National Geographic magazine’s June 2019 investigative report on wildlife tourism doesn’t sugarcoat the troubling truth behind wildlife tourism. Those glamorous tiger selfies and elephant rides you see on social media come at a cost that the animals in those up-close interactions have to pay.
In the “The Hidden Cost of Wildlife Tourism,” writer Natasha Daly, along with photojournalist Kirsten Luce, document the wildlife tourism industry that has become increasingly popular across the globe, focusing on its darker realities.
During their worldwide investigation, funding for which was provided by National Geographic Society, the journalists came across whales and dolphins forced to live on trucks and in inflatable pools as part of a traveling oceanarium, young animals ripped from the wild so time with them could be sold to selfie-seeking tourists and a polar bear show where the stars are forced to wear a metal muzzles.
The amount of distressing information in the report is overwhelming, but there is an easy way for animal lovers, who also love to travel, to take action.
Daly talked to PEOPLE about how this shocking report came to be, how tourists can often be fooled by insincere sanctuaries and what travelers can do to protect animals involved in wildlife tourism and the wild animals that could easily get caught up in this booming industry.
Photos featured in this article are from National Geographic magazine’s June 2019 report on wildlife tourism.
What drove you to put together this comprehensive story?
Photographer Kirsten Luce and I started documenting the wildlife tourism industry in the Amazon rainforest. We visited port towns in Brazil and Peru where residents had pulled wild animals out of the jungle and were keeping them in captivity for tourists to hold and interact with. After our story published in October 2017, we quickly realized that there was so much more to tell. All over the world, there is demand for up-close animal encounters. We wanted to see what lay beyond the surface; to investigate how animals may suffer for tourist entertainment. We decided to visit hot spots around the world where these activities were popular. We wanted to tell a comprehensive, universal story.
What was the most shocking thing you discovered during your research?
Learning that there was a performing polar bear show in Russia was a shock. It’s something we didn’t know existed. We found it in a city called Kazan, and it was a circus on ice. Watching polar bears in metal muzzles lie down and rub their faces on ice was something I won’t forget. Discovering traveling oceanariums in Russia was a shock. Dolphins and belugas are moved around from city to city in trucks and perform in small pools in inflatable pop-up aquariums for several weeks before moving on to the next city. We also discovered an elephant in a particularly bad situation, at a zoo outside of Bangkok. He had a swollen leg and a wound at his temple. We had seen hundreds of elephants by that point, but this was the most blatant form of neglect we found. We reported the situation to contacts on the ground after we saw him.
What are some popular misconceptions about wildlife tourism?
People love animals and want to get close to them. It’s common to think that the animals you are paying to ride, or bathe, or snuggle are having fun too. In reality, many animals go through rigorous training or have to be sedated to make these benign experiences possible. As a tourist, if you’re visiting a facility for just a few hours, it’s almost impossible to know where the animals came from, how they were trained, and how they live when the tourists go home. Facilities that offer interaction with captive animals often emphasize that they donate part of their proceeds to wild conservation efforts. But it’s always important to look at the captive experience itself. If the animals at a given facility do not appear to have a good quality of life, that’s concerning.
Are destinations that market themselves as sanctuaries at fault as well? If so, how?
True sanctuaries can be wonderful havens for animals rescued from abusive situations. But it’s important to not just take the word “sanctuary” at face value. In many countries including Thailand, for example, there are no laws around the use of the term. Any business can call itself a sanctuary, even if it isn’t truly humane. This can be really confusing for tourists seeking ethical experiences. It’s important to look at what the sanctuary offers. Are the animals living in natural, hospitable settings? Do they have room to roam and seek shelter? Are they able to engage in their natural behaviors, or do they have to interact with tourists?
How do these wildlife tourism destinations try to attract and fool customers?
Many facilities that I visited attract visitors simply by offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences like riding elephants or snuggling tiger cubs. These remain very popular activities for tourists. Some businesses are aware that there has been a movement towards more natural, ethical experiences, especially with elephants. I visited one facility, a traditional elephant riding camp, that opened a new, “no-riding” property next door. The businesses are marketed separately, so visitors aren’t aware that the same elephants are used for both. On one hand, this does represent a positive step: it shows that the industry is willing to follow tourists’ changing demands by moving in a more ethical-seeming direction. But it is still problematic in that well-meaning tourists aren’t aware of the link between the two properties.
What is the reality for the animals that are part of these attractions?
Many elephants in traditional riding camps in Thailand have a similar life trajectory. They have be to be trained from a young age in order to perform in shows. The training is very often fear-based and a bullhook (stick with a metal spike on the end) is used as a means of control. Elephants may perform in shows until they are in their teens, and many then start giving rides. Elephants may give several rides a day. Tigers are often speed-bred so that cubs are always available for tourists to snuggle. Adult tigers may be drugged or even declawed to make interaction safe. Sloths or other small mammals like slow lorises may be poached from the wild for use in tourist attractions. Sloths typically sleep 22 hours a day and do not fare well being handled. Slow lorises secrete venom — unique among primates — so their sharp teeth are often extracted to make interaction safe.
How does this tourism affect wild animals and their habitats?
The Thai wildlife tourist industry long relied at least in part on poaching, though elephants used for tourism there now are now primarily captive-bred. For smaller animals, though, like slow lorises, macaques, sloths and tropical birds, poaching in service of tourism does remain a threat. In the Amazon, the animals we encountered in the tourism industry had all been caught from the wild. In Russia, many of the beluga whales performing in shows have been wild-caught. Being removed from the wild can be a very traumatizing experience for an animal, whether an elephant or a beluga whale or a sloth.
How has the rise of social media affected this type of tourism?
Social media serves as viral advertising for up-close animal encounters. You might have one of these experiences on vacation and then share it to your Instagram feed. In turn, your friends and family may see that image and want to do the same thing. And influencers — people with thousands of followers on social media — contribute to the demand.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
I hope people feel empowered with information to make their own decisions. Kirsten and I realize that much of what’s in our story is very sad and difficult to process. But this entire industry is so driven by consumer demand. People have so much power to change this. If enough people decide that they want to pay for different sorts of experiences, the experiences themselves will change.
What red flags should a tourist be looking for when they encounter wildlife tourism?
There is a huge spectrum of experiences and animal care all across the world. The very best thing a visitor can do is to trust his or her own intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, it may not be. A tourist might seek experiences where they can watch animals engaging in natural behaviors, rather than experiences that offer interaction. Interactive experiences with elephants or tigers can be a red flag. You can read 1- and 2-star reviews of a facility. It’s often in the negative reviews that tourists detail animal welfare concerns.
Are there any kinds of wildlife tourism that are beneficial to the animals involved?
Seeing animals at a distance in national parks and refuges and on responsible safaris can help generate income to protect wild animals and their habitats. Patronizing responsible sanctuaries and businesses that provide refuge to animals that may never be able to live in the wild, such as captive elephants, rescued tigers, or animals that have been defanged or declawed, can also be a responsible way to experience animals and help contribute to their long-term care. Simply seeing and learning about animals can be a great way to inspire children and adults alike to respect them. The key, if you do want to help animals, is to ensure the experience you’re having isn’t contributing to a cycle that exploits them.