The Ugly Side of Elephant Tourism in Thailand, and How to Avoid it.

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Before embarking on my aventure across Thailand, I was well aware of the issues facing the wildlife tourism industry in that part of the world, or so I thought. I knew that there were still many places offering elephant shows and rides, along with horror stories I had heard about other attractions like Tiger Temple. It was because of these horror stories that I had avoided travelling to Thailand for so long. But with lots of knowledge under my belt, I was convinced that I could do my due diligence, I would research and choose my wildlife tourism options wisely. It was the perfect plan - I could avoid exposing myself to these types of places that I am so against. Unfortunately I was wrong.

Before leaving for my trip I spent countless hours researching what elephant sanctuaries I wanted my money and time to support. I looked for all the warning signs, and read as many reviews as I could. We chose to visit two very different sanctuaries, one aimed at rescuing and rehabbing elephants from the tourist trade by providing them with a more natural lifestyle. The second being the more typical “ethical elephant” experience in Thailand, where tourists are provided with the chance to get up close and personal with the elephants, feed them, bath with them etc.

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The first one we visited was Elephant Valley Thailand (review coming soon!), we believe 100% that we made the most ethical choice! The elephants were truly living a wild lifestyle. After being rescued from the wildlife tourism trade, they were moved to a large reserve and although they were kept in one area at night, they were free to roam the reserve wherever they wanted during the day. Visitors got the opportunity to wander the grounds with a guide, given the chance to watch the elephants from a distance, with closer interactions coming later in the day when were given the opportunity to feed them treats through a fence. One of my favourite aspects of this was the fact that the elephants had the opportunity to leave if they wanted - it is much more rewarding knowing that the elephants are choosing to hang out with us, as opposed to being scheduled that way. We decided to spend the entire day and overnight so we could get a taste of their volunteer program. We helped cut down plants for elephant snacks, cleaned the areas where the elephants would sleep, and assisted with other odd jobs that needed to get done. The saddest part about our experience here was actually the other tourists attitudes. Upon finding out that they weren’t going to be up close, petting and swimming with the elephants, they decided to leave. It was disheartening that they cared more about getting the perfect photo, instead of the elephants well being.


Even after returning home, I still feel very much on the fence about our selection for the second elephant tourism venue. We saw no signs of elephant mistreatment, but the rigorous daily schedule left us a little uneasy about how that may impact the elephants. There is no denying that being with the elephants was an amazing experience, however we didn’t feel as though they were provided much freedom of choice in their day. During operating hours, the elephants were expected to do certain things and be in certain places, all to please the tourists and provide them with those perfect photo ops. The staff were knowledgeable and friendly - we didn’t believe they would intentionally do anything that isn’t in the best interest of the elephants. However, this may be a perfect example of why education needs to increase all around, for the caretakers and the tourists, so we can all do better by these elephants.

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Prior to visiting Thailand I believed that if I didn’t support the bad places I was helping. However it isn’t as simple as that. During my travels I saw countless elephants chained up on the side of the road in areas smaller than my bedroom. I heard people bragging about the tiger temples they visited and they elephant rides they took part in. Everywhere we went there were advertisements and billboards for places that highlight terrible animal welfare practices. On many of the tours we did we were surprised the see so many unethical practices, whether it was feeding fish while snorkelling, people standing on coral, to being unexpectedly taken to see a monkey “show” - the unethical side of tourism was sadly never far away. As long as people are supporting these places they will continue to happen, without education, and without conscious tourists making the choice to support the ethical places, nothing will ever change.

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By supporting the truly ethical places, it puts pressure on Thailand to change the laws to suit what the tourists want to see, it will help to make the industry a better place. For example Elephant Nature Park (review coming soon!), one of the leading ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, is currently phasing out how much interaction the animals have with the tourists. Making the wellbeing of their elephants their top priority. If we, as travellers, make the decision to only support places such as this other sanctuaries will feel pressured to follow suit and adopt their practices. The change starts with us!

After all of this, you may be wondering how you can plan your Thailand trip in a way that avoids unethical tourist traps. One thing to bare in mind, is that while you can (and should!) only support wildlife tourism venues that are putting animal welfare and conservation at the forefront of their goals, you likely will still see animals in situations you don’t agree with. It is the unfortunate reality of tourism in many parts of the world, especially in places like Thailand. Hopefully this won’t stop you from wanting to take in all the beauty this country has to offer, because by visiting, we can help shape the direction that it is headed. Prior to your trip, here are some guidelines to follow when looking into experiences where you can hang out with elephants:

  1. Don’t go to any venue that is offering elephant rides (especially saddled rides) or elephant shows. The training tactics to make these behaviours possible are often extremely abusive, both physically and psychologically.

  2. Find venues that promote offering choices to their elephants. Make sure that whatever way you are interacting with them, the elephants get to choose to be involved in your experience. They should not be kept on chains, enclosed in small spaces or be prevented from leaving by the staff. They should be able to roam where they want and have space away from tourists if that is what they choose.

  3. Ensure that elephants have the ability to participate in natural behaviours. This may sound similar to above, but if the only choice an elephant has if they choose not to hang out with tourists is just another cage, their options still aren’t that great. They should have ponds to swim in, forests to forage and areas to bask in the sun. The closer their enclosures are their natural environment, the better.

  4. Looking for locations that are upfront about what your tourist dollars are being used for. They should be used for increasing elephant welfare, supporting conservation, and assisting community initiatives   

  5. Appreciate the ‘dirty work.’ Sure, it's not that glamorous to be picking up elephant poop, or helping chop up food, but these experience offer you a chance to better understand a day in a life of an elephant and an elephant caretaker. By better appreciating these aspects of their care, you become more connected with their stories. It is also a great way to meet local people, giving the opportunity to learn more about their lives and soak up more culture!

For more general tips on visiting wildlife venues, check out one of our former blogs “5 tips for responsible wildlife tourism


References

Chatkupt, T.T., Sollod, A.E., and Sarobol, S. (2010). Elephants in Thailand: determinants of health and welfare in working populations. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 2(3), 187-203.  

Hile, J. (2002). Activists denounce Thailand elephant ‘crushing’ ritual. National Geographic News. Retrieved from www.nationalgeogrpahic.com on October 24, 2017.

King, R. (2005). The elephant whisperer. Ecologist, 35(9), 48-54.

Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2011). Wildlife tourism in semi-captive settings: a case study of elephant camps in Northern Thailand. Current Issues in Tourism, 12(5-6), 429-449.

Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2009). The role of tourism in elephant welfare in Northern Thailand. Journal of Tourism, 10(2), 1-19

Magda, S., Spohn, O., Angkawnish, T., Smith, D.A., and Pearl, D.L. (2015). Risk factors for saddle-related skin lesions on elephants used in the tourism industry in Thailand. BMC Veterinary Research. 11:1,  doi:10.1186/s12917-015-0438-1

Nijman, V. (2014). An assessment of the live elephant trade in Thailand. Cambridge, UK: TRAFFIC International

Schmidt-Burbach, (2017). Taken for a ride: the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia. World Animal Protection. Obtained from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/ on September 27, 2017.

