Swim with dolphins? Travel companies shift away from wild animal attractions

Why TripAdvisor, one of the world's largest online travel agencies, will no longer sell tickets to attractions that invite tourists to interact with wild animals. Will this help or hurt conservation efforts? 

Jorge Silva/Reuters/File
A father with his daughter and a mahout ride an elephant at Tad Sae Waterfall outside Luang Prabang, Laos, on July 31.

Tourists looking to book an excursion to swim with dolphins, ride an elephant, or pet a tiger may have to do a little extra legwork, as several leading travel agencies have dropped wild animal attractions from their ticket offerings amid growing scrutiny of the use of animals as entertainment.

But will this moral stand help – or hurt – wildlife conservation efforts?

TripAdvisor, one of the world's biggest internet travel agencies, announced on Tuesday that it will no longer sell tickets to destinations where visitors “come into physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species," amid pressure from animal welfare advocates and concerned consumers to divert tourists away from such attractions. Other travel agencies such as Intrepid Travel and STA Travel have moved away from certain attractions such as elephant rides as well.

The travel industry's decision to stop supporting such attractions parallels rising public awareness about animal welfare, with scrutiny being placed on animals kept in captivity for entertainment. Public pressure has prompted SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment phase out its iconic orca shows and breeding program and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to stop using elephants in performances. In August, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also proposed a ban on close-up dolphin swims in Hawaii after concerns surfaced about spinner dolphins “experiencing intense pressure” from tourists intruding on their resting areas.

But there lies a delicate debate among scientists and activists about the best way to protect wild animals. While both condemn abuse of animals, some wonder if an outright ban on interaction with wild animals is actually counter to promoting conservation – especially in some cases when tourism provides sanctuary for animals that may otherwise be killed.

“In many places, ecotourism is the only thing between wildlife preservation and hunting or cutting down a forest,” Daniel Blumstein, ethologist and conservation biologist at University of California at Los Angeles tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “In cases like these, ecotourism can be a major form of income for people.... It’s an interesting tradeoff that we all have to make decisions about.”

At the same time, Professor Blumstein recognizes the negative impacts constant human interactions can have to wild animals. In a study published in October 2015, he found that ecotourism changes animal behavior, potentially making them more vulnerable to poachers and predators, resulting in a kind of “taming.”

The key is to weigh the benefits of ecotourism and the potential costs of it in specific situations. But he says that if you think about it from an individualistic perspective where suffering of all animals should be minimized, then ecotourism would be inhumane and wrong.

Take elephants, for instance. A National Geographic investigation found that some elephants in Thailand undergo a controversial “training crush” program to prepare them to give rides. Baby elephants are taught to “raise their feet on command so owners can easily move them,” and the orders are reinforced by stabbing with sticks that have nails attached at the end. The training continues for weeks and the elephants are covered in bloody wounds and rope burns. 

At the same time, elephants are rapidly losing their natural habitat and ecotourism, including elephant rides, can provide an economic incentive for conservation of the species, Nick Kontogeorgopoulos, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Wash., with expertise in the economics of international tourism, tells the Monitor. 

Professor Kontogeorgopoulos emphasizes that treatment of the elephants in these programs in Thailand is not ideal, but he also wonders if a boycott or ban could be counterproductive.

“The problem with relating this perception that all elephant rides is negative is that it promotes this very black or white view,” he says. “[It promotes the view] of the only way you can help is not interacting with them.”

For his research, Kontogeorgopoulos interviewed and visited elephant camps in Thailand. He found that some were exploitative in that elephants were made to carry people frequently in a day, fed low-quality food, and kept in confined spaces. But he says he also noticed a trend toward more elephant-friendly camps where the animals are kept in open spaces and are not required to give frequent rides.

“I think that elephants don’t have anywhere else to go in Thailand so you have to work with them in tourism,” he says. “It’s not a perfect solution. If you can go away from riding that will be great.”

For others, however, no form of conservation that involves animals in entertainment is justified.

“If elephants were meant to be ridden, you can ride a wild elephant,”  Edward Stewart, co-founder and president of Performing Animal Welfare Society, tells the Monitor in a phone interview “There is a process to take an elephant from what it really is to what you want it to be, and what they want it to be is a machine that will make money and take people for a ride.”

For Blumstein, however, the decision should be specific to each situation in order to decide what’s best for biodiversity.

“The devil is in the detail,” he says. “I think having an informed public and having a mechanism where the public can realize that all ecotourist experiences may not be net positive is priceless.”

TripAdvisor’s approach aims to toe that line between the varying viewpoints, and ultimately, let consumers decide whether they want to support these attractions. Although it will stop selling tickets to these locations, it will still continue listing the destinations on its platform, and it plans to add a button that links users to an educational platform about animals welfare.

"TripAdvisor's leadership position in travel means we can help educate millions of travelers about the diverse opinions that exist on matters of animal welfare," Mr. Kaufer said in the press release. "We believe the end result of our efforts will be enabling travelers to make more thoughtful choices about whether to visit an animal attraction and to write more meaningful reviews about those attractions."

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