A few years back, I was on a press trip to Zimbabwe. At the time, the country was going through a financial resurgence after ‘dollarising’ and forming a coalition government. New hotels and lodges were being built, tourism was growing again and hotels were flying in any sort of exotic food stuff from Zambia or South Africa to please their guests.
Another aspect of my visit was to see the wildlife. We started our trip at Kariba, experienced the beauty of Hwange and then ended off with a visit to Victoria Falls and surrounds. On our itinerary was the chance to go on an elephant back ride. While I wouldn’t say I was anxious about this last activity the entire trip leading up to it, it was definitely playing on my mind that I wasn’t comfortable with the idea.
Having worked as a tourism journalist, I had written more stories than I could count on various conservation practices or #AnimalRightsInTourism, or lack thereof, around Southern Africa. There was always a common theme to them, no matter if they were from Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe or South Africa: animals played the role of entertainment, while humans profited in some manner.
When we arrived for our elephant back rides, I immediately backed out. I promised myself then and there that I would never be a part of this giant circus we call the world and have an animal do something against its nature for my own entertainment. While everybody saddled up and got on board, I sat sulkily at reception after bidding these gentle creatures goodbye. The photo below makes me sad to look at, I know how uncomfortable I felt in it, and if I dwell on it enough, I begin to cry for these ellies.
I’m not saying that there aren’t honest intentions behind some animal interaction places. I do believe that staff and even owners and management have good intentions when it comes to the care of the animals they offer up to tourists as if they’re trained pets, but it has never sat right with me that we are pushing wild animals to perform on command, these are not dogs or horses, they are meant to be left alone and viewed from a distance.
After Zimbabwe, I managed to avoid any and all animal interaction facilities until I started travelling more in 2014. I visited Thailand where we were taken to a facility that also offered elephant rides. It was one of the most incredibly depressing places on earth. I could feel the elephants’ tension, and mourned for the 10-foot burmese python who was on a cage smaller than my car, curled up in a corner with no branches to slither on. I also visited the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, which was an inspiring best practice facility. It was educational and not built for the tourists passing through Phuket.
Similarly, I was recently ‘whisked away’ by a big brand in the travel space for the launch of their new campaign at a secret location. A driver picked me up early one morning to chauffeur me through to an elephant sanctuary just outside of Joburg. As we got closer, and got lost, I asked where we were headed to try assist with directions. I cannot tell you how quickly my heart dropped and immediately I started getting worked up and angry about why the brand had chosen this place as a launch spot. When I got there, I asked to be taken home immediately, it was a three hour round journey that upset me. Big brands should know better, they should do their research, especially as it was only a week after a tourist had been killed at the Lion Park, a nearby facility that has recently announced it will ban its lion cub interactions.
I’ve opted to put down my personal thoughts on this because I believe that we’re filled with stats and shock factor. If I even make one person think about the impact of animal encounters in tourism, it would be meaningful for me. Today (22 July 2015) is the release of Blood Lions, a documentary looking at the effect of lion cub petting on the conservation industry and its link in canned hunting.
I’m asking you to find out more the next time you’re in a similar situation with wild animals, understand why the facility is doing it, but also keep in mind that IT IS NEVER OKAY FOR ANIMALS TO BE USED FOR HUMAN ENTERTAINMENT.
This post was written from heart, as many others have been by bloggers in my community. Follow the #AnimalRightsInTourism hashtag on Twitter and check out other informative and personal pieces on this topic.