Lindsey's Southern Thailand Adventure

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Crystal clear blue water, beautiful islands, the famous long tail boats, swimming with sea turtles (which have eluded me on every other snorkelling excursion I’ve taken part in!), stunning viewpoints, and visiting spectacular maya bay... these are the highlights we expected from the Southern Thailand. Did we get most of these things? Yes. But what we weren’t expecting was a dengue fever scare, injuries that forced us to rethink our planned route, spur of the moment tattoos, and our first real glimpse at the truly awful wildlife tourism that is so common in Thailand.
 

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Our first stop after getting off the plane from Chiang Mai was the province of Krabi, choosing to stay in the town of Ao Nang, a great choice as we were within walking distance to the beach and surrounded by many delicious restaurants and street food vendors! We had finally found our beaches and the desperately needed cool-down from a nice cool swim (did I mention we were still cooking in the heat?). Us two prairie dwelling Canadians couldn’t wait to get into that beautiful ocean water, and as soon as we did it was wonderful... although it was warm enough that it did feel slightly like bath water. After a few glorious minutes escaping the heat and relaxing in the water, my travel partner, Laura, started shrieking that something bit her! She concluded it must have been a jellyfish, and quickly left the water. After what was a painful (for her) tuk tuk ride back to the hostel, the pain subsided but Laura wasn’t quite ready to brave the dangerous ocean water again just yet, so we hid in the comfort of our air conditioned room and ate copious amounts of delicious food. 

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Once the trauma of the sting was over, we were ready for more adventure. We spent the rest of our time in Ao Nang doing island tours, kayaking, snorkelling, and hiking up to visit the tiger cave temple. Contrary to what the name suggests, there is no tigers at this temple, except for the giant tiger statues, and it takes some effort to get there. This hike involved climbing up 1237 stairs to get up the mountain, thankfully it was raining during our climb which was a welcome escape from the heat. The hike was well worth it to see the beautiful temple along with the spectacular views that looked like something right out of Avatar! Standing at the temple gave views of massive tree-covered mountains, and as we watched the mist roll through the forest it allowed for very serene moment to calm our bodies down and really appreciate the climb that we had just accomplished… if you ever find yourself in Southern Thailand, make sure to include this on your list of things to do! 

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Ao Nang was just our starting point to our island hopping adventure. Our next stop was the island that would end up being our favourite destination in all of Thailand, Koh Phi Phi.The moment our boat docked at the pier at Koh Phi Phi, we both were in awe at the beauty of the island, and instantly knew we were going to love it! Our time here was spent exploring the island by foot with friends as there is no motor transportation on this tiny piece of paradise. We were able to take part in the crazy nightly parties on the beach, hike to the stunning viewpoints (once again in the rain), get bamboo tattoos on a whim, and our favourite activity - visit Maya bay. We chose to visit Maya Bay with the Maya Bay sleep aboard tour, as this would give us the opportunity to experience the famous beach when it was not crawling with hundreds of tourists! Our trip to Maya Bay included a visit to the tourist-packed beach during the day, and plenty amazing of snorkelling. While the sights were amazing during the day, make sure you get to swim in the bay at night when there are thousands of phytoplankton lighting up the waters like stars in a sky - if I told you snorkelling with these bioluminescent plankton didn’t make me feel like a magical mermaid or an underwater version of Elsa from Frozen every time I moved my arm and lit up the plankton, I would be lying. The night also consisted of a beautiful beach fire, drinking games and an epic dance party on board our boat that lasted all hours of the night. Falling asleep and waking up to the gentle rocking of the ocean was one of my favourite memories from Thailand. Exploring the empty shores of Maya Bay early that morning was another highlight! Shortly after our trip the government has unfortunately temporarily shut down tourist access to Maya Bay to allow for the ecosystem to recoup from the mass amounts of tourism that has taken place in the area. This should act as a reminder for how fragile these ecosystems are and how damaged they can become from tourist impact - see our previous blog on Low Impact Travel for tips on how your can reduce your footprint when you travel!
 

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One of our evenings in Koh Phi Phi we spent watching one of the famous Thailand beach fire shows - an impressive sight to see! Unfortunately, Laura once again fell victim to another Thailand injury when one of the fire dancers dropped the fire baton on her. Now at this point in the evening we were a few buckets of alcoholic drinks in, and didn’t pay much attention to proper first aid of the burn… this quickly came back to bite us in the ass when we arrived at our next island, Koh Lanta, where our first stop was at the medical clinic. Sadly, after the lack of first aid and too much time spent snorkelling in the ocean, her burn had become infected and she was forbidden from going swimming for the next two weeks. As I wasn’t going to do any tours or adventuring without my travel buddy, the thought of snorkelling to find sea turtles quickly vanished from my travel plans, as did our most of itinerary on Koh Lanta which had mostly consisted of boat tours and snorkelling. Not letting this get us down, we instead spent the rest of our time visiting the beautiful islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, hiking to viewpoints, exploring villages, visiting temples, getting lost, drinking more smoothies than I ever thought possible, and attending possibly the world's most famous party, the full moon party - I have never seen so much neon!  

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During our visit to our final island, Koh Samui, we decided to do a couple day trips. The first one being a trip to see the pink dolphins. The brochure promised close up views of plenty of dolphins, but as someone who works in wildlife tourism I was fully aware that we would be lucky to experience a moment even close to what was shown in the brochure. Luckily, we did see a few dolphins, and while our tour guide didn’t feed the wildlife, they did drive towards the animals when they saw them which can greatly impact their behaviour and safety. The afternoon ended with a quick snorkelling tour, where we witnessed almost every person on the tour except us standing all over the coral reef, a sight which made my heart sink as the future of coral reef ecosystems continues to be in jeopardy.. It wasn’t the worst wildlife tour I’ve seen, but all around me I saw simple ways that  it could have been executed a bit more ethically.

 

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Our next day trip was one that made stops at most of Koh Samui‘s most popular attractions, temples, famous rocks, viewpoints and waterfalls, it was a great tour, until it made a few unexpected stops. The first one being a “monkey show” where we witnessed pet monkeys, who live their lives chained up in small areas around coconut trees. When tourist arrive they are forced to perform, climbing up a tree and throwing down coconuts for tourists to buy, and then expected to pose for the perfect photo opportunity. My heart feeling a little heavier, our next stop was at one of Koh Samui’s most popular waterfalls. Unfortunately the terrible side of wildlife tourism simply continued with an elephant camp surrounding us as soon as we pulled up to the parking lot. The elephants were either chained up in an area not much bigger than themselves, or were waiting with saddles on their backs for uneducated tourists to go for a ride.  It was a sight so sad that Laura had to walk away so she didn’t have to see it. Though it was a hard decision to make, i needed to get closer to these elephants to help document the horrible conditions that they were being kept in. I needed others to witness this horrible act of cruelty, because the more people who are aware of it, the more people will be fighting to change it. It was a horrible end to an otherwise great tour, but as tourists it is our job to make sure that attractions like this are not visited.

