Wildlife tourism in Thailand: Cruel and exploitative?
- Published: 10 June 2011
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Experiencing the local wildlife while on vacation is high on the agenda of many holiday-makers. But can a seemingly harmless interaction have wider implications for wildlife conservation? Susannah Waters uncovers the consequences of some popular wildlife-based tourist activities in Thailand, and argues that the widespread use of animals for entertainment is a massive threat to many critically endangered species as well as being very damaging to individual animals.
11 June 2011
Bam Bam was obsessed with a turtle soft toy. The turtle dwarfed her tiny furry frame, and she hugged it constantly, swaying back and forth. The sweet-faced orphaned baby gibbon missed her mother.
The illegal wildlife trade is considered the biggest threat to individual species following habitat loss. The trading of animals among and within countries places intense pressure on wild populations, and has propelled many species to the edge of extinction.
Despite a period of political unrest which transformed tourist-mecca Bangkok into a battleground, Thailand demonstrated its enduring popularity as a tourist destination with a record 15.8 million visitors last year.
The allure of this South East Asian nation is understandable: the white sandy beaches, ancient temples, and variety of wildlife are captivating.
And the opportunities to interact with wildlife are plentiful. Owing to the common use of many species as tourist attractions in Thailand, holiday-makers can pay for an up-close encounter. Tourists are able to ride an elephant along a forest trail, hold and have their photo taken with a baby gibbon, or pat a tiger and get a snapshot souvenir.
But at what price to the animal is that snapshot, that fleeting sensation of silken fur between the fingers, or that ride atop an elephant’s back?
The price is often life, say wildlife conservationists. They claim that education is vital to helping tourists make informed choices, and to discourage their often inadvertent support of species depletion and the exploitation of wildlife.
Primates in peril
There was a time when the loud, haunting call of the white-handed gibbon echoed through the rainforests of Thailand’s largest island Phuket. But habitat loss and heavy poaching led to the extinction of the island’s gibbon population 30 years ago, and the once-vibrant forests fell eerily silent.
Today, Phuket’s gibbon population is largely represented on the streets and beaches rather than the forest. These gibbons have been sold via the illegal wildlife trade on mainland Thailand.
The endearing white-framed faces and cuddly appeal of baby gibbons lures many a tourist to pay for a photo or hug in the popular holiday spots of Thailand each year.
Carried and exhibited on their owners’ shoulders, these small apes are handled by a succession of paying customers, to be displayed as photo adornments in an intrusive camera flash frenzy. Gibbons can also be found in bars where they are forced to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes for cheap thrills.
Life as a tourist attraction is harsh. Baby gibbons are often administered drugs to keep them docile, they are vulnerable to diseases such as Hepatitis A and B, and once they reach sexual maturity their fading appeal and increased strength sees them cast off – to either become private pets, dumped, or killed.
Phuket’s Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP), a centre for former pet and tourist attraction white-handed gibbons, aims to rehabilitate and reintroduce ex-captive gibbons back to the wild. To date, it has successfully released several family groups into the Khao Pra Theaw forest.
The GRP has a popular education centre which informs visitors about gibbon conservation, and the devastating impact tourist activities can have on these petite primates. It estimates that as many as 10 gibbons are killed for every baby successfully poached from the wild.
To obtain a baby, poachers often shoot and kill their entire treetop-dwelling family unit in the forest. Babies also frequently die from injuries incurred falling the great distance from their mother’s arms to the forest floor.
It has been illegal to poach gibbons from the wild in Thailand since 1992.
White-handed gibbons, along with the nine other gibbon species in South East Asia, are recorded in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Appendix 1 specifically covers species threatened with extinction.
Primate conservationist Petra Osterberg has undertaken volunteer work at the GRP several times, and currently works in the Primate Welfare Team at Wild Futures’ Monkey Sanctuary in the UK. She says that the use of gibbons for entertainment is a “very serious” threat to wild populations.
“Because gibbons have been locally extinct in Phuket for 30 years or more, the baby gibbons brought in for entertainment are coming from further and further afield, and their captures are affecting populations already vulnerable from deforestation and other disruptions to the habitat”, Osterberg tells The Scavenger.
She says that the problem goes even deeper: “The fact that poachers are killing female gibbons to get to their infant is creating a gender bias in the remaining populations”. Osterberg says that this has resulted in a “genetic viability problem” within wild groups. This is significant, as gibbons are monogamous and mate for life.
In regard to tourist participation in gibbon exploitation, Osterberg says “I’m sure most would never accept a similar treatment of wildlife in their own home countries.”
She suspects it largely comes down to holiday behaviour. “Many are excited about, and willing to pay for, the prospect of being in the presence of exotic wild animals”. Osterberg doesn’t believe that all tourists are completely aware of the “individual suffering” of gibbons, and the effect tourist actions may have on wild populations.
Considered an “integral” holiday activity by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, elephant riding is frequently on the traveller itinerary. “Begging” elephants are also a visible presence on bustling city streets, their owners jostling with other vendors for the tourist dollar.
But tourist support of these activities reinforces elephants’ endangered status.
Conclusive population data is difficult to obtain, but reports suggest there are somewhere between 500 and 1,500 wild elephants remaining in Thailand, and over 2,000 that are domesticated or in captivity. Overall numbers are decreasing by 5 - 10% per year. Asian elephants are classified as highly endangered.
During her first trip to Thailand in 2002, Bring the Elephant Home director Antoinette van de Water witnessed the suffering of tourist attraction elephants. The former marketing executive from the Netherlands encountered begging baby elephants on crowded city streets, and says it left a “deep impression”.
At that time she was a volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP), a sanctuary for formerly abused elephants within a peaceful valley in Chiang Mai. There, van de Water learned much more about the plight of tourist elephants than she had anticipated.
She also became distressed by the disparity between a recently rescued baby elephant’s new life at ENP, and the gloomy prospects of young elephants she had observed performing in public.
All domesticated elephants used in tourism in Thailand – whether for elephant riding, street begging, elephant shows and performances such as painting – have been trained from a very young age, using brutal methods in order to render them submissive.
The training method which elephants undergo is referred to as the “phajaan”. During the phajaan training ceremony, elephants are confined and chained in crush cages for days on end, and are repeatedly beaten with metal hooks, stabbed with sharp implements in their ears, whipped, starved and deprived of sleep. These young elephants have usually only just been separated from their mothers.
Since the aim of the phajaan is to break the spirit of an elephant, recovery “depends on the elephant, the training, and the care after the training”, van de Water tells The Scavenger. “For example with Dok Ngern, the first elephant I rescued, it took half a year before she could socialise with other elephants”.
Upon Dok Ngern’s rescue from a life of begging and performing, she was homed at Elephant Nature Park. Dok Ngern still bears the mental and physical scars from the cruel phajaan training ritual and sustained abuse.
The Elephant Nature Foundation claims that elephants in the tourist industry face a “bleak” future. Many of the elephants now roaming the valley at the ENP sanctuary were formerly used for tourist entertainment, such as elephant riding.
Van de Water believes that elephant riding is popular amongst tourists as elephants “look so strong and people don’t think that it would harm them”. In relation to barbaric training methods, she says, “the problem is that most people don’t know”.
Many baby elephants used for these purposes in Thailand are now being bought from Burma, van de Water says. She affirms that tourist activities involving elephants present a “massive threat” to wild elephant populations in the region.
Van de Water set up organisation Bring the Elephant Home in 2004, and has now devoted her life to protecting elephants.
Sigh of the tiger
The legendary might of tigers can also disguise their suffering.
In Thailand, tourists are often enticed to visit captive tigers in facilities where visitors can pat them and pose for photographs. Sybelle Foxcroft, of conservation education group cee4life, is particularly damning of one such popular facility: the Tiger Temple.
