Thinking About Animals and Tourism

While generally I don’t go on my trips as a tourist, I do sometimes partake in touristic activities. I have complicated feelings about tourism; on the one hand, I recognize it’s a powerful economic driver, an important source of income for many countries. I also am a huge believer in cultural exchange. But. I think tourism industries can lead to exploitative situations and can often get in the way of cultural exchange,

I’ve had hours-long conversations about this, party economies, and more. But, because this is a blog about animals, we’ll talk about tourism as it involves them.

Full confession: I have participated in both elephant and horseback rides, one being in Nepal and the other in Cuba. Addendum: I am not terribly educated about animals in tourism, but I know there is a strong faction against the use of animals in entertainment. I lean that way because of what I’ve seen with my own eyes.

Cecilia sees the world from the back of an elephant.

It’s easy to understand why people engage in elephant (and other) rides. Seated on what was essentially a caged table on the back of an elephant, I saw the jungle in Nepal from impressive new heights - things I’d been nonplussed about on the ground (particularly the leech-infested waters we waded through in sandals). The elephants themselves were gentle and easily distracted, pulling up long grass in clumps and whacking off the dust on their shins. I was also told that the nature conserve providing the tours was one of the more compassionate to the animals involved and one of the more effective at conservation.

Yet I’m not sure this is saying much. For one, the implements used to train the elephants looked dangerous, more like weapons than tools. The trainers themselves hit the elephants, hard, with sticks between the eyes, and scarcely did we finish our trip than the elephants went back out again with new groups of tourists on their backs. The final sad point was, when we were introduced to the facilities, we saw the elephants kept on chains. The only two elephants who interacted with each other were two babies who stretched the chains to their full extent to make contact. The rest slept or drank water from pails adjacent to piles of hay.

So it’s this I don’t get: if conservation is another purpose of these tours, then why aren’t the elephants allowed to have some semblance of life in the wild? Why aren’t they participating in the natural ecosystem of the jungle there? Mind you, this wildlife reserve also called itself home to rhinos, boars and other wild animals that were allowed to roam free.

Riding horses on the beach.

So while the experience itself was fun, I was overall left with a negative impression. I felt the same horseback riding in Cuba - the sights were incredible, the stars like freckles, and the bats were plentiful. But our horses frothed at the mouths, walked slowly, and were, again, beaten into submission with whip-like sticks. Mine kept veering off the path to eat and refused to return. Once again, they seemed exhausted and depressed. Animals in these situations are often thought of as tools, and not always tools that are taken care of.

I understand the economic purposes behind everything, that in Cuba and Nepal, wages are very dependent on bringing tourists to an area and providing them an “exotic” experience. A higher volume of tourists means more money. But, like many things in life, I wonder if it’s worth it for us, the tourists, to participate.

I’ve yet to do any such thing in Peru, though there’s an alpaca petting zoo near my home. I’m not sure if would be any different than what I’ve seen in other countries, though I’m interested to know more.

Tell me, what do you know about animal conservation? Have you ever purchased an experience that depended on animals?

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