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Despite ending our adventure witnessing some horrible animal cruelty, overall our time in Thailand was a wonderful experience. While the negative wildlife tourism was always lurking in the background of my mind, I have heard many stories and witnessed efforts of how Thailand is slowly changing this industry for the better. These positive changes are largely due to the pressure from well educated travellers - meaning that our voices are having an impact, so please continue to make sure you are being heard. I am optimistic about the future of wildlife tourism in Thailand, and look forward to visiting again one day to witness further changes!

 

Stay tuned for next months blog where we will take a more in depth look at Thailand’s elephant tourism industry, talk about red flags and warning signs, and how to spot the ethical places!

 

Lindsey's Northern Thailand Adventures

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I like to consider myself a traveller. I like to think I’ve seen the world. With over 20 countries under my belt I feel like I have been able to explore the unknown, check things off my ever-growing bucket list, and live a somewhat adventurous lifestyle. However there’s one popular part of the world I’d completely missed out on, South East Asia, Thailand in particular. It seems almost everyone you meet has either been to, or is heading off to this country, so when my travel buddy suggested Thailand, I figured why not go and see what all the hype is about. A few months later here I was, about to travel across the world, not to my normal comfort zone of savanna’s and wild animals, but instead to face the unknown and brave the world of backpackers, gap year travellers, and everything else that Thailand has to offer. 

First off, why we decided to plan a trip to Thailand during the rainy season still baffles me. We were under the impression it would rain briefly in the afternoons, and that it would be nice and refreshing. What we weren’t prepared for was that when it wasn’t raining it was 40 degrees Celsius, and extremely humid. Unfortunately, the rain didn’t offer as much of a reprieve in the temperatures as we had hoped. We weren’t prepared for the constantly hot and sweaty feeling you get after simply sitting outside in that heat. Gone were our hopes for Instagram model worthy photos of us after a leisurely hike up to a viewpoint, instead we got photos of us looking red faced, sweaty, and exhausted after hikes we were sure were going to kill us. We knew to expect this during adventurous hikes through the jungles of Northern Thailand, what we didn’t anticipate was that even a simple walk in search of lunch would feel like an extreme event. But, we were finally on the trip we’d been looking forward to for months, so better make the most of it - even if we constantly looked like someone had just pushed us in the dirty river while we’re at it!

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We started our journey in the busy city of Bangkok. As someone who’s spent the majority of their travels in the back of a safari vehicle, or hiking in search of wildlife, I truly felt like a fish out of water in the busy concrete jungle! After a few days of adjusting to our new surroundings, and coming to grips with the extreme temperatures we'd be facing for the next month, it was time to head up to Northern Thailand. Northern Thailand is well known for its wildlife tourism activities, both the good and the awful. I was both extremely excited and very apprehensive about visiting these areas. We had heard the horror stories of tiger temples displaying drugged cats for tourists photo ops, of elephants living chained up on the side of the road or spending their entire day providing uneducated tourists with rides. While I would never support these activities, I knew these were things I would witness during my travels, a scary thought for an animal lover like myself.

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Our first stop in Northern Thailand was the beautiful city of Chiang Rai, the town most notably known on the backpacker trail for the beautiful white temple. We loved exploring the temples,the sights the city had to offer, and felt like the only tourists in the area, a very rare feeling in Thailand. Our main reason for visiting Chiang Rai was an overnight visit at the Elephant Valley Sanctuary. Most elephant sanctuaries in Thailand are very hands on, some of them are doing great things, others not so much. Elephant Valley takes a very different approach to how they help their rescued elephants, a very hands off approach. We spent our day learning about elephants, and why these elephants were in their care. We followed them around the reserve keeping a safe distance between us and them, giving us the opportunity to observe them in a more natural environment. Later on in the tour, we had the chance to get up close and feed them some portions of their diet all the while having a safety fence between us and these powerful creatures. It was wonderful to see each of the elephants make the choice of whether they wanted to hang out with the tourists, that choice is an extremely important component for their welfare, thankfully, so many of them came over to enjoy our company. The rest of the tourists left after lunch, leaving us with the sanctuary to ourselves. We spent the afternoon helping collect bamboo and other food for the elephants, assisting the caretakers in cleaning the area where the elephants are kept at night. While our evening was spent simply enjoying the tranquility of staying at a private sanctuary in the Thai jungle. It was the perfect place for our first taste of elephant tourism in Thailand.

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The rest of our time in Northern Thailand was spent in the amazing town of Pai, a town which very quickly stole my heart, and the vibrant city of Chiang Mai. While our visit to Pai lacked any sort of wildlife tourism, it did provided us with the chance to visit beautiful temples, explore the Pai canyon, and provided amazing views of mountains, waterfalls, and the countryside, offering some of the most beautiful scenery while in the company of amazing local culture. Most of our time in Chiang Mai was spent exploring the city and it's numerous temples, however we did decide to visit another elephant sanctuary in the area. It’s here where we were provided with the more typical elephant excursion that tourists are hoping to experience. While I was pretty confident in the place we chose to spend our day, I did have very mixed feelings about it by the of our time there. These places offer volunteers the opportunity to get up close and personal with the elephants while feeding and swimming with them.  I never once saw anything that made me believe these animals were being abused, however I did feel as though the very structured schedule promoted tourist satisfaction over elephant welfare, and we were unable to see these elephants living a more natural lifestyle. This may not seem like a red flag to many tourists, but coming from an animal background I greatly appreciate how variety and choice help to maintain the physical and psychological well-being of animals in captivity.

 

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Our elephant adventures in Northern Thailand stopped here, giving us the opportunity to explore some local villages, experience the vibrant nightlife, and lots of time to sample many of the delicious local dishes, we probably spent a bit too much time doing that last activity!!

 

Our time spent in northern Thailand was an unforgettable experience, but as two prairie-dwelling Canadians we were looking forward to heading down to Southern Thailand - the islands and ocean were calling us! We had high hopes for the second half of the trip, looking forward to the amazing adventures ahead of us. What we didn’t expect was that we would witness some of the worst wildlife tourism either of us had seen… check back next month to hear about our time in Southern Thailand and learn more about the issues with the growing demand of wildlife tourism in these areas.

 

Lianne's Guyanese Adventure

At the end of May I had the opportunity to travel to Guyana, a place not commonly found on peoples bucket lists. Most people either thought I was going to Africa, or they wondered why I had chosen Guyana of all the other places in South America. While Guyana normally wouldn’t be my go-to country when planning a trip, it was one of the options for a field course as part of my Masters program, and in this case heading to Guyana beat out a lot of the other options that sounded amazing. So what drew me to Guyana - wildlife of course! Rainforests cover around 80% of land within Guyana. Because of the vast forest it is also home to hundreds of different animals - reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians, it is a wildlife-lovers paradise… assuming you’ve got some patience. Known as “the land of the giants” during an adventure in Guyana you might be lucky enough to see giant water lilies, giant anteaters, giant river otters, jaguars (the largest cat in the Americas), the harpy eagle (the largest eagle in South America) or the green anaconda (the heaviest snake in the world). Sounds amazing, right?

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Guyana is a birders paradise, which is where my adventure began. Before my course started, I had a full day to explore so I booked a birding tour with Leon Moore where we headed to Mahaica River, which is about an hour west of Georgetown. The tour was an amazing welcome to Guyana and I would definitely recommend looking for a tour with Leon if you ever make it to Guyana! We quickly found scarlet ibis, roadside hawks, tropical kingbirds and yellow headed caracaras… and that was before we even got to the river! While our small group slowly meandered down the calm waters, we came across the stars of the tour, red howler monkeys and the national bird of Guyana, the hoatzin! 

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With such an amazing start the trip, my expectations were high. But of course, anyone going on a wildlife adventure should know that animals don’t exactly plan their days according to our schedules, especially when they are hidden in dense rainforest. In this ecosystem it is essential that a guide takes you around, to keep you safe and to find the most animals. I stayed in two locations while in Guyana - Iwokrama Research Centre and Surama Ecolodge; fortunately both of them are home to plenty of skillful guides. Iwokrama Research Centre has worked extensively with local communities, researchers, governments and international agencies to manage the one-million-acre Iwokrama forest, making them the largest environmental organization in Guyana. It was the perfect setting for experiencing rainforest adventures. I went trekking through the forest which was a mere 10 meters from where I was sleeping, boating down the Essequibo river learning about their wildlife surveys to better understand changes in their ecosystem, and climbed Turtle Mountain a 5km, 300 meter climb through the forest (where we also saw an orange-breasted falcon - big win in the birding world!). In the two days I stayed here, I saw macaws soaring through the sky, toucans foraging for fruit, tarantulas hiding in the leaves, and beautiful views filled with many more amazing animals.

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Now if I have managed to convince you that a trip to Guyana is worth it, perhaps consider looking at a calendar… we went in the beginning of rainy season, which created a few problems, but these also led to some pretty spectacular adventures. The day we were heading to Surama was raining, a lot! Not all of our trucks were able to get to the research centre to pick us up. Instead a few cars that could manage to drive through the deep deep mud would shuttle groups up to the cars waiting beyond the giant hill. I was in the one of the last groups out, and also with a notoriously lucky driver! Within the first 20 minutes of our drive, we had already seen a Tayra (in the weasel family) and a few minutes later we came across a three-toed sloth crossing the road. Sound like the beginning of a bad joke, but there he was, slowly dragging himself across the road. Now you likely already know that sloths move very slowly, so leaving the sloth in the middle of the road was not something we were prepared to do as it could have easily gotten hit by a car driving through the rain storm. While normally, I am a full believer in a hands-off approach to viewing wild animals, this is one of those instances that breaking the rules is the right thing to do. One of our group carefully picked him up and brought the sloth safely across the road - and it sure told us how unhappy it was! Lots of grumbles and growls, sounds that didn’t even look like they would come from an animal that small and adorable. This was another reminder of how important it is to understand animal behaviour - the sloth appeared completely content, and like most sloths, almost looked as though he was smiling. But this sloth was not happy.

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Once we got him across the road, we left him in peace and continued on our journey. It took a while, but we finally made it to our pit stop at the Iwokrama canopy walkway. We were grouped up with a guide who hiked with us up to the suspension bridges, and along the way taught us about the trees and ecosystem that surrounded us. When we got to the top we were greeted with a birds-eye view of the forest… but that didn’t last long, it quickly started pouring with rain, and I mean POURING! We ran down the hill but our speed meant nothing, within seconds we were drenched to the core. Thankfully Guyana is a warm country, because we were wet for the rest of the day, until we finally arrived at Surama Ecolodge!

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For the reminder of the trip we stayed at this ecolodge which was nestled in the savannah but surrounded by rainforest. Despite the beautiful backdrop, it was the community that left the most lasting impression. The ecolodge is a community-based ecotourism business, with the aim of promoting ecosystem protection, while still providing employment and education for the local community. During our stay we were lucky enough to be taught by several different Makushi people, the indigenous community that lives in the area. We learned from their wealth of knowledge on how they live sustainably with the ecosystem, and cohabitate with the wild animals around them. It was inspiring the be around a group of people invested in conserving their local land and wildlife while learning from them through cultural presentations, games with the kids at the wildlife club, cooking lessons from the local chefs, guided nature walks and assisting in local farming efforts. With all of this going on, it simply became a bonus that I continue to add to our ever growing list of species we encountered - macaws, nightjars, vultures, hawks, kites, and caracaras. Guyana as a birders paradise continued to impress.

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The last day of our tour brought more rain, lots and lots of rain. While we all sat waiting for a break in the downpour our hopes of making it to our last stop were rapidly deteriorating. That day we were planned to touch down at Kaieteur Falls, a waterfall about four times higher than Niagara Falls and is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. However, landing here in treacherous rainstorms is tricky, even for the skilled pilots that regularly fly over this beautiful landscape. Thankfully, the storm cleared enough and we were given the go-ahead to take off from the lodge. If you get a chance to take this flight, do it - if you ask, you might get to sit up front with the pilot, it is an experience you won't forget (but also isn’t for those who experience motion sickness, it was a bumpy ride). The ride alone offered spectacular views of the vast rainforest that covers the country and chances to watch pairs of macaws flying around down below. After landing at the park, it is only a short walk to one of three viewing points, each one taking you closer and closer to the falls. It may be easy to get lost staring at the view of the falls, but take some time to explore the surroundings, search for golden tree frogs within the bromeliad leaves, and if you are lucky, you may stumble upon a cock-of-the-rock lek. The falls is a spot well known for offering a glimpse of these birds as males gather to participate in confrontational displays in an attempt to win over the females. Feeling incredibly lucky to have seen four of these bright orange birds while a group of tourists sought the perfect picture, we got back in our tiny planes and headed back to Georgetown. With one last glimpse of the Guyana rainforest, I sat back and enjoyed the views of this beautiful country, thankful for the people, animals and adventure that I was fortunate enough to experience.

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#LOWIMPACTTRAVEL

The Sustainable Tourist Challenge

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Wildlife tourism provides people with the opportunities to observe, interact with, and learn about wild animals around the world, giving tourists the chance to develop a bond with some of the most endangered species. But, if we aren’t careful in how we travel, we can end up having disastrous impacts on local and global environments. We have discussed ways in which you can find the most responsible tourism company, however there are other smaller choices that tourists can make to help increase their sustainability. Most tourists declare that they are interested in making more eco-conscious choices, unfortunately, research also shows that actual behaviour change is limited. As a result of this, many strategies have been put into place to try and encourage sustainable choices. Eco-labels, educational campaigns, and certification for adhering to certain standards have been implemented, but are still being met with little success. The reluctance of tourists to support responsible tourism and adopt sustainable practices indicates a gap between attitudes and behaviours.

This gap simply opens the doors for more education. We need to build awareness around these issues so that people can see how even simple choices can have tremendous positive impacts! From the time that you are packing for your trip, to being in a far away land on your adventure, to being back at home exhausted and exhilarated from your time away, there are opportunities to lessen or even produce positive impact for wildlife and conservation. Here are some tips for you to follow in order to make your next wildlife adventure as sustainable as possible!

Before you go

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When booking a trip, there are many different components to consider to decrease your travelling ecological footprint. Tourist consumption exists in many ways, with three major ones being location decision, as well as your choice of transportation and accommodation. Utilizing eco-efficient accommodations such as eco-huts or camp sites, can greatly reduce energy and water consumption as well as waste production, putting less pressure on the environment. By choosing to book more efficient transportation methods, or even reducing the distance you are travelling, your impacts will be greatly reduced. From an ecological standpoint, travelling by rail is one of the least environmentally damaging methods, as it releases less greenhouse emissions than airplanes or cars. Even better than these motorized forms of transportation is choosing to ride a bike! You can take your time, stopping to take photos or grab a bite to eat at your own leisure. It is also important to remember that, while travel to far away countries offers amazing experiences, there are wonders abound in your own country, so don’t omit exploring closer to home for some of your vacation choices!  

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On a simpler note, what you pack can also allow for more sustainable choices. Bringing along reusable water bottles and bags is a huge step in reducing the amount of waste that you produce while travelling. In some countries, it isn’t always easy to find drinkable water to refill your bottle with, so this may not be an option, but many tour operators can opt to buy large jugs of water for people in fill up on, instead of buying a crate of single-use water bottles if people express interest in this! There is also the option of bringing along sterilizing tools such as a Steripen or different sterilizing tablets. Packing eco-friendly or biodegradable toiletries can further lessen your impacts by reducing waste and the amount of harsh chemicals you may be adding to an ecosystem. Another big one is batteries! Many cameras and phones utilizes rechargeable batteries, consider buying a solar charger in order to recharge. For any of your other needs (alarm clocks, flashlights) make sure you only bring rechargeable batteries to help limit your waste production. Lastly, pack light, choose to pack with a purpose!

On your excursion

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The mere act of visiting another country can have economic, and social impacts, but possibly more well-known are the negative ecological consequences. Since adopting more sustainable practices typically results in more operating costs, tourists represent the best opportunity for change by making their vacation decisions more sustainable and adopting environmentally friendly behaviours in their host country.

Perhaps most simply, is making sure that you are cleaning up after yourself. Unfortunately, some of the most popular tourists destinations can also suffer from waste overcapacity and litter, leading to huge damages to natural environments and risking injuries to animals as they can get caught up in, or ingest our waste. Reducing the amount of garbage you are producing, and making sure that what waste you do produce ends up in the trash or recycling is a very simple step towards cleaning up these destinations.

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One of my favourite parts of travelling is eating. I love visiting new countries to eat their local food - it is one of my favourite ways of learning more about their culture, and it’s usually pretty delicious! But these food choices can also have huge impacts. Choosing to eat at local restaurants not only helps support their economy, but by eating locally and seasonably, you can greatly reduce your ecological footprint. Similarly, when shopping for souvenirs, look for local handcrafted products to bring home, and definitely do not buy any animal products. Ivory, coral, turtle shell - buying items like these can contribute to poaching, illegal wildlife trade, and ecosystem degradation. Avoid the trinkets found in large tourists shops, as these are often not even made in the country you are visiting! Instead, focus on buying from local women's groups, this helps again to support the local economy and usually assists womens and childrens rights and education. Buy souvenirs you can feel good about!
 

Back at home

This one can either be the simplest or most difficult behavioural change. You’ve just arrived back from your vacation, hopefully feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, and having gained some knowledge on the local cultures and environment. If you have managed to make some sustainable choices while away on your travels (way to go!), consider implementing these into your daily lives at home. Perhaps more importantly, make sure you share your experience with friends and family. Share your adventure. Tell them how you witnessed new and rich ecosystems full of life that is worth protecting. Educating the people in your life, and continuing to educate yourself is how we can all work towards understanding, and adopting more sustainable lifestyles.

The Challenge

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Now that you’ve discovered new ways for you to become a more responsible tourist, it’s time to show off what you have learned! We want to see some of the ways that you are adopting sustainable behaviours! Use the hashtag #lowimpacttravel on your facebook, or instagram, to show us some of the choices you have made to become a more sustainable tourist, the more creative the better!  By showing off some of your responsible tourist behaviour, we will try to share your posts on our facebook or instagram - you can become a leader in sustainable tourism!

References

Chan, W.W. & Lam, J.C. (2002) Prediction of pollutant emission through electricity consumption by the hotel industry in Hong Kong. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 21, 381–391.

European Commission (2003) Basic Orientations for the Sustainability of European Tourism. European Commission, Brussels.

European Commission (2004) Feasibility and Preparatory Study Regarding Multi-stakeholder European Targeted Action Sustainable Tourism and and Transport. European Commission, DG Enterprise, Hague.

Juvan, E., and Dolnicar, S. (2016) Measuring environmentally sustainable tourist behaviour. Annals of Tourism Research, 59, 30-44.

Martens, S., and Spaargaren, G. (2005) The politics of sustainable consumption: The case of the Netherlands. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 1, 29-42.

Rosenblum, J., Horvath, A. & Hendrickson, C. (2000) Environmental implications of service industries. Environmental Science and Technology, 34, 4669–4676.

van den Bergh, J.C.J.M. & Verbruggen, H. (1999) Spatial sustainability, trade and indicators: an evaluation of the ‘ecological footprint’. Ecological Economics, 29, 61–72.

To Feed, or Not to Feed, That Is the Question

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There are large numbers of tour operators out there, all fighting to be your first choice on your next adventure. Tour operators want to make sure their clients are satisfied, and what is the best way to make tourists happy? Give them the wildlife sightings they have paid for. Unfortunately, one of the easiest ways to guarantee seeing an animal, is to offer a food source, and sadly regulations on wildlife feeding vary considerably across regions and countries. While some areas will have an all-out ban on these behaviours, other locations simply allow this practice to be carried out.

For the most part, the motivations behind tourists wanting to offer food to wildlife are usually kind hearted. Maybe you think that offering food can help counteract human-induced habitat destruction by offering food to animals living in struggling habitats. Perhaps you are hoping that by feeding wildlife you are improving their survival or breeding opportunities. You could also be looking for a way to connect meaningfully with the world around you in your search for contributing to conservation. Unfortunately, these good-natured actions can be extremely detrimental to the health of the animals, the ecosystems, and even yourself.

