By Ashley Minshull
Photos with cute and exotic animals may be the perfect fodder for social media posts on twitter and instagram, but they mask a cruel and unethical reality.
Tigers are one of Thailand’s most beautiful and majestic animals; therefore it is understandable that many tourists want to get up close and personal with them. For this reason, tiger attractions are becoming more and more popular. Unfortunately when they arrive at the tiger “sanctuary” they are often shocked and saddened by what they find: overwhelmed animals that appear as if they have been drugged, suffering in sub-standard conditions.
An investigation by ‘Care for the wild’ revealed these magnificent wild cats that should be roaming deep in the rainforest are spending long periods of time contained in cages far smaller than even the minimum 500m2 area required. During my trip I spoke to other travellers that had experienced this, each with the same disgusting tales of tiny cages, cruel trainers and drugged animals; some even being reduced to tears by the plight of these poor animals.
Worst of all, these tigers are subjected to serious mistreatment in order to “tame” them. They are often beaten and the workers mimic aggressive tiger behavior such as squirting tiger urine in the faces of these helpless animals. Not only is the treatment of the animals barbaric, but evidence was also found to show that some tiger sanctuaries traded illegally with tiger farms in other areas of South East Asia, rather than rescuing animals in need. Just read the reviews on ‘Trip Advisor’ to see that these are far from sanctuaries!
Asian elephants are another of Thailand’s magnificent animals that find themselves in the middle of a growing animal tourism industry. Elephants in Asia are facing tough times due to increasing development and the destruction of their habitat. Shockingly 3,800 of the 5,000 elephants in Thailand are in captivity. Previously used in logging, most of them are now used as tourist attractions in elephant camps. Regrettably, few tourists visiting these camps are aware that the growth of this industry is also the cause of the grotesque illegal trade of baby elephants across the border from Burma.
These baby elephants frequently endure a brutal ritual to “break their spirit” before they are sold, so that tourists can one day ride on their backs. If this wasn’t awful enough, poor management of these camps can lead to these giants chained up for long periods of time, living in unnatural social groups and cramped living spaces. This couldn’t be further from their natural free-roaming lifestyle in the wild.
During my time in Asia I tried to be responsible when it came to animal tourism. The reviews of the tiger attractions certainly put me off visiting any of these and I am unaware of any ethical ways to see tigers in Thailand. As for elephant camps, based on a friend’s recommendation that they treated their animals with care, I did visit ‘Chang Siam Elephant Mahout Training School’ in Chiang Mai. Still expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived. Chang Siam is home to 7 Asian elephants each with a dedicated Mahout (trainer) who remains with the elephant all the time; they even sleep near the elephants so that they are always there to help if needed, especially when the elephants are young.
One of the elephants was a mischievous young calf, trained by following the example of the older elephants as opposed to being beaten which I was happy to see. The elephants were well fed and a river flowing through the camp provided them with plenty of water. The Mahouts did carry billhooks –a training tool- but did not use them savagely, merely as a prompt. The elephants didn’t have any scars or signs of abuse, which was a relief. We did go on a short trek on the elephants, however Chang Siam do not use the heavy chairs, so the load is not as great for the elephants and ending the trek in the river allows the elephants to relax and bathe. The Mahouts certainly all seemed very passionate and caring about the elephants and only trekking them twice a day ensures they are not over worked.
While Chang Siam, and some other elephant camps, do care for their animals and don’t exploit them in some of the heinous ways previously mentioned, they are still tourist attractions. Knowing what I know now, I would strongly urge any tourists visiting Thailand to visit an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre instead. They provide homes for a number of animals, allowing you to experience the local wildlife, as well as contributing to their welfare, development, and the protection of their natural habitat across the whole of South East Asia.