When choosing a vacation spot, there are those who decide on a destination that includes wild animals that can be seen; but also touching, feeding, eating or even killing.
A part of the scientific community fights for the recognition of animal ethics in this sector and for conservation to be promoted.
On vacation in Thailand in 2014, Canadian researcher Valérie Sheppard and her husband ended up, due to a misunderstanding with their guide, at the Namuang Safari Park on Koh Samui Island, a park where you can see waterfalls, ride a quad bike , see aShow of wild animals or take a ride on the back of an Asian elephant.
Far from enjoying the visit, Sheppard was shocked and outraged by the pitiful situation of the animals. Chained, mistreated and cloistered elephants is what tourists are actually attracted to by the supposed exoticism of the place.
Upon returning to Canada, the scientist launched a campaign by sending letters to the owner of the resort who organized the tour, animal welfare organizations and even the King of Thailand. "I did not receive an answer", explains to Sinc Sheppard, professor at the School of Tourism and Hospitality of the Universidade Europeia de Lisboa (Portugal).
The Canadian has been studying ethics in tourism since the 1990s, an interest that has progressively derived in animal ethics in this sector, encouraged by researcher David Fennell. The expert wants to change the behavior of the tourism industry towards animals. "Raising awareness about the use of living things in and by the tourism industry is the first step towards justice for animals," he says.
Despite her efforts, the researcher was unable to stop animal abuse in the Thai center, where the animals' conditions have apparently remained unchanged for years. This is demonstrated by the dozens of comments on the internet about this park, in which the cruelty is evident. "Tourists to this day continue to denounce the inhumane treatment they witness," says the scientist.
This is just one example of how wild animals are used to promote tourism. It is no longer enough to photograph the animal, respecting its space and habitat, the tourist enters his life by feeding or touching him, and, on some occasions, pays to end it.
It is not enough to see a whale shark
Not far from Thailand, another tourist practice is becoming increasingly profitable: feeding sharks. These activities raise about $ 314 million a year. In the case of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), classified as endangered and whose populations in the Indo-Pacific have suffered a 63% decline in the last three generations, tourists interact with them by hand feeding them on their trip to Cenderwasih Bay or Gorontalo in Indonesia.
This type of encounter, under the classification of ecotourism, is the alternative that the locals have found to stop fishing the biggest fish. However, although travelers and natives are satisfied –one for the experience and the other for the economic income–, the worst unemployed continue to be the animal.
Scientists have noticed a change in the natural behavior of sharks fed by tourists, especially in other areas such as Oslob, on the Philippine island of Cebu, considered the most visited wildlife tourism site in the world, with 250,000 visitors each. year.
"Human activities should always avoid changing natural behavior," the team of scientists who have analyzed for the first time the behavior of whale sharks in the Philippines, where there is great human pressure and tourists come close to less than two, tells Sinc meters of fish.
According to experts, feeding animals to increase or improve sightings is a controversial practice, especially since the long-term impact on the animal's behavior is not assessed.
So for three years, scientists at Deakin University in Australia observed interactions between tourists and sharks on the island of Cebu. Their findings show that fish automatically associate this place with food, which has caused some individuals to become accustomed to the tourist disturbance. Of the 208 whale sharks identified, a small portion stayed longer than they should in the area and another became resident.
"This is worrying because the prolonged or permanent residence in the site where they are fed can reduce the efficiency of foraging, alter the distributions of these fish and lead to food dependence in later stages of their life", indicate the scientists, for whom It is necessary to know the effects of this tourism on the body condition of the animal and on its growth rates due to the type of food they receive.
Altered behaviors of stingrays
This same situation is repeated with stingrays (Mobula alfrech), whose status is vulnerable, with which travelers take pictures while takingsnorkelor underwater diving. “Getting too close to animals can disrupt their natural feeding, mating and grooming behaviors. An increase in divers in the water increases the possibility of disturbances ”, Elitza Germanov, a researcher at the University of Murdoch in Australia, tells Sinc.
In a study, the scientist, together with her team, has studied between 2012 and 2018 the resilience of these animals in an Indonesian marine protected area, called Nusa Penida, in which 624 rays have been identified along the six years of research.
According to biologists, the main problem with these interactions between rays and tourists is the traffic of boats in areas where the animals feed and reproduce. "Marine traffic, especially at feeding sites - since stingrays feed in surface waters - can cause serious injuries," warns the scientist.
In this sense, the experts demand that the codes of conduct of thetoursoperators and that the capacity of each boat and the number of bathers be taken into consideration to avoid alterations in the manta rays. "Seasonal closures of reefs or the reduction of vessels that operate during the reproductive times of these animals could be considered," Germanov proposes to Sinc.
The head of a lion for € 44,500
On land, there are other places where animals are the biggest tourist attraction, to the point of becoming trophies. In several South African countries, not far from where photographic safaris take place, tourists - generally middle-aged Western men - shoot with another type of lens.
"In many countries of the world, trophy hunting is legal and it is a big business", confesses to Sinc Muchazondida Mkono, a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. The heads of lions, rhinos, