As a young person, scrolling through your social media feeds you are almost certain to come across photographs and videos of your friends on their travels, and you potentially have been or are planning your own. A popular activity for people traveling around Asia, in countries like Thailand, is visiting Elephant sanctuaries. The sanctuaries offer the promise of a once in a lifetime experience. They give tourists the opportunity to feed and bathe the animals, take a ride on one through the jungle, all the while offering plenty of photo opportunities, which are certain to cause a buzz on your social media feed.
This seems like a fairly harmless activity; in fact, it seems that it is in benefit of the animals to be rescued and cared for at these sanctuaries. But it is not as harmless as it may seem, and these ‘elephant camps’ are often unregulated, and encourage the practice of illegal wildlife trafficking.
Many of the tourist attractions involving animals name themselves as sanctuaries, but are far from safe places for the animals that live there, and many are not in fact registered sanctuaries or charities. Many of these sanctuaries don’t actually rescue their animals, they forcefully remove wild baby elephants from their mother and herd. They then put them through the ‘Phajaan’, a process where they are denied water and food, and kept in a small tight space until they give in and become obedient enough to be used for entertainment.
And it is not just the elephants that are affected by the tourism industry, another popular tourist spot is Tiger Temple in Thailand, among many other big cat attractions all across the world. Attractions exist which offer photo opportunities with many big cats. This is obviously not a natural environment for the animals, and in order to keep them from being aggressive they are often chained up and given sedatives by their keepers. As well as this the animals are often beaten and abused, much like the elephants are, in order to push them to breaking point. Breaking their psyche in this way means the tigers have, more often than not, given up on fighting back against their trainers. This mistreatment of their animals is why Tiger Temple went on to be shut down by the authorities. As well as drugging, shackling and abusing the tigers, Tiger Temple were feeding them boiled chicken, rather than raw red meat which would contain the proper nutrition a tiger needs. During the investigation they were also accused of illegal sale and export of animals, as the authorities found frozen tiger cub carcasses, as well as bones and pelts of the animals.
It is not only in Asia where these sham sanctuaries are a problem. One “sanctuary” that is frequently in the limelight is The Black Jaguar White Tiger Foundation (BJWTF). A home to over 200 big cats, BJWTF is owned and run by Eduardo Serio in Mexico City. The foundation thrives on social media attention, racking up over 4 million followers on their Instagram which features photos and videos of all the big cats, however frequently receiving criticism for the exploitation of the big cats that have been ‘rescued’. In fact, BJWTF isn’t even registered as a sanctuary, and it appears to be a man with a very large back garden – and very large pet cats. Although the foundation isn’t open to the public without a very expensive donation, it seems to be freely accessible to celebrities. The motives behind this would appear to be more exposure for Serio and his cats, and even more followers and likes on social media.
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It is understandable how this has come to be, interacting with exotic animals is an incredibly desirable thing. But these animals are wild, and as much as cuddling a cute little lion cub is an exciting thing to do, for the welfare of every being involved it is crucial to think about the absurdity of what is going on. To be fair to Serio he is giving the big cats a better life than what they potentially had before, but the human interaction is not necessary for this.
To celebrities, attractions like BJWTF are a place to learn about wild animals, and of course take plenty of snaps for their Instagram, but it is important to question what these people are promoting. It might look cute on the internet, but raising wild animals in a humanised way can be detrimental on their health. Throwing a baby lion cub in the air and playing with it is simply not natural and can cause huge stress to the animal. On a visit to the foundation, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton was shunned by the director of PETA for the videos he posted – which showed him provoking the huge big cats, one of which bit into his baseball cap. She said about Hamilton:
“Seeing big cats used for photo ops promotes the idea that wild animals are here for human amusement and to do with as humans please, rather than to be left in peace in their own habitat.”
It must be considered that when humans and wild animals are interacting so closely all the time it is not only the animals that are at risk. These animals are wild, and they have instincts. Animals like tigers are so obviously deadly to humans, and elephants are equally as dangerous, so it’s pretty baffling when people are surprised when interacting with such animals goes wrong. Reports of tourists being injured or killed by these animals are frequent, and so are incidents where animals turn on their trainers, so why are people still supporting this industry.
It has to be said however that there are some genuine wildlife sanctuaries and supporting charities that are accessible to tourists, and as much as it could be argued that animals should never be in captivity, sometimes it is of benefit to the animal and their species as a whole to be looked after. It is important that when visiting such places, you take into account their motives, are they truly concerned about the conservation of these animals, or are they exploiting them for money or internet fame? So while traveling and seeing the world a hugely popular endeavour for young people, it is really important that while enjoying the world we live in, that we take careful care and consideration to preserve it. And it seems that social media may not be helping the problem. Whether or not the person posting is aware of it or not, posting photos and videos promotes the exploitation of these captive animals. It might look cool on your Instagram, but maybe it’s best to give the elephant ride a miss.