An up-close animal encounter is often high on the list of must-dos for visitors to Thailand. They’re in good company – the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna have been snapped getting friendly with everything from elephants to snakes, tigers and loris primates. But not everything is as it seems with Thailand’s wildlife industry, and there is a darker side to animal experiences, of which most tourists are blissfully unaware.
At Expique, we are not experts on this matter so we currently keep things simple by not offering any animal related experiences, and through this post we hope it will help you evaluate the options if you were looking at an animal related experience.
Everyone wants to ride an elephant – but should we? The ancient Thai capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai are famous for offering elephant rides, and it’s something that can be done in plenty of other destinations in Thailand. Though officially banned, you can even still occasionally experience the depressing sight of a baby elephant being trudged through the streets of Bangkok (particularly on the outskirts) of a night for the entertainment of tourists, who are charged for the opportunity to feed or take a photograph with the animal. It remains even more common to see other animals, such as snakes and endangered primates like the slow loris, paraded around bars and other entertainment venues for tourists to pose with. Rihanna, Beyonce and Jay Z are among the celebrities to have attracted criticism for setting a bad example with their poses with protected animals in Thailand.
Animal rights campaigners argue that elephant riding is irresponsible, and constitutes animals rights abuse, on at least two counts: firstly, unlike say a horse, the spine of an elephant is not strong enough to take the weight of a human, let alone two humans plus a raised seat, as is common on elephant rides in Ayutthaya and elsewhere. And secondly, riding elephants along a city’s concrete pavements is far from the natural jungle environment where these creatures belong – and on which their feet were designed by nature to walk. What’s more, the abusive ‘phajaan’ taming process, involved in forcing elephants to allow humans to ride on their back, includes beating, stabbing and separation from the mother (this award-winning photo of ‘phajaan’ captures it perfectly – but be warned it’s a harrowing shot). If you need another reason not to partake in an elephant ride, just take a look at the short chains they are tied to when not being ridden, or the torturous bull hooks so-called mahouts use to stab them into submission and ‘good behaviour’ during your ride.
At the height of animal rights abuses for tourist entertainment in Thailand, high-end beach resort Nikki Beach Phuket made global headlines in March when it brought in a baby elephant as an entertainment showpiece at a party. Drunken tourists were allowed to ride the elephant, which was also used to serve champagne and ‘dance’ with revellers.
Here are two excellent posts that explain more about why you should not ride elephants and provide alternative options.
Animal rights abuses in Thailand’s tourism industry are common. Among the most notorious locations is the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province, where tourists pay to do the seemingly impossible – taking a selfie with an adult tiger. While the attraction’s management of Buddhist monks spin the line that the tigers are as tame as they are due to having been raised around humans – and indeed have always claimed that the Tiger Temple’s admission fees would be used to fund the construction of a ‘Tiger Island’ where the animals could roam at liberty in an environment akin to their natural habitat – this is widely doubted, including by Thai and international wildlife organisations, and it is believed that drugging, physical abuse, and the unnatural separation of a tiger from its mother at the age of two weeks, is used to produce the kind of temperament that means tigers lay docile as they pose for photographs.
Reflecting the fact that tigers are wild animals with whom it is simply not nature’s intention for us to snuggle up for a photo, last October saw an Australian mauled by a 15-month old tiger at the Tiger Kingdom attraction in Phuket. More recently, the head abbot at Kanchanaburi’s Tiger Temple ended up in ICU after being mauled by a 7-8 year old male Bengali tiger. He required multiple stitches and sustained deep scratches and a fractured arm; however, despite the widespread media coverage of the tiger attack, the monk later claimed that this wasn’t the cause of his injuries at all, and that he had in fact fallen down a flight of stairs.
There are frequent reports of animals disappearing from the temple, thought to have been sold on to wildlife smugglers seeking to export them to neighbouring countries. The temple has been the subject of a long-running saga of investigation by Thai authorities, and Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Park Conservation (DNP) has on numerous occasions said it would seize the tigers – which are endangered animals whose possession is illegal, and for which the temple does not hold the correct licences or other paperwork. In April of this year, the DNP vowed to seize all of the temple’s 140+ tigers following the Songkran Thai new year festival – but later backed down once more, stating that the tigers would be allowed to remain at the temple provided the attraction ceased charging tourists for admission and photo opportunities, and otherwise operating as a business, and additionally stopped further tiger breeding.