Behaviour changes

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An animal's ability to obtain food is essential to their survival, in fact, it is usually the primary factor in an animal's activity budget (how much time is spent on an activity). With plenty of food around, animals typically reduce their home ranges, often choosing to stay where the resources are and not migrate or explore of territories. This can cause huge problems for animal communities, since the species more likely to get food from humans, end up dominating ecosystems. This can also have enormous consequences in reducing local and global biodiversity, as the cascading impacts could affect predator-prey dynamics in additional ecosystems when species start avoiding areas where food is not continually offered by humans. Furthermore, most foraging and hunting behaviour is learned, typically from parents, so if older generations become less efficient at obtaining food, their offspring may never acquire the skills they need to survive on their own.

As a behavioural adaptation, wildlife are typically very wary of people. By staying at a distance from humans, they can escape any danger that we may pose to them. When animals lose their natural fear of humans, they are more susceptible to being injured or captured by people who do not have good intentions. As animals become more habituated to humans through the offering of food, they may also become more vulnerable to poaching, and potentially entering the illegal pet trade.

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Lack of Nutrition

It is no secret that most humans consume a lot of processed foods, and the research is out there telling us it isn’t good for our health. Well, not surprisingly, these foods are just as bad for wildlife. While much more research needs to be done on its impacts, most of the food that is offered to wildlife can lack the nutrients that species need to survive. For example, feeding bananas, chips, and rotten fish to dolphins does not fulfill their nutritional requirements, and can therefore have devastating effects on their growth and development as they become accustomed to eating these items. Some food provisions may also be completely foreign to an animal's digestive system, causing animals to eat objects that may be harmful to them. Eating an imbalanced diet can lead to a whole host of issues including obesity, metabolic syndromes and nutritional disorders, greatly impacting the overall fitness of an individual, and of species as a whole.

Disease transmission

Okay, this is a big one, lots of different factors at play here. Feeding and baiting wildlife often increases the number of animals present in a particular area as animals congregate around the food source. This high density of animals allows diseases to be more easily transmitted between member of the same or different species. The sheer volume of animals simply increases the number of interactions that occur between individuals, and in doing so, this allows for a higher number of opportunities for diseases to spread. If only a few individuals within a population are carrying a disease, and the animals are spread out as they normally are, then the prevalence of the diseases will likely remain low. However, when higher rates of contact occur at feeding sites, these diseases are given the opportunity to infect more individuals, becoming a more widespread issue.

Feeding sites can also result in the crowding of animals in a small area, which can lead to individuals experiencing higher stress levels and consequently, lowered immune function which simply further facilitates the transmission of diseases. These large congregations of individuals can also increase aggression and fighting, resulting in open wounds that act as additional pathways for diseases transmission.

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Not only can feeding sites result in higher wildlife diseases, but many species, especially primates, can be highly susceptible to diseases that can be transferred from humans to wildlife. In this scenario, uninformed tourists are adding strains of disease into populations whose immune systems are not evolved to fight back. Similarly, diseases may also be transmitted from wildlife to humans, in fact, the majority of new infectious diseases found in humans are coming from wildlife populations. These emerging pathogens can not only threaten wildlife, human, and domestic animal health, but also global biodiversity.

Increased Human-Wildlife Conflict

Feeding of wildlife can cause an increase in human-wildlife conflict since there are simply more interactions that occur due to the influx of animals in human-populated areas. By offering food, we are encouraging wild animals to view people as a food source, which can actually increase their aggressive behaviour towards people. Usually this becomes more problematic for animals that pose a safety risk for people, such as large carnivores and ungulates. Unfortunately, this can result in the killing of these animals to protect humans, leading to expressions like ‘a fed bear is a dead bear.’ Feeding may also increase vehicle-wildlife collisions in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as animals are more often found in towns, cities, around highways, as well as interacting with and becoming entangled in boats.

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What can you do to help?

One of the best ways you can ensure your money is going to support wildlife, is to make sure that your tour operator does not offer feeding as an experience. Allowing the tourism industry to continue promoting the feeding of wildlife greatly contributes the the misunderstanding of wildlife management. So by avoiding these companies it is sending the message that tourists want to respect wild animals! While it is important to make sure that you aren’t feeding wildlife on your tourism adventures, it is also essential that you're not unintentionally feeding wildlife around your home. Make sure to keep your garbage, recycling, and compost secure, protect your gardens, and make sure you aren’t leaving food around to attract wild animals.

Use your voice as a tourist, and a consumer to fight for wildlife!

References:

Corcoran, M.J., Wetherbee, B.M., Shivji, M.G., Poteski, M.D., Chapman, D.D., ad Harvey, G.M. (2013) Supplemental feeding for ecotourism reverses diel activity and alters movement patterns and spatial distribution of the southern stingray, Dasyatis americana. PLOS One, 8(3), e59235.  

Daszak, P., Cunningham, A., and Hyatt, A. (2000) Wildlife ecology - emerging infectious diseases of wildlife - threats to biodiversity and human health. Science, 287, 443-449.

Donaldson, R., Finn, H., Calver, M. (2010) Illegal feeding increases risk of boat-strike and entanglement of bottlenose dolphins. Pacific Conservation Biology, 16(3), 157-161.

Dubois, S., and Fraser, D. (2013) A framework to evaluate wildlife feeding in research, wildlife management, tourism and recreation. Animals, 3, 978-994.

Knapp, C.R., Hines, K.N., Zacharia, T.T., Perez-Heydrich, C., Iverson, J.B., Buckner, S.D., Halach, S.C., Lattin, C.R., and Romero, M. (2013) Physiological effects of tourism and associated food provisioning in an endangered iguana. Conservation Physiology, 1(1)

Menard, N., Foulquier, A., Vallet, D., Qarro, M., Le Gouar, P., Pierre, J.S. (2013) How tourism and pastoralism influence population demographic changes in a threatened large mammal species. Animal Conservation, doi:10.1111/acv.12063.

Orams, M.B. (2002) Feeding wildlife as a tourism attraction: a review of issues and impacts. Tourism Management, 23, 281-293.

Semeniuk, C.A.D., Speers-Roesch, B., and Rothley, K.D. (2007) Using fatty-acid profile analysis as an ecological indicator in the management of tourist impacts on marine wildlife: a case of stingray-feeding in the Caribbean. Environmental Management, 40, 665-677.

Sorensen, A., van Beest, F.M., and Brook, R.K. (2014) Impacts of wildlife baiting and supplemental feeding on infectious disease transmission risk: a synthesis of knowledge. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 113, 356-363.

Voluntourism - Finding the Right Experience!

In our first blog we looked into the ways to spot ethical wildlife tourism options, in this one we are going to discuss a particular, very popular form of wildlife tourism - voluntourism. What better way for a facility to accomplish their mission, then with the help of well-intentioned, caring, tourist volunteers who are willing to donate both their time and money. However, not all volunteer opportunities are as wonderful as they seem, in fact, many volunteers get tricked into supporting an organization that doesn’t have the best intentions. So as a potential wildlife volunteer, how can you know if you are choosing a good place? Here are a few things to look for when researching where you are going to volunteer. 

What is their mission, and how will you help accomplish it?

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There are many larger travel websites that will facilitate volunteer travel bookings, however these websites usually give you little information about the place you will be volunteering other than a few attention-grabbing key points. Try to find out the name of the location or organization, and take a look at their personal website. As a side note, it is usually cheaper to book directly through the organization's website rather than through other second party travel websites. Once you have located their website, it should be easy to find out what their mission is, and if they are accomplishing what they are trying to do. The most common wildlife volunteer options take place at wildlife rehabs, breeding programs, and conservation and research projects. Good organizations will be very open about how many animals they are releasing back into the wild, how they are contributing to conservation and what research projects they are doing. If this information is very vague on their website, it could be a clue that they are in it more for the money than for conservation.

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Second, look at how your presence will be helping the place where you will be volunteering. Good organizations will make it clear that while you get to do fun things, you will also be required to do some hard, and not so glamorous work, such as cleaning enclosures, prepping food, fixing roads, removing plants, recording research notes, etc. If the website advertises that you will spend your days cuddling, playing with, and feeding cute baby animals, and relaxing, with no mention of real work, chances are they may not be the best place to spend your volunteer trip. You are there, to work after all! You are donating your time and money to help worthy causes succeed, and that will involve more hard work than cuddle time.

Where is your money being spent?

Many people are surprised that you have to pay to volunteer, however these funds are essential to keeping many volunteer projects up and running. Once again, good organizations will be open about how they are using your money and since you will be spending a lot of your hard earned money to be there, you want to make sure it is being spent the right way. If there is little to no mention on how the money is being used, that is typically another sign you should be wary of volunteering there. Good ways for organizations to spend their money include; using it towards medical supplies, food, maintenance and upkeep of the centre, providing volunteers with lodging and food, putting money towards conservation efforts, and anti-poaching measures, and providing jobs for locals.

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Is there any community involvement?

Any good conservation project knows, that research projects, breeding, or rehabbing and releasing animals back into the wild is only the start of the solution. The reason these organizations and projects exist is because wild populations are facing a variety of issues, including being poached, injured, losing habitat or are being captured for the wildlife trade. Simply protecting these animals or releasing them back into the wild isn’t enough to end these problems. The solution needs to come from education, which is why many good projects work very closely with local communities educating on the importance of wildlife and conservation, teaching that animals are worth more alive than they are if they are hunted or sold. It is also recommended that you choose a project who works with the community in other ways such as assisting with community gardens, bee projects and helping women’s business initiatives. Asking volunteers to pack with a purpose and helping provide jobs to the local community are all great signs that you are choosing a project who truly cares about the wildlife they are trying to protect, and the areas in which they live.

Do they promote hands on wildlife encounters?

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This can be a tricky one. Most volunteer programs do offer some sort of hands on encounters with wildlife, after all, it is part of the draw to voluntourism, and isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Many projects, wildlife rehabs in particular, have animals that have been rescued, but due to various circumstances, can not be released back into the wild. Many of these animals are habituated to human contact, and volunteers will therefore get the opportunity to work closely with them, using them as ambassadors for their species. What potential volunteers need to be wary about are projects that guarantee daily encounters with baby animals, or animals that aren’t permanent residents of the rehab centre. Any animal who is being rehabbed and will be released back into the wild should have limited contact with humans, to help ensure its survival once it is released. Good rehab centres will follow this practice.

Will you have the opportunity to ride elephants, raise big cat cubs, or walk with lions?

This is a major red flag. Most people are aware of the training methods associated with riding elephants, and how awful they can be for the animal including physical and psychological abuse in order to get elephants to comply to their handlers. Many places have stopped offering saddled riding, however there are a few places that still offer it which should be avoided. Studies have suggested that around 64% of elephants in tourism are plagued with back injuries. With the prominence of elephants used in captivity, mainly in areas of Southeast Asia, it is essential that we understand welfare implications, and that tourist advocate for improvements of elephant care. There are many other opportunities that can provide volunteers with amazing experiences with elephants that don't cause them harm. Observing them participating in natural behaviours, preparing their food, feeding and bathing them, and helping staff to provide other daily necessities are all duties that help enrich the lives of the elephants, while supporting responsible care and conservation initiatives. 

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As for the opportunity for volunteers to raise lion cubs, and other big cat cubs. This is still a voluntourism trend that is very common, in southern Africa especially. Volunteers are told they are supporting a lion breeding program, that is broken up into stages, with the intent of the lion cubs bred at the facility eventually being released into the wild. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to hand raise adorable little lion cubs, that will eventually repopulate the wild population, right? WRONG!!! The sad truth is that no lion has ever successfully been reintroduced into the wild, and these are well oiled money making organizations. They make money not only off the well-intentioned volunteers who are used to raised the lion cubs, thinking they are doing a great thing, but off paying tourists who come to support the “breeding program”. Most of these programs will breed lions, remove the cubs immediately and hand raise them, they will then charge people to come play with and cuddle these tiny cubs, when they are too big for that they are moved to the “lion walk” program where again tourists and volunteers are charged money, and given the opportunity to walk alongside a sub-adult lion in a “wild” setting, an activity that can be extremely dangerous. Finally when they are too old for the lion walks, they are usually moved into an enclosure “until they can find a suitable wild location to release them in” which never ends up happening. Unfortunately profiting off the lion doesn’t end here, as they are very often sold to rich trophy hunters, where the only time they are let out of their compound, is right before they are killed. It’s the sad truth of most of the lion breeding program volunteer opportunities. So as tempting as the thought of hand raising lion cubs may be, remember what will ultimately happen to that cub, when it's not cute and cuddly anymore. If lion, or big cat conservation is something you are passionate about, there are many other great volunteer opportunities, involving lion research, education and conservation, that are hands off, but make a big impact of the survival of the species!

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Now trophy hunting can be viewed as a pretty controversial topic with some arguing that the revenue generated can actually support conservation projects, while others state that this is most often not the case - this will be a topic for a future blog, so stay tuned!

Voluntourism can be a great way to make a difference for wildlife and conservation, as well as provide you with some amazing and unique travel memories. We hope that these steps will help you make the best decisions when choosing a wildlife cause to volunteer for. Also check our review pages on our website as we have reviewed many places that accept volunteers and will be adding more in the future! And please, if you have volunteered somewhere that you would like us to review based on your recommendation, please submit a review on our website, so you can help us make sure everyone makes the best wildlife tourism decisions!

References:

Borchet, P. (2013) Is walking with lions good for conservation? Probably not. Obtained from https://africageographic.com/ on Feb 17, 2018.

Guttentag, D.A. (2009) The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism. International Journal of Tourism Research, 11, 537-551

Hunter, L.T.B., White, P., Henschel, P., Burton, L.F.C., Loveridge, A., Blame, G., Breitenmoser, C., and Breitenmoser, U. (2012) Walking with lions: why there is no role for captive-origin lions Panthera leo in species restoration. Oryx, 46(1), 19-24.

Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2009) The role of tourism in elephant welfare in Northern Thailand. Journal of Tourism, 10(2), 1-19.

Magda, S., Spohn, O., Angkawnish, T., Smith, D.A., and Pearl, D.L. (2015) Risk factors for saddle-related skin lesions on elephants used in the tourism industry in Thailand. BMC Vet Res. 11:1

Schmidt-Burbach, (n.d.). Taken for a ride: the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia. World Animal Protection. Obtained from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/ on September 27, 2017.  

Wearing, S., and McGehee, N.G. (2013) Volunteer tourism: a review. Tourism Management, 38, 120-130

5 Tips for Responsible Wildlife Tourism

As January comes to a close, hopefully you are still on track for keeping your New Years resolutions. If you’ve got travel goals this year, we hope to help you be prepared for your next adventure by releasing monthly blogs!

It seems that when it comes to wildlife tourism, no distance or amount of money is too large in the quest to find the species we so desperately seek to find. The wildlife tourism industry can have immense benefits, encouraging environmental protection, fostering stewardship behaviours, contributing money towards conservation efforts, and can have direct positive impacts on our own health. Sounds like the perfect combination, right?

Unfortunately, not all forms of wildlife tourism are created equal. Many of them can have significantly negative impacts on environmental conservation and the welfare of these wild animals.  Elephants, utilized for rides and shows are often taken from the wild and subjected to a ‘crushing’ phase where physiological and psychological abuse are used to force them to submit to their owners. Sloths are captured by having their trees knocked down, and are then used for tourists to hold take photos with, where the constant high levels of stress and lack of sleep often reduce their lifespan down to mere months. Tigers are separated from their mother usually immediately after birth, often chained, drugged, and abused for the perfect photo opportunities for tourists.

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Sadly, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg; species all over the world are suffering at the hands of wildlife tourism. In fact, an estimated 110 million people worldwide visit wildlife tourist venues that have negative impacts on animal welfare. What’s worse is that most tourists are completely unaware of the negative ramifications that their tourism dollars contribute to. So how do we work to fix this negative cycle? We must collectively decide to stop the tourist demand for these negative venues by refusing to visit them, and we must educate ourselves as to how to recognize negative forms of wildlife tourism. We must change the wildlife tourism industry.

You can be a part of this change. When booking your next adventure, here are five tips on how to ensure you are not supporting irresponsible tourism venues.

1.     Do your research

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Before heading out on your trip, it is essential for you to do your research. Reading this means that you are off to a great start! For every location you are considering, research the facility – are there online reviews advertising inappropriate care? Do they discuss their commitment to conservation and welfare? Are they accredited? Recommendations from friends and family can be great, but continuing your own education on how to find a positive wildlife tourism is essential.

2.     Look for the ‘five freedoms’

When visiting animals in captivity, it is important that they have access to the five freedoms: ‘Freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury, or disease, freedom to express normal behaviour, and freedom from fear and distress.”  Animals should always have access to fresh water, a nutritious diet, access to veterinary care, and suitable shelter and space. They should also be able to exhibit species-specific behaviours such as social activities, grooming, foraging etc. Chances are, if you don't see these five freedoms being fulfilled, they animals are not receiving them. These places should be avoided.

3.     Keep it hands-off

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Animals that are handled by tourists often have high levels of stress. They are unable to appropriately rest as they are passed from one person to the next. Many of these animals have likely endured an existence consisting of suffering and abuse in order for them to be easily handled.  Even in the best circumstances, handling of wild animals simply promotes misguided messages to the public – that wild animals make suitable pets. Alternatively, some facilities can provide you with different types of interactions with their animals so you can still get a closer encounter that maintains respect for the animals.

4.     Beware of entertaining shows

Animal training can be done in many ways, however those involving physical punishments that force animals to comply should never be deemed appropriate. Tools for inflicting pain and fear should never be used, instead trainers should work with an animal’s natural history in order to reward and guide them towards an end goal. Again, respect for the animals is key here. Does a location offer dancing bears attached to chains, monkeys wearing collars riding on bicycles, or elephants playing basketball or painting? None of these behaviours are natural, and they are likely a result of forceful compliance.

5.     Be suspicious of souvenirs

Bringing home souvenirs from your travels is a great way to remember your adventure, but caution needs to be taken when purchasing these items. Illegal wildlife trade has allowed many products to become readily available- ivory, furs, feathers, leathers, corals, and shells are just a few examples of items that could be taken cruelly, and illegally. Exotic snake wine may be the result of a snake being drowned in that bottle. Sea turtle products including items labeled ‘tortoiseshell’ likely came from an endangered turtle. Not only is it unethical to buy these items, but bringing them home may also be illegal.

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Research shows that people want to see a positive change in wildlife tourism. Ensure that your experience is not at the expense of an animal’s health and welfare. Voice your concerns, make sure your tourism dollars count! Check back next month for our next blog in our effort to contribute to the education of tourists! Here at Wildlife Tourism Guide we want to build a community of people working towards the promotion of positive forms of wildlife tourism. Have you been somewhere you want to tell as about, submit your review here, we would love to hear from you.

References: 

Bale, R. (2016) Snake wine and other wild souvenirs to avoid. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/ on January 11, 2017.

Ballantyne, R., Packer, J., and Hughes, K. (2009) Tourists’ support for conservation messages and sustainable management practices in wildlife tourism experiences. Tourism Management, 30, 658-664.

Daly, N. (2017) Witness the harrowing capture of a walk sloth for the black market. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/ on January 11, 2017.

Kals, E., Schumacher, D., and Montaga, L. (1999) Emotional affinity towards nature as a motivational basis to protect nature. Environment and Behaviours, 31, 178-202

Kontogeorgorgopoulos, N. (2009) The role of tourism in elephant welfare in Northern Thailand. Journal of Tourism, 10(2), 1-19.

Moorhouse, T.P., Dahlsjo, C.A.L., Baker, S.E., D'Cruze, N.C., and MacDonald, D.W. (2015) The customer isn't always right - conservation and animal welfare implications of the increasing demand for wildlife tourism. PLoS One, 10(10):e0138939.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0138939

Reynolds, P.C., and Braithwaite, D. (2001) Towards a conceptual framework for wildlife tourism. Tourism Management, 22, 31-42.

Schmidt-Burbach, (n.d.). Taken for a ride: the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia. World Animal Protection. Obtained from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/ on September 27, 2017.

World Animal Protection (2016) Exposed: true scale of Thailand’s ‘tiger selfie’ tourism. Retrieved from https://www.worldanimalprotection.ca/ on January 11, 2017.