Animal ecotourism is tricky business for those that love animals.
You want to see some exotic animals while you travel. But seeing them completely in the wild isn’t always an option. Safari’s and other genuine Ecotours can cost 1000’s of dollars. Way out of any budget travelers reaches, making us backpacker’s more likely to fall into a tourist trap designed to exploit wild animals.
The best we can do is seek out organizations and activities that help the animals and don’t use them as a tourist prop.
Here are my top 5 tips on distinguishing the good from the bad before you commit to that animal experience.
Don’t Ride an Elephant with a saddle.
Many people assume the tourist camps are a far leap above the work camps in Asia. But hauling tourists around in ill-fitting saddles that slowly damage their spine isn’t much better. On top of that Asian elephants need 300 lbs of food every day. Many facilities are not equipt to feed even one elephant adequately. They suffer from malnourishment and are chained and confined when they aren’t being worked.
There are plenty of ways to interact with them WITHOUT the saddle. Traditional mahout (elephant owners) training involves learning to ride them bareback or on their head. A much more natural and less harmful positioning. And way more fun. Thailand, known for its elephant experiences has lots of amazing sanctuaries where you can help care for and bathe Elephants. I recommend Elephant Nature Park for the most eco-friendly experience.
Be wary of any attraction that allows you to pet/get close to an animal you wouldn’t approach in the wild.
Whether its tigers in Thailand or bears in Vietnam often times these animals are drugged so that they are more docile for tourists.
Don’t give money to people on the streets with wild animals.
It’s just another version of panhandling. These animals (mostly monkeys) are used to draw in tourists and get the local a little extra cash. Donating money to these people only encourages others to do the same. They aren’t well treated or properly cared for. They are an attraction, not a pet. This rule also applies to children begging in the street while we’re at it. In Asia, child trafficking is a HUGE problem. Most of those children end up on the street begging or selling cheap tourist goods. The money just goes straight to the person who abducted or purchased the children in the first place.
Think about your food/drinks and where it comes from!
In Bali Kopi Luwak is a delicacy. The coffee is made from beans that have been eaten by a “Luwak” (kinda a cross between a cat and a weasel) and fermented inside their intestines. I promise you it’s ABSOLUTELY delicious. However, it’s expensive and a great way for locals to make some extra money on the side. Because of this some people catch themselves a Luwak and cage them force-feeding them beans for their entire lives. This is the rare circumstance that I encourage NOT purchasing from small family operations. Larger scale operations have the capacity to treat the Luwaks well and produce the best-tasting coffee.
I am not Vegetarian or Vegan. However, those options are more available than ever all over the world. I try to eat sustainably and only eat free-range, grass-fed, antibiotic-free meats that are as natural and healthy as possible. This is easier in other countries than it is in America.
Just be Kind
Many times you WILL get the opportunity to interact with animals in the wild. Give them space and let them approach you and remember they are wild animals. Don’t feed them things that are unnatural to them like sugary foods and don’t be surprised if they bite. It’s a risk you take when handling a wild animal.
Growing human populations and expanding cities are slowly encroaching on animal territories and escalating animal attacks and animal abuses all over the world. So it’s important to do some research on your destination before you travel. Many places don’t have animal rights laws that are enforced and it leaves it up to us to protect them.
Follow these tips and you can travel responsibly and not contribute to the mistreatment of the animals we love!