Animal interactions seem like a fun thing to do while lending a hand to conservation, but it isn’t. I reveal the dark side of these activities the need for animal rights in tourism.
We’ve all done it, or at least wanted to. The thrilling idea of cuddling a baby lion or stroking the coarse fur of a cheetah, enjoying an elephant back safari or peering through the cage at a great white shark. All in the name of experience, education and even conservation. It seems innocent enough at face value, but are we really thinking about the potentially negative impact of our actions.
The past years have exposed a truth that shows a darker side to these so-called tourist attractions, one that speaks of animal exploitation, unbridled greed and poor ethical practices. New questions were arising. Where does the never-ending supply of lion cubs come from? How are elephants being tamed for elephant-back safaris? What is causing the uprise in cheetah attacks on those paying to interact with them? All is not as it seems.
I can remember about a decade ago while on my first visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, being offered a choice of activities in the area. Elephant Back Safaris being one of them. A lover of nature, wildlife and all things animal-related it seemed an exciting opportunity. I signed up, readying for a personal encounter with a species I adored. The interaction was promoted as part of a conservation project helping rescued and orphaned animals and I felt good to be supporting it. Retrospectively I imagine it was probably neither.
That elephant riding experience revealed a negative side that can be seen in similar interactions around the world today. Yes, I climbed to the brave height with the handler for game viewing in the Zambezi National Park, yet it felt unnatural and I couldn’t be comfortable with how the elephants were prodded or spoken at. Or how as soon as we were back at camp they were chained to posts and forced by cruel bullhooks to do tricks, for our entertainment.
It was a turning point for me that drove a strong desire to learn more about animal interaction. The more research I did and the more attractions I visited, the more it became apparent that few were really conservation or rehabilitation orientated, but rather exploited the vulnerability of animals. Swimming with dolphins in Mexico, attending orca shows at Sea World and The Tiger Temple in Thailand, being a few extreme examples of this.
Yet elephant riding remains a highly sought after attraction to tourists today, specifically in Asia although with increased demand in Southern Africa. According to World Animal Protection (WAP), the first commercial venues offering elephant rides in Africa opened in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s, spreading to South Africa in 2001. There are currently at least 39 commercial elephant venues, holding at least 215 captive elephants, operating across Southern Africa.
No matter whether born in captivity or taken from the wild, elephants used for riding or tricks suffer a cruel and intensive breaking in process, which typically involves tightly restraining them with ropes or chains. Pain is often inflicted with pointed metal bullhooks, wooden battens and whips. This breaks the young elephant’s spirit and traumatises them, creating a fear of humans. They are often isolated and deprived of water and food too.
The suffering of elephants often continues after this with the confinement of elephant camps that mean they are unable to form natural social relationships. Although most captive African elephants will be allowed supervised foraging in the bush for some time in the day, their nights are spent chained in small enclosures.
On the back of negative publicity surrounding the Knysna Elephant Park which came under criticism for animal abuse in 2014 with heart-wrenching footage of beatings and harm inflicted, particularly on the babies, the Pilanesberg Elephant Back Safaris closed it’s doors in August 2014, committing to integrate their five elephants back into the wild.
They were immediately removed from any commercial interaction and relocated to a new property where they are being supported and monitored by their long-standing handlers in a bid to minimize stress. The desired outcome is to introduce them into the wild herds of the Pilansberg, a process that could take some years.
Looking toward the ocean, an activity that sits firmly on the fence is White Shark cage diving. Sharks are by nature timid animals and any diver who has seen one in the waters will attest to them being curious but cautious. Yet given the guarantee by shark cage diving operators to deliver great white sharks extremely close to humans daily, often three times a day for up to ten operators in one place like Gansbaai, they need to be baited.
This is done with blood and fish oils in the water. This chum is triggering a response from all the sharks in the area, without delivering any feed as would be expected in the wild. It is considered by many conservationists to be teasing them, repeating an unnatural situation for the sharks, over and over again, with an inordinate amount of blood and chum being dumped along the shoreline daily.
But beyond these facts, most feed the ‘Jaws’ sensationalist mindset rather than taking the opportunity to educate on the plight of the great white shark, which is in fact listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List. If shark cave diving is something you’d like to do, ensure that it’s with an eco-tourism registered company such as Marine Dynamics who are linked to the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and recently established the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary.
Bite the Bullet
All this said it seems to be the big cats that are most exploited and susceptible to abuse, also who are seen to be driving the awareness campaign. The documentary feature film Blood Lion, released to South African and international audiences in 2015, has exposed the link between captive hand-raised lions and the canned hunting industry, discouraging all human interaction and walking with lions.
