Nature Park, to bath and play with elephants, whilst observing them in a natural, grassy habitat, which allows them space to roam. These are the sort of animal reservations which should be promoted for their good practices and supported in their ventures to save other elephants, which are sadly not yet part of this safe haven.

Credits: Chris Guillebeau

As well snapshots of elephants, photos posing with tigers are similarly desired by tourists – the token image of a terrific travel experience. ‘Tinder Guys with Tigers’ is one of the most recent (and arguably most ridiculous) ways for travellers to get themselves noticed. Posing with a tiger is the new way to entice the ladies, although interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be working. Instead, Care for the Wild International are worried that it is just another way in which social media is inadvertently promoting tiger tourism. A spokesman from the organisation suggests that we shouldn’t ‘be fooled into thinking that one quick photo won’t hurt’ as ‘each and every photo taken is keeping the industry alive’. Visiting tigers may seem exciting, but have we stopped to wonder why there are suddenly so many docile tigers in Thailand? Doesn’t nature show tigers to be a wild and ferocious species?

Although some tigers are well looked after, many are kept in squalid conditions and physically abused. The innate wild nature of tigers has not unexpectedly changed to one of docility and cooperation. Instead, some tigers are sedated so that visitors can stroke them, whilst others have their claws and teeth pulled out to prevent them from attacking their captors. Places such as Tiger Temple advertise themselves as a ‘spiritual idyll’ for tigers. However, others claim that Tiger Temple is a Temple of Lies – nothing more than a glorified petting zoo, which controls its animals through abuse. Fortunately, organisations such as Travel Operators for Tigers are determined to spread ethical tourism, whilst monitoring and saving ill treated animals in the process. If animal tourism is conducted in the right way, it could be beneficial to these endangered species, as money would be put towards their continued protection.

So, as travellers, what can we do to help change the situation? Raising awareness is vital, as is thoroughly researching tiger and elephant establishments before deciding whether or not to visit one. As the numbers of elephants and tigers in the wild continue to dwindle, we have a responsibility to discover the truth behind their treatment. Supporting the right charities and conservations is crucial to the animals’ welfare. So, before grabbing a pen and writing elephant trekking or tiger handling at the top of our bucket list, let us make sure that we are fully informed. We can then return from our travels with an assurance that our actions have helped, not harmed, these magnificent animals.

For more information and charities to support, visit: