Tourists turn a blind eye to animal cruelty

A new report has found many travellers are unaware of the cruelty of tourism with wild animals or put money and experience ahead of welfare.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Attitudes of tourists towards animal cruelty

First, a confession. When I was younger – just a naïve backpacker exploring the world – I did a couple of elephant rides in Thailand. I enjoyed them, lumbering leisurely through the jungle on the back of a majestic animal. Although I didn’t give it much thought, they seemed to be looked after quite well – they were being fed, had water, were spoken to softly by their riders, and were never pushed hard on our meander through the wilderness.

It was only years later that I learned more about the innate cruelty in a practice like this. The elephants are usually taken from their mothers when they are just a few months old to be trained. They are starved, beaten, and isolated while they are just calves until they become compliant. During their entire working life, they are cut with hooks and kept in chains to control them. The average life expectancy for an elephant is about 70 years but most used for rides die before their 30s or 40s.

World Animal Protection animal cruelty campaign

I don’t think I was alone back then in thinking this was a legitimate thing for visitors to do in the Land of Smiles. These days, my guess would be that most tourists would still think like that. My own views have evolved – but that’s mainly from education and spending several years now writing about travel and seeing some extreme examples of what is essentially animal cruelty.

My suspicions about the attitudes of other travellers were confirmed this week with the release of some new statistics from World Animal Protection. The animal welfare not-for-proft organisation surveyed 13,000 people across 14 countries on their opinions and behaviours surrounding animals in tourism and the results were quite shocking, I thought. (Well, shocking in the sense that there is clearly a problem here – not that I was extremely surprised.)

World Animal Protection animal cruelty campaign

Although elephant riding gets a lot of attention in discussions about animal cruelty in tourism, there are plenty of other prominent practices. Swimming with dolphins, dancing monkey shows, posing with tigers, and walking with lions are all good examples. They are the sort of things that World Animal Protection asked people about. The focus was on wild animals – not domesticated animals like horses or dogs – being used in inappropriate ways.

World Animal Protection animal cruelty campaign

The results show that:

  • Many people had witnessed cruelty to wild animals on their holidays but about a third went along with it or ignored it.
  • About half of the people who did go through with activities that involved wild animal cruelty did so because they loved animals (and, presumably, did not see the behaviour as ‘cruel’).
  • About 85 per cent of people agreed that tour operators should avoid activities that caused cruelty to wild animals but 25 per cent said that getting a good price for their trip was more important.
World Animal Protection animal cruelty campaign

Before we start demonising the respondents who went through with captive ‘wild animal’ experiences, it’s probably important to have a more detailed look at some of the specifics. The reality is that, from a campaigner’s point of view, any type of animal cruelty is as evil as another. For the average tourist, though, different animals are viewed quite differently.

For example:

  • 68 per cent of people think that swimming with dolphins is acceptable.
  • 53 per cent of people think that riding elephants is acceptable.
  • 35 per cent of people think that posing with a tiger is acceptable.

The biggest issue in all the examples is perception. Much of the cruelty happens behind the scenes or in the early stages of an animal’s life when they are being trained. The tigers that people pose with, for example, look cute and happy but they are kept in tiny cages where they’re starved and punished to keep them docile. Dancing monkeys are stolen from their mothers and are subjected to such harsh training when they’re young that many don’t even survive long enough to be put to work.

World Animal Protection animal cruelty campaign

So, what’s the solution? Well, World Animal Protection has launched a new campaign called ‘Before They Book’ with is targeting two very broad groups – tourists and tour operators.

When it comes to tourists, the mission is simply education. By trying to make people aware of the awful treatment of animals behind the scenes, the hope is they won’t book those kind of activities and refuse to take part. The cruelty these wild animals are subjected to only continues because there’s a profit to be made from behaving like that but, if nobody pays for these activities and the money dries up, there would be no need to continue.

In regards to tour companies, the goal is to stop them from even offering experiences like this with wild animal cruelty. I know some of the larger ecofriendly companies are already doing this but there are thousands of tour companies and travel agents out there around the world that don’t think twice about including it in a traveller’s itinerary. But if all of them stopped doing it and offered (just as enjoyable and similarly-priced) alternatives, it would make a huge difference to the number of animals mistreated each year.

World Animal Protection animal cruelty campaign

It’s estimated about 16,000 Asian elephants are in captivity around the world and being used for the ‘entertainment’ of tourists. Wouldn’t it be nice if this campaign reached even just enough people to see that number come down next year… and then down each year after. Until we talk about this topic more and spread the education widely and globally, there will always be travellers like the young naïve backpacking me who jump on the back of an elephant without realising the horrific life it’s had to make that jungle walk possible.

*All images provided by World Animal Protection

8 thoughts on “Tourists turn a blind eye to animal cruelty”

  1. These pictures fill me with such sorry for these animals, I feel utterly helpless – but I’m not.

    We can all make a difference to these animals lives by providing factual information such as this piece to encourage education rather than a blanket of condemnation from people or a full boycott. We should be doing what we can, whenever we can, to be more responsible. No one is asking for perfection, but at least trying to be responsible and concious of the realities of animal tourism.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this post, Michael. The animals need all the help they can get. When will people realise that animals have self worth, and aren’t put on this earth for our amusement?

  3. What really amazed me in your story was that half of the survey respondents took part in animal tourism because of their love of animals. It really is a good indicator of the ignorance of most tourists of what they are participating in (that sounds harsh, but it’s true). People just don’t understand what they are supporting. I raised this issue with someone who did an elephant ride and their response was “but the handlers were really nice to them and the elephants seemed happy”. They had no idea of what the animal had been through. Just because an animal isn’t roaring in protest or pain doesn’t mean it isn’t, or hasn’t been, mistreated. And yes, a single person refusing to support that activity DOES make a difference. It isn’t a case of “everyone else on my tour did it so I figured I might as well”. It all matters.

  4. I’m really glad you wrote this too! You’re right many travelers are simply unaware of what the animals experience, and education is very important to change this. I think the news is getting out there, especially with the recent update from the WWF that 50% of wildlife has disappeared in just the past 40 years!

  5. This saddens me but thanks for writing about it so more tourists can know about what goes on ‘behind the scenes’. Wild animals being used for the enjoyment of tourists is just sick. It happens with big animals, like tigers, but also the less ‘cute’ animals, like sealife. The number of times I’ve seen a scuba instructor / snorkelling guide pick up animals from the reef and pass them around… well I’ve lost count. This is destroying what lives in our oceans – and it’s being done by people who should certainly know better.

    I have a question though – what should we, as travellers, do when we see this cruelty? Simply stand by and not participate, but watch other travellers do it? Take the owner of the animal aside and tell them what they’re doing is wrong? Berate the tourists for their holiday choices? This is where I always end up in a conundrum. Although I know firmly where I stand, it’s hard for me to decide whether I should be passive or active when I see animal cruelty carried out on my travels.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. It is incredibly important to educate people on this type of stuff and I feel like a lot of people go by living in ignorance of these issues.
    I can’t understand how anyone can hurt an innocent animal…how is that right? or fun? They are entitled to live their lives too – in their natural habitats.
    I’ve shared this article on my facebook page as well. There are so many ways that as individuals we can start to change practices like this…including avoiding participation, educating your peers etc. I’ve just switched to cruelty free beauty products as well because previously I unfortunately wasn’t aware of the atrocities that occur in a lab that is just unnecessary. This is seriously a great read, and an eye opener.


Leave a comment