Wildlife, not entertainers: 10 cruel mistakes you could be making as travelers

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Don’t put a price tag on animal cruelty. Source: Shutterstock.com

WILDLIFE tourism has curious travelers spending millions of dollars per year to see animals in the wild. In fact, seven percent of world tourism relates to wildlife tourism.

According to the UN World Tourism Organization, wildlife tourism grows annually at about three percent and much higher in some places. From seeing magnificent animals in Africa to whale watching in Iceland, wildlife attractions are positioned both as a novelty and as educational as visiting Unesco World Heritage sites.

But where do we draw the line?

Travel companies around the world profit from some of the cruelest types of wildlife tourist attractions. According to an Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) study commissioned by World Animal Protection, three out of four wildlife tourist attractions involve “some form of abuse or raise conversation concerns”. World Animal Protection added that at least 550,000 wild animals suffer “at the hands of irresponsible tourist attractions” and that an estimated 110 million people visit those places every year.

“If you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with a wild animal, then you can be sure it is cruel. Vote with your feet and don’t go,” World Animal Protection Wildlife Director Kate Nustedt said.

From clambering onto elephants to clapping for performing dolphins, here are the top 10 cruelest wildlife attractions you should avoid:

Touring civet coffee plantations in Indonesia

Kopi luwak, otherwise known as civet coffee, is collected from the droppings of a common palm civet. In the wild, the civet is a shy and solitary nocturnal forest animal that eats ripe coffee cherries. It cannot digest the stones (coffee beans) of the cherry, so they come out along with the rest of its droppings. The beans are collected, cleaned and washed by farm workers. These days, it is hard to find genuine wild kopi luwak. Most kopi luwak comes from caged wild civets caught by poachers and force-fed coffee cherries, often in appalling conditions. The stress causes civets to fight among themselves, gnaw off their own legs, start passing blood in their stool, and die.

Riding elephants in Thailand

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Tourists pay good money for the privilege of riding elephants, not knowing that those elephants have been put through a horrific training process. They were taken from their mothers at a very young age and had their spirits broken in order to make them submit to humans. The process includes physical restraints, inflicting severe pain and withholding food and water – and it does not end there. When not ‘working’, the elephants are kept on chains and the bullhook is used permanently to remind the animal of human dominance.

Walking with lions in South Africa

The “walking with lions” experience is still relatively new and often found in South Africa, but it has a dark side. South Africa is also one of the only places in the world where lions are bred commercially for the purpose of being hunted aka canned hunting. Once these captive lion cubs, bred for canned hunting, have grown too large for tourists to pick them up and pose for photos, they are then exploited for the “walking with lions” experience. Yes, the lions tourists walk with will die from being shot by trophy hunters, and it’s a sport. A sick one, at that.

Visiting bear parks in Japan

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Japan has bear parks that house hundreds of bears and, historically, the parks began as centers to care for orphaned cubs. But the centers have realized that bears, the cubs especially, are appealing to visitors and have started commercializing the program. However, the quality of the environment is poor to the point of suffocation as parks keep hundreds of bears in rows of pits – and bears are naturally solitary animals. Investigation has also found that, in some parks, bears are forced to dress as clowns or perform circus tricks. These stressful captive conditions result in poor health and serious welfare issues for the bears, e.g. bacterial infections, limping, lethargy, torn ears, skin conditions, depression, affression, lacerations and chronic conjunctivitis.

Holding sea turtles in North America

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At the popular Cayman Turtle Centre in North America – the last remaining sea turtle farm in the world – visitors can kiss, hug and pass around young sea turtles, and even swim with bigger ones if they want. However, sea turtles suffer a great deal of stress when they are held. They panic and intensively flap their flippers, and visitors have been known to drop struggling turtles. This causes injuries such as broken shells, which can kill them. Not only that, the turtles are also bred in captivity and killed for their meat – it is a farm, after all.

Cheering on performing dolphins at marine parks

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Dolphins are known to be cute, but it is their intelligence that is one of their most outstanding features. In the wild, they swim vast distances with their families. But at marine parks, they are confined in unnaturally tiny tanks not much bigger than swimming pools and trained to perform tricks. Unlike the natural open sea environment, the pools are often treated with chlorine, which can cause skin and eye irritations. Dolphins face a lifetime of suffering as they often suffer from sunburn, stress-related illnesses and injuries (aggressiveness and neurotic behavior), heart attacks and gastric ulcers.

Watching dancing monkeys in Indonesia

In Indonesia, macaques are trained to behave and appear human, and used for street entertainment. About 290 macaques are abused for shows. They are trained aggressively from young to dance and walk, and are often dressed up and repeatedly forced to dance for tourists. Often, they also perform tricks. When not performing for tourists, macaques are kept chained in small barren cages or outside on short chains. As the macaque grows, the chain can become embedded in the skin, causing pain and infections.

Charming snakes and kissing cobras in India

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There nothing charming about charming snakes. In fact, it is quite violent. Once an ancient street entertainment activity, snake charming is the practice of appearing to hypnotize a snake by playing and waving around a pipe-like instrument called pungi. And for years, people have believed that the sounds from the pungi can hypnotize a snake. That is quite far from the truth. This ‘attraction’ requires snake charmers to trap and take snakes from their natural habitats, yank the snakes’ teeth out without painkillers, pierce their venom ducts with a hot needle (causing the glands to burst and incapacitating the snake’s most effective defense mechanism), and sewing their mouths shut. The “dance” that people see is actually a terrified reactive way to the snake charmer’s movements as a means of self-defense from being hit by the pungi.

Taking tiger selfies in Thailand

Tigers are majestic, endangered cats, but in Thailand, they are reduced to just a prop. The Southeast Asian country is known to be a hub of cruel tiger tourism. World Animal Protection has found 10 venues that house a whopping total of 614 tigers. Tiger cubs are separated from their mothers at an early age and ensure a lifetime of suffering as they are used as photo props for hours on end. The close contact with tourists also includes unrelenting handling and stressful interactions. Each day, after their ‘job’ is done, they are kept chained or confined to small cages with concrete floors, and subjected to harsh training regimes to prepare them for distressing, unnatural performances and behaviors. Tiger tourism is also prevalent in other parts of Asia, Australia, Mexico and Argentina.

Visiting a crocodile farm in Zimbabwe

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A crocodile farm is home to large numbers of crocodiles, which are being kept and intensively bred. More often than not, the farms are open to tourists as it is a common wildlife tourism experience. Unfortunately, it as cruel as it can get. The crocodiles are farmed to supply their skin to the fashion industry and their meat to restaurants. Kept in severely appalling situations, the crocodiles are usually housed in overcrowded and unhygienic concrete pits. The limited space, food and water causes crocodiles to fight each other, sometimes to death. The stressful environment also results in crocodiles succumbing to serious infections and fatal diseases, such as septicaemia.