Sea, Sun & Slavery: A Tale of Animal Tourism

After two years of traveling and living in South East Asia, it’s time to talk about animal tourism and personal responsibility.

‘Beasts’ on the Beach

It’s a beautiful day in December on the beach of Unawatuna, Sri Lanka. I am sat with my partner and her parents who have just flown in from South Africa to start two weeks of travel together. The drinks are flowing and the atmosphere of the entire beach feels very much pre-New Year. It’s 35-degree Celsius. Scorching hot. Everywhere I look people are enjoying themselves. Children playing in the sand. Tourists enjoying a drink. Locals chatting away amongst each other. It’s a beautiful place.

I’m now on my second and settling into the atmosphere. Just as I’m getting quite comfortable, I see something in the corner of my eye. It’s rather large and walking beyond the tops of the beach umbrellas. The sun then disappears and I spot an unusually long shape in a silhouette. It looks almost like a very large gangly arm. I adjust my eyes slightly. My eyes are terrible so I can’t make it out but then I hear my girlfriend’s sudden gasp of shock. I look a bit harder. There stands a huge elephant. Not one. Not two. Not three but four elephants walking down the now very busy public beach. There are people everywhere. Yet these magnificent animals are being casually strolled down the beach amongst everyone.

I’ve read a lot about animal tourism over that last year and so my initial response was to look straight to their feet. There, I saw exactly what I was looking for. Huge rusty steel chains wrapped around each foot.

Then, I looked at their faces. Their poor faces.

‘Crush’ Boxes and ‘Phaajaan’

Elephants are intelligent and social animals. They form deep emotional bonds between each other and are highly sensitive. To tame an elephant for use in entertainment, they are subjugated to long and brutal practices. This almost always involves being tied up with ropes, pushed into ‘crush’ boxes and undergoing the method of ‘phaajaan’ (NSFW). This is the method of breaking the elephant’s spirit. Baby elephants can be chained up and unable to move for weeks. They are deprived of sleep. Starved and abused until they ‘give up’. Finally, they accept chains without resistance and accept rewards.

The method of ‘phaajaan’ ensures the elephant's spirit is broken

If like me, this saddens you. You probably think how unfair it is for those poor elephants to go through this nightmare. To be chained up. Separated from family as babies. Forced out of their natural habitat. Made to walk down a busy beach amongst hundreds of humans in 35-degree sun. You would be right. It is an absolute travesty and we should be ashamed of ourselves. In fact, those people who chained them up should be fined, locked up and the key thrown away. How can people like that live with themselves? What monsters they are. Right?

But ask yourself, why? Why do these people do this to the elephants? Why do they chain up these magnificent creatures? 70% of Sri Lankans identify as Buddhist. The treatment of elephants is therefore strange. Considering elephants in Buddhism are ‘a symbol of physical and mental strength, as well as responsibility and earthiness’. So, why are they chaining them up in the first place?

Ignorance, Desperation and Money

I snapped back from the shock on the beach but then something very depressing started to happen. People started to smile. Laugh. Point. Stand up. Run over. Grab the camera. Take photos. Facebook live. Take selfies.

The mood of the place actually started to pick up even more. Parents started to call over their children. The kids running over smiling ear to ear. ‘Wow! Elephants!’. Click. Photo. Memory. Wonderful, right? What an amazing experience. What an incredible sight to behold, right?

Let’s take a step back for a second. What is it we are teaching our kids at this moment? That it’s ok to chain up elephants? It’s ok to exploit animals? We need to think about what kind of values and beliefs we are instilling in our children from a young age.

Humans have wiped out 60% of all animal species in just the last 48 years. Why is that? Maybe it’s because we grow up to believe we are superior. Those visits to zoos. Trips to the aquarium. Holidays to Seaworld. Together, they have made us believe animals serve only two real purposes. Food and entertainment.

Look at animal agriculture. Billions of animals are born into captivity every day. They are forced into a life of misery and slaughtered at a fraction of their lifespan for our food. You could argue that the animals within tourism still have better lives than those on the farms. At least they get to see daylight and exhibit some natural behaviour before they are hunted to extinction or put down.

Don’t Blame the Oppressors

Where are WE in all this? How can we not see the animals suffering? Why are we associating fun with animal exploitation? Why when we see elephants chained up and so obviously out of their natural habitat does this give us joy? What’s wrong with us?

It’s easy in this scenario to blame the animal's oppressors but we’re in Sri Lanka. Some people have nothing here. People like us, who fly over from the privileged nations come to their country and make a habit of flaunting our money. It should not be surprising that people who have nothing want a piece of something. Can we blame them? If tourists are willing to pay a couple of dollars to see an elephant, ride an elephant, feed an elephant, hold a monkey or handle a python for a photo then why not give it to them?

When it comes to animal exploitation these people are not to blame. We as tourists are the problem. We perpetuate the issue by funding it over and over again for the sakes of a photograph and likes on Facebook. Meanwhile, real animals with real feelings are being abused. Forced into a life of slavery as a result of our ignorance and stupidity. People travelling to Thailand actually lie down with fully grown tigers in ‘Zoos’ and never ask themselves ‘how is it, this apex predator is allowing me to pet it?’. I can answer that for you. Drugs. Lots and lots of sedative drugs. Every day, so you can take that photo.

Tourists in countries such as Thailand, India and Indonesia have their photos taken with heavily sedated tigers

We need to wake up. We need to start practising more ethical tourism. Wake up to the obvious exploitation of wild animals for our pleasure when traveling and even in our own countries. If we stop paying into animal tourism it will cease to exist. With no demand, why would the desperate people in these countries continue to plug animal tourism opportunities? If everyone stops going to the ‘zoos’, people refuse the photo opportunity with a tiger and refuse to hold the chained up baby monkey. They wouldn’t. They would find something else to sell. Hopefully, something less awful.

During my travels over the last two years, I’ve witnessed many instances like the one I have described. It’s not just Asia either. When I was travelling in South Africa last year, whilst visiting Cape Agulhas, we bumped into some English guys who I offered to take a photo for. As a reward, one of them showed me a video of a great white shark with a huge hook in its mouth. The shark was being dragged by the side of a small boat clearly in stress and pain. They had been ‘shark baiting’ the day before. They had decided to pay money to go out and hook the greatest ocean predator for ‘a laugh’.

Look But Don’t Touch

Animals are not on here for our entertainment. We are not their superiors. They should not be held captive, exploited, abused, tortured, chained, imprisoned, made to dance or wear funny clothes. They are animals just like us. They feel just like us. You can appreciate animals without funding their suffering.

Next time you travel, I implore that you travel ethically. Be mindful of animal tourism, don’t take part and educate those that do.

Here are some useful links about animal tourism to read before your next trip:

Your guide to being animal friendly on holiday (PDF)

The Ultimate Ethical Tourism Guide for Animal Lovers

Be a compassionate traveler

9 big reasons why elephant rides are bad for animals

Animal welfare issues in tourism