Tigers aside, the DNP’s initial resolve for the seizure was sparked by a tense stand-off when officials attempted to rescue six Asiatic black bears, presumed trafficked since the temple does not hold documents proving its ownership of them. More than 100 monks, novice child monks, and foreign volunteers blockaded the temple’s exit, preventing DNP officials from leaving with the bears. The bears ultimately had to be removed by crane because of the monks’ resistance. This episode in turn followed the rescue of four abused Malayan sun bears at Wat Hong Noi temple in Prachuap Kiri Khan province, after the tragic death of two more in a pitiful state, having been kept in a locked room with no food or sunlight.
Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, which has long campaigned for the removal of the temple’s tigers, previously told the Bangkok Post that he believed “a lot of the people [at the temple] are very motivated, I think they really love the animals, but they’re doing it absolutely the wrong way.”
For further reading, see this Matador article on 7 reasons you should think twice before visiting the Tiger Temple.
It’s not all about photo ops with tigers and elephants. The prospect of a new dolphinarium opening in Phuket has attracted criticism from both local and international animal rights advocates, who describe it as a step backwards for animal rights developments in Thailand. Dolphinariums already exist elsewhere in Thailand, at Bangkok’s Safari World and Oasis Sea World in Chantaburi province.
Approval to open the new centre appears to have been granted by officials in Phuket, following required modifications being carried out. But owners of the planned, and rather ironically-named, Nemo dolphinarium do not yet have the permits required to import the creatures – a trade regulated by the CITES convention on endangered species, to which Thailand is a signatory.
The executive committee for the Phuket and Southern Thailand branch of the SKAL travel professionals organisation has denounced the opening of the Nemo dolphinarium and its planned ‘dolphin show‘, insisting that important educational messages about the conservation of dolphins will inevitably be a lower priority than entertainment, and that the cruel methods used to hunt dolphins in countries like Japan and Russia – from which wild dolphins would likely be sourced in order to stock the attraction – did not meet CITES standards. To find out more about the campaign againts the Phuket Dolphinarium you can follow the “Phuket Says No To Dolphin Shows” Facebook page.
More ethical options do exist in Thailand, and the key is to thoroughly research anywhere that you plan to visit with the aim of encountering animals. Animal welfare campaigners – and we at Expique – urge tourists to keep in mind that in the majority of cases, it is simply not natural for humans to get up close and personal with wild animals, particularly the likes of tigers. If an attraction is offering you an opportunity to do so, then it’s likely that it really is too good to be true – meaning there could well be a darker underbelly that you’re not being told about.
Diana Edelman, travel blogger, animal rights and responsible tourism advocate, co- founder of the Responsible Travel & Tourism Collective, and responsible elephant tourism expert working in this field for more than three years, says that while Thailand is making progress with animal welfare, the continuing demand for activities like elephant rides and tiger selfies continues to fuel abuse:
“If you want rewarding experiences with animals in Thailand, it is extremely important to do your homework. Many operators have seen the popularity of responsible and non-exploitive animal experiences, and have tapped into using phrases to sell their tours as animal-friendly and cruelty-free, even when they are anything but.
“If you wants to visit a sanctuary, look to see if the animals are being exploited for humans. If a place says they are a sanctuary, then they should not offer elephant rides or shows or paintings. A visitor should just be able to see them in their natural habitat, being with other elephants. It is also important to look for signs of abuse. If a camp uses bull hooks or other instruments to intimidate or inflict pain on the animal to get it to listen, it is an abusive existence for the animal.
“Any responsible programme can answer questions about how the animals are treated, where the money goes, and if the programme is sustainable or not. The biggest key is learning about the issues before you travel to Thailand, and then seeing which places truly offer experiences that are both rewarding for you, and not causing harm to the animal. This goes for every animal attraction in Thailand – not just those involving elephants. If you get a bad feeling, or see an animal which looks like it has injuries, then skip that place and let the operator know why you are doing so.”
There are of course several places that allow you to see animals in an environment that really do have their best interestest in mind. OneGreenWorld has five more alternatives to cruel animal attractions, while AngloItalian has a round-up of a number of wildlife-centric alternatives to the Tiger Temple.
Have you visited, or would you visit, any of the attractions featured in this post? Do you have suggestions for other responsibly managed attractions tourists should visit? Let us know in the comments!
Tiger photo by xiquinhosilva; baby elephant photo by EJ Sabandal; elephant ride photo by Fah Rojvithee; Nikki Beach photo via Twitter.