Mike pandey Documentary filmmaker on wildlife and environment
Millions of tourists criss-cross the planet each day in search of new adventures, excitement and unique experiences. Tour operators are forever coming out with new and innovative ways to lure thrill-seekers. Among them, the most popular is wildlife tourism. Besides elephants, tigers, whales, mountain gorillas, camels, water buffaloes and yaks, the latest tourism attraction includes diving with killer whales, swimming with whale sharks and walking with wolves and wild bears. In the wake of ecotourism, animal exploitation and abuse have become rampant. Though there are strict rules to protect animals in most countries, they are often poorly enforced.
In Thailand, elephants, world’s largest land mammals, are a huge tourist draw. Its multi-million dollar tourism industry uses nearly 2,500 jumbos for treks and excursions. Unfortunately, the ordinary tourist remains oblivious to the exploitation and abuse this animal is subjected to when kept in captivity for training.
Elephant calves usually remain attached to their mothers for up to 16 years. Calves as young as six-month-old are taken away from their mothers and thrown in stockades, and prodded with spikes and electric prods till they obey the trainers’ command. Some activists recently released video clips showing young jumbos being chained and shocked with electric cattle prods and hit with bull hooks to get trained for back safari. Following this, while many tour operators in the country declared that they will no longer offer elephant rides, others continue to do so. In this regard, the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre has set an example for many of us to follow.
In India, too, elephants are subjected to similar abuse. Around 600 elephants are involved in tourism-related activities as well as entertainment shows and fort tours. An archaic wooden howdah, weighing upto 60 kg, is strapped onto the jumbo’s back and it is forced to carry the weight of four tourists besides the mahout, totalling to almost 400 kg. Imagine the pressure on spine the poor animal takes! They suffer from chafe, swollen legs, maggot infestations, wounds etc.
Elephants are a source of livelihood for the mahouts, and compassion must go hand-in-hand while dealing with the life form. Special care must be taken to ensure they are not abused. This also applies to pack animals used in religious tourism. For instance, until a few decades ago, around 200-300 pack animals were used to ferry pilgrims (senior citizens and kids) to Kedarnath. However, the number today stands at 5,000. The animals struggle to maintain balance on the treacherous and overcrowded paths, leading to accidents and injuries.
Responsible tourism means making choices that do not harm animals used as means of transport or entertainment. Before enjoying an animal ride, a tourist must gauge its health and capacity.
Millions of animals are exploited worldwide in circuses, marine parks, places of pilgrimage and tourist hotspots. In the absence of proper enforcement it becomes the duty of each individual to take a stand and raise a voice against cruelty. Tour operators, travel companies and our governments must work together to generate awareness and respect towards creatures that we share the planet with.