Although touted as a “sanctuary” for tigers, Foxcroft says that the Tiger Temple – which attracts hundreds of visitors daily – preys on people’s fascination with tigers while concealing the ill-treatment of the tigers detained there.
While on a scientific stay, undertaking research on tigers in captivity, Foxcroft discovered the dark side of the Tiger Temple. She says that it was immediately apparent the Temple was “not all it was portrayed to be”.
Foxcroft’s research quickly shifted focus. “I was originally there to research Indochinese Tiger captive care, but the research quickly became an up-close look at abuse and the wildlife trade”, she tells The Scavenger.
Foxcroft says that visitors, who pose for photographs with the chained-up tigers for a fee, are usually so overwhelmed by the experience that they overlook issues of tiger welfare. “Tourists are often blinded by the beauty of tigers - they don’t look around at their captive environment, they just want the photograph”, she says.
During her first and subsequent stays at the Temple, Foxcroft found that “abuse was rampant”, and included physical violence towards the tigers. She also claims that the living quarters are grossly inadequate, comprising “small cement undersized cages with no outdoor sections. There is no enrichment, and there is no exercise”.
Disturbingly, Foxcroft also uncovered evidence of the Temple’s link to the illegal wildlife trade. An investigation by Care for the Wild International has also alleged illegal tiger trafficking by the Temple, and “systematic physical abuse” of the tigers there.
“After witnessing the first trade, I decided that I would try everything I could to stop them”, says Foxcroft. “Places like the Tiger Temple are directly linked to, and responsible for, the endangerment of tiger sub-species in the wild”.
Globally, tigers are critically endangered across all sub-species. WWF estimates that only 100 Indochinese tigers survive in the wild in Thailand. No exact figure of captive tigers is known, however there are possibly thousands.
Foxcroft believes that the public would be horrified if they knew what happened behind the scenes. “The public are inadvertently contributing to the wildlife trade, and if they knew, no decent person would go”.
But sometimes even vigilant travellers can be misled.
Australian Jasmine Bates visited Thailand with a friend and said that it was common to see wildlife displayed on the streets. “Being concerned about the treatment of animals, we checked tour leaflets thoroughly before we booked anything”, Bates tells The Scavenger.
Therefore, she says they were disappointed when a market tour culminated in a trip to see some caged gibbons. Despite her unplanned experience with the gibbons, she believes that tourists have the power to discourage the mistreatment of wildlife.
“People should take more responsibility in educating themselves before travelling”, Bates says.
For Osterberg, the image of a tiny female “photo” gibbon being dragged relentlessly around Phuket is forever imprinted in her memory. The gibbon’s unknown fate, and the helplessness Osterberg felt, has sealed her commitment to primate conservation. “She became one of an endless, but invisible, number of wild animals that are lost to the tourist entertainment industry every year”, she says.
Other victims of the wildlife trade are luckier.
Bam Bam, the turtle-hugging gibbon, is now a young adult. She has been residing at the GRP since the day she arrived as a traumatised baby. She may soon return to a life in the forest, joining the other newly-wild gibbons who have a new hope for survival in the awakening forests of Phuket.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project’s tour desk is open to visitors who can learn more about gibbon conservation. Some of the gibbons can be viewed from a distance.
The Elephant Nature Park is also open to visitors, who can see the elephants during a day trip or overnight stay.
Susannah Waters is an associate editor at The Scavenger. She has worked as a volunteer on several wildlife conservation and rescue projects in Thailand and other parts of Asia.
Images from top: ‘Begging’ elephant in Thailand, photo courtesy of Bring the Elephant Home; Mother and baby white-handed gibbons (part of a family group released into the wild by GRP), photo courtesy of GRP/WARF; Two elephants at Elephant Nature Park, photo courtesy of Bring the Elephant Home.