The tragedy of wildlife tourism

In the book ‘The Dead of the Night’, the author John Marsden once quoted:

We kill all the caterpillars, then complain there are no butterflies.

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the protagonist and the wildlife scenario ongoing. Both estranged from their own territory despite being the natives of their own land. Both invaded by some alien species which considered themselves superior. An eye-opener regarding the laid back and lovely life shown on social media in the wake of wildlife tourism was the article that I recently read online on the National Geographic Magazine:


After reading the article, I questioned the whole point of using animals for commercialisation and entertainment purpose without even being held responsible of the sufferings of animals. ‘All good things remain wild and free’ they say, I ask ‘What all good things remain?’. Humans have cruel ways of dismissing what they can’t understand and devastating what they can’t accept, perpetually making everything docile and tamed. With we being enslaved by the advent of technology and nature getting to its deathbed slowly, being destroyed by us, seriously what all good things remain?

I remember our English textbooks had a very monotonous chapter on conserving wildlife and the planet. We felt utter boredom until we came through this: There was this zoo in Zambia which had a cage with doors closed and read ‘The most dangerous animal on the planet’. You open the door and you see a mirror, it’s all your reflection. The irony was that a zoo was preaching such a sermon.

When I visited Thailand last year, I had no idea about Safari world, Bangkok’s most visited animal destination by tourists. We visited Safari world since it was part of our tour package. While I did enjoy the park and there were quite a lot of things that bothered me. 

The orangutan show is where they make the orangutans perform on stage, do some kind of dance and stupid human tricks. IT MADE ME FEEL SICK. It was utterly disgusting. People seemed to be OK with that whole thing. Some actually enjoying it. It’s just another example of how humans are so full of themselves. They might be orangutans alright but they need to be treated with the respect of a fellow species on this planet who also have the rightful claim to.

Orangutan show at Safari world

Then there was a giant elephant who was being made to create a painting of a tree. The painting is sold to the audiences as a souvenir.

Lampang Paint Thailand Elephant
Elephant made to create a painting at Lampang, Thailand

I was actually relieved to find a visitor’s testimony on Tripadvisor about the place –

This is the worst place I have ever been to, we thought we were going to an actual safari park, but this was full of animals being forced to do human-tricks, chimps dancing and kickboxing, it was awful!

It just reassured that there are other people who feel disgusted by the show and there is nothing actually wrong with me.

The big birds made to speak in different languages were caged up in such small spaces and polar bears kept in a hot tropical country like Thailand is in itself a verdict of the apathy shown towards the animals. There have been multiple reports that the orangutans and elephants specially kept there are not cared for properly and sometimes even subjected to electric shock. Taming them with a claw-stick remains a mundane act. Peta Asia reported the conditions here.

Sure, this does not comes as surprise in a country with rules like ‘phajaan’ (literally translating into ‘tear’ where baby elephant is kept away from their mothers to break their spirit and make them depressed enough to not care if they loose their freedom) but treating animals barbarously on amusement demands of tourists is universal.

Talk about ‘Tiger Temple’ and it’ll send chills down your spine upon hearing about the investigations held there and why it was closed forever. Built as a ‘tiger conservation’ project and run privately by Buddhist monks, it exploited the mighty yet so naive animal creed. All this for the sole purpose of attracting tourists and getting more income. They separated the cubs from their mothers past few days from their birth to make of them a cute cub baby feeding model from bottles which used to be filled with synthetic preparations. They did not even provide them with correct meat requirements. Worst, the old tigers who used to be chained whole day, were killed and sold off for ‘medicinal purposes’! Quite a ghastly treatment to animals in the name of conservation and tourist attraction. 

Chained tigers at Tiger temple (Image source)

Read more about the Tiger Temple at Aljazeera here

In Singapore, although personally I personally think things are much better when it comes to wildlife tourism, it isn’t devoid of problems. The underwater world of the Sentosa Island and the Dolphin and Seal shows in the Dolphin Lagoon have instances of treating animals poorly, if not cruelly, for the purpose of pulling the tourists. Pink Dolphins catching skin cancer and made to swim in small ponds of shallow water exclusively for families and seals made to live out of their real habitat.

Dolphin Lagoon, Singapore (Image source)

Considered the most intelligent animals after human beings, dolphins tend to live in flocks and are highly social animals. They, much like us, find it very hard and miserable to live apart from their fellow members. Imagine living as ‘The Hunger Artist’  in Franz Kafka’s story. Can’t? The mere thought gives you goosebumps. Well, that’s the everyday life of animals put up on shows for tourists.

Talking of intelligent animals, the next in the line to be exploited is the mighty Elephant. The one extensively worshipped and harassed equally well in the entire Southeast Asian region. Riding elephant backs has become an Instagram trend for tourists. I’ve previously written about Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and the controversy surrounding it. Many stray elephants who loose their herd are kept here. Chaining them up and selling them to Mahouts (elephant keepers) for elephant back rides in the daylight and calling them back when tourists come to exhibit their benefaction is quite a business.

But every cloud has a silver lining, such is true with wildlife tourism too. David Fleay Wildlife Park, Gold Coast, Australia cites one such example. Here, the tourism industry has proved to be a boon for indigenous animal species. To cater to the increasing demand from the tourists for observing wildlife, several breeding programmes were started which lead to a dramatic increase in the number of species like wristlebirds, sea eagles, koalas and tree kangaroos.

David Fleay Wildlife Park (Image source)

The Kosgoda Turtle Care Hatchery in Sri Lanka also is a good example of tourism helping in the conservation of animals. There are many more such examples of ecotourism done right and we hope to see the numbers flourish more.

Me putting a Sea-turtle into its temporary home at Kosagoda Hatchery

As tourists, we make the call: to support or disapprove of the things which lower the sanity in our conscience as homo sapiens, to fellow planet dwellers. After all, it’s we all who make this place worth living. Remember the saying –

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

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