I’ve been extremely fortunate to have spent the past seven months working and traveling in Southeast Asia with support from the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Fulbright program. While my research has brought me to Singapore and Gibraltar a number of times, I had not previously stayed long enough in either place to explore the surrounding regions much.
However, over the past few months I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to experience a wide range of sites during my research process of trying to observe the human-monkey interface and explore human-wildlife conflict under as many varied contexts as I can. I believe that an informed understanding of these contexts will be integral towards informing my own work on species management and human-monkey conflict mitigation within Singapore itself.
While I have enjoyed my travels and feel much richer for having been on most of my trips – one thing has become abundantly and disturbingly clear – wildlife tourism is pervasive throughout the region and is deeply, deeply wrong in the vast majority of cases. My personal first experience with wildlife tourism goes back to college when I went on a stereotypical Cancun spring break and paid to swim with the dolphins. Even though it was incredible to be in the water with the dolphins and have that interaction, I walked away feeling something was not quite right.
My college-self did some extremely nerdy background reading and I was horrified to learn about how many dolphins are slaughtered in the process of capturing 20-30 suitable young dolphins for dolphinariums, sea parks, and aquariums each year. Moreover, there were horrifying statistics related to the dramatically decreased life spans of these animals, clear symptoms of psychological distress, and large proportions of the animals dying of brain injuries induced by literally ramming their heads into their enclosure walls.
Needless to say, whenever I hear of friends excited to go swimming with dolphins, I beg them to reconsider. It is easily in the top five decisions I would go back and change in my life. If I could go back and not support that industry with my money, I would in a heartbeat, but life doesn’t work that way. What I realized I could do was to be a more conscientious consumer going forward.
The older I get, the more important I feel it is to be a conscientious consumer. In this world, the dollar is King, and when you pay for an item or a service you are effectively casting a vote. It’s why I choose not to be a vegetarian as a means to support animal welfare—I would rather pay more for ethically farmed meat from local farmers I have met at the farmers market or co-op, whose animals I can see are treated humanely. By removing your dollar and simply dropping out of the equation you take away your voice; the industry you are trying to fight no longer cares about your opinion because you are no longer seen as a potential buyer for whom they might have to change their standards in order to draw you in.
I know I’m not perfect in my own consumption—it’s impossible for anyone to be perfect because the relationships are far too complex for one person to fully understand—and those who pretend to be perfect consumers are doing just that, pretending. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try our very best to be informed about how our dollars impact a community beyond the goods or services we directly receive.
Species management and conservation are my passion in life, so when I go abroad I am naturally drawn to wildlife experiences. What has become abundantly clear to me is how few humane and ethical experiences exist relative to those experiences. Many are blatantly inhumane or outright lie about their contribution to the conservation of particular species.
As such, I’d like this to serve as an introductory post to a topic that has become very close to my heart. My aim is to provide informed background on the four major wildlife tourism experiences I see most offered throughout Southeast Asia—Elephant Camps, Tiger Farms, Primate Photo-Ops, and Civet Coffee Farms. I will explore how those animals end up in that position in the first place and provide ethical and humane alternatives to those activities. I write this not as ‘the authority’ on the matter (my own specialty is far more narrow – there are MANY organizations I will highlight in the coming posts who are the real deal), but as a concerned citizen who has seen that these ‘attractions’ are unquestionably wrong.
I hope readers will walk away with a better understanding of why there are clear ethical problems with engaging in this type of tourism and will consider whether the pleasure of the “cool” photo ops they produce are worth it in light of having a better understanding of the cruelty inherent to the life those animals are subjected to. I have also found and am unsettled by how many people try to convince themselves that the wildlife experience they had was with “happy elephants” or “happy monkeys” based on what they were told by the very business looking to profit from them.
These businesses want and need consumers to come away thinking there was nothing wrong with that activity so that they can tell their friends how incredible it was and recommend those same centers. So when you engage in irresponsible wildlife tourism, it typically radiates out to many others engaging in it as well, especially in light of social media.
As I dug deeper I became more and more alarmed at how little information has been given by scientists and wildlife advocates on the relevant forums that consumers frequent. Oftentimes when I read a message board and someone asks if they can ride elephants at such and such a place or pet tigers, there isn’t a single informed response from wildlife researchers or advocates urging them to find an alternate activity or providing accessible or informative background information that would hopefully encourage the consumer to make alternate plans.
This is on us, the researchers, to step up our game and become an active voice on this topic. I for one am working with a diligent group of wildlife researchers here in Singapore on edits to the various wikitravel pages to not only provide links to the appropriate background, but to make sure that those pages highlight activities that aren’t ethically compromised and don’t harm animals. These activities include national parks where interesting, exotic wildlife can be spotted or encouraging visits and support to legitimate, vetted rescue, rehab, and research centers.
Readers, I hope if this topic strikes you, you’ll join me in this effort, and if you happen to be on wikitravel or other message boards and notice irresponsible wildlife tourism being encouraged, that you’ll take a few minutes to make edits to those pages and provide information that will lead to informed consumption within the realm of wildlife tourism. I hope you’ll also speak up to your friends if you see them engaging in these activities—I’m not suggesting you make them feel bad about it, as I’m sure it wasn’t done out of malice, but if a stream of comments includes their friends asking about how they can do the same exact thing, speak up and provide the link to a better option.
I want to believe that given the right information, people will choose not to have fun at the expense of others, or in this case, animals who cannot advocate for themselves, BUT sometimes the information needs to be made abundantly clear so that people can’t miss that path.
I hope you’ll follow me on this journey—next up will be a specific consideration of civet coffee farms or the kopi luwak industry. Once I’ve gone through the background on the four major types of wildlife tourism, I’d like to end on a high note and highlight some of the really incredible experiences and centers that can be had and supported throughout the region.
Onwards and upwards!