Coining the phrase ‘Bred for the Bullet’, the brave expose shows how the cubs that are being taken from their mothers at just a few days old, petted in lion parks and human imprinted eventually end up in unethical canned hunting reserves. The cubs get used in a variety of income streams from petting and walking with lions facilities, to luring unsuspecting volunteers who pay large sums of money, as workers at these facilities.
Once they reach adulthood, almost all the hand raised male lions become victims of the canned hunting industry, where tame lions become targets in the sights of wealthy trophy hunters who pay in excess of US$25 000 dollars per lion, in order to shoot them for sport.
The lionesses are shot for their bones to be shipped to Asia as supplements to the rapidly escalating Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) trade. TCM use tiger bones immersed in rice wine to produce a tonic called ‘tiger bone wine’ that is prescribed for rheumatism, arthritis and other joint ailments. After the Chinese government banned the trade in tiger parts in 1993, lion bone has been widely used.
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs and CITES, 1094 lion carcasses were exported from South Africa in 2013. This is up from 287 carcasses in 2010 and a mere 60 individual bones in 2008. Given the history of wildlife trade markets, a legal trade in lion bones is highly likely to trigger more poaching of wild populations.
Seventy percent of South Africa’s lions spend their lives in captivity with lion breeding, trophy hunting, and increasingly lion bone trading, are tightly interlinked ventures. South Africa is also the only country in the world that has three classes of lions, namely wild, managed and captive.
According to the Blood Lion crew there are currently about 200 farms and breeding facilities holding about 8000 lions in captivity in South Africa. Most are making use of volunteers to nurse and raise the young lions, with some breeding centres earning in excess of US$100 000 a month from them.
As a potential volunteer wanting to avoid unethical facilities it is important to do your research. Find out the exact name of the facilities and read reviews on social media sites for comments and feedback. If it claims to be a sanctuary, they will not breed, trade in or allow human interaction. Blood Lions joins other films like Gorillas in the Mist, Echo of the Elephants, The Cove and Blackfish that Born Free Foundation President Will Travers says ‘have truly influenced the way we interact with wild animals.’
The newly opened Panthera Africa in Gansbaai is an authentic wildlife sanctuary that provides a haven for captive-bred big cats, rescued individually to live out the rest of their lives in safety. Also, the Drakenstein Lion Park, which was established to provide lions in distress with a place to live free of abuse, with the respect they deserve.
Neither of these parks is involved in commercial breeding or trade and offer lifetime care to all of their animals. Many of the lions in Drakenstein were rescued from abusive situations in circuses and zoos around the world. A sober reminder that lions must be kept in the wild and protected from unethical tourism now before it’s too late to save them.
To quote Marcelle Meredith of the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) – “Animals are sentient beings, and we have a moral obligation not to cause them harm in the name of our entertainment.”
Be the change
Animal rights in tourism matter, make sure that you do not contribute to the mistreatment, but rather educate yourself and others, becoming part of the necessary change. Warning signs to look out for include animals pacing, swaying or displaying stress behaviour. They should not be trained to perform, they should not be stroked, petted or in any way forced to interact with humans in a way that they wouldn’t in the wild and should not be chained or tied up.
Warning signs to look out for include animals pacing, swaying or displaying stress behaviour. Attractions to be avoided in the name of sustainable tourism include circuses with animals, bullfighting, walking with lions or other big cats, petting cubs, ostrich riding, swimming with dolphins, dolphin and orca shows, dancing bears and performing monkeys.
What you can do
If you find yourself at an animal park or centre and sense that all is not as portrayed; too many tiny cubs without their mothers, excessive human interaction or if the animals look unwell, injured or mistreated, you can contact the SPCA Wildlife Unit Manager Brett Glasby at 021 700 4158 or 083 3261604. Twitter: @capespca. Alternately Marcelle Meredith at the National SPCA Email: email@example.com Tel: 011 9073590. Twitter: @NSPCA_SA
Sustainable options for Volunteering with Animals:
– Chimp Eden, Jane Goodall Institute South Africa – http://www.chimpeden.com/
– Watamu Turtle, Watamu Kenya – http://www.watamuturtles.com/
– Panthera Leo Africa, South Africa – http://pantheraafrica.co.za/
– SANCCOB, South Africa – http://www.sanccob.co.za/
– Wildlife ACT, South Africa Malawi and Seychelles – http://wildlifeact.com/
– Drakenstein Lion Park, South Africa – http://www.lionrescue.org.za/
** This article first appeared in Travel Update.