This week travel giant TripAdvisor took a great leap towards conscious, ethical and responsible tourism. The site announced that it will no longer take bookings for experiences where tourists come into contact with wild animals in captivity or endangered species. In addition, the site will also open an education portal to help travellers make informed decisions in the way they interact with wildlife. TripAdvisor is not the first travel site to stop ticket sales to endangered animal attractions. STA Travel does not offer reservations for SeaWorld and both STA and Intrepid banned elephant rides in 2014. However, this move, by the largest online travel community in the world with 350 million average unique visitors and 385 million review uploads per month, is likely to have an enormous positive impact on the way we engage with animals when we travel.
From turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka, the Tiger Temple in Thailand and slow lorises in Indonesia, there is no denying that tourism drives a trade which profits from wildlife. How animals are treated in this industry will not be changed by locals. More often than not, many resort to the use of animals out of economic necessity or as a way out of poverty. This is often underpinned by a lack of regulation, investment and education by local governments. So the responsibility of encouraging ethical travel falls fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the corporations that profit from it.
In Sri Lanka, despite marine turtles and their eggs being protected by law, the southern coast is littered with turtle hatcheries. With the exception of a few, most operate as tourist attractions and open only during “tourist season”. Coincidentally this is also the peak nesting period for turtles. Needless to say, hatcheries set up for profit without supervision of marine life expertise can pose a threat to conservation. Many places tend to bury large numbers of eggs in small enclosed spaces. Among other concerns, erosion, heavy rain or flooding can cause an entire nest to be swept out to sea causing 100% mortality. Such incidents, although common, are rarely reported. Once hatched, early hours of a turtle’s life are critical; Emergence from the nest and entering the sea should occur without interference*. Many hatcheries however, allow tourists to pick up turtles and “release” them in to the sea. A lack of regulation and compliance remain a major challenge to conservation efforts across the board in Sri Lanka from elephant rides to poaching in national parks.
Similarly, in May of this year, an unprecedented raid on Thailand’s Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno monastary, by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), removed 137 tigers from its premises. The raid on the premises, also know as the Tiger Temple, was the culmination of previous attempted interventions into its alleged mismanagement. The monks’ refusal to address concerns of the DNP regarding the close contact between tigers and tourists and unlicensed breeding was central to the investigation. Prior to this, the NGO Cee4life.org had published a detailed report into the disappearance of three tigers from the temple in December 2014. The missing tigers were thought to have been sold into the illegal wildlife trade. Within 6 days of the raid the DNP found 40 dead tiger cubs and a dead bear in the temple’s freezer as well as several animal horns. The monastery, founded in 1994, had been a staple tourist attraction in Kanchanaburi province, west of Bangkok until the raid. Previous whistle blowing by various NGO’s and volunteers about the mistreatment of the tigers had largely been ignored until then.
In South and South East Asia the slow loris, a small nocturnal primate, became the victim of an online video craze in 2009. With large eyes, soft fur and a venomous bite, one ”cute” video showed a slow loris with it’s hands raised above its head being tickled by its owner – few realised that raising of hands is a sign of great distress in lorises and that bright lights in videos are uncomfortable for a nocturnal animal. Other similar videos quickly surfaced and a staggering number of people made online inquiries on how and where to purchase a loris (there are several species and sub species). Most inquiries were redirected to sites run by the illegal pet trade. Lorises continue to be poached in large numbers and sold on the streets of Bali, Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of South and SE Asia. In 2013, pop star Rihanna infamously posed with a slow loris on her Instagram account while visiting Thailand. Concern for the already endangered loris population heightened among conservationists. It was difficult to assess the impact of viral video exposure of lorises to a large section of the human population who possessed no prior knowledge of the species. A paper published by Professor Anna Nekaris (Tickled to Death, 2013) detailed the conditions endured by lorises after capture. It described the loris’ transportation in over crowded crates with the aggravated animals often wounding each other with their venomous bites. Without aftercare or medicine most die before they are sold. The ones that survive have their teeth clipped without anaesthetic and often die of blood loss and infection.
TripAdvisor’s education portal therefore will be key in changing attitudes and behaviour of tourists. It is due to launch early in 2017 and will be linked to every animal attraction listed on the site. The comprehensive content will provide information and opinions from experts from The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Global Wildlife Conservation, Asian Elephant Support, Think Elephants International, ABTA, Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), Sustainable Travel International, TreadRight Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and World Animal Protection. In addition, the portal will also provide links on animal welfare practices helping tourists and travellers to make more informed decisions.
The vast majority of people who travel do so with good intentions, an open mind and the willingness to grow from experiencing the unfamiliar. However, in our eagerness and capacity to experience the new we may unwittingly cause irreversible damage to our biosphere. TripAdvisor’s effort to be at the fore front of influencing positive change has two facets. It aims to educate those of us who travel while sending out a clear message to those who engage in cruel practices for profit – they will no longer be validated by the industry. So, please join me in applauding TripAdvisor on this remarkable first step towards responsible travel and animal welfare. It is highly commendable.
Full details of TripAdvisor’s policy can be found here:
Featured image shows jeeps lining up at 5am along the road leading to Yala National Park, Sri Lanka. At it’s peak as many as 800 jeeps were allowed to enter the park in an area of just 978 km2. Animal numbers have dwindled rapidly since 2009. There are allegations of jeeps chasing leopards and accidentally killing them while attempting to get tourists closer to the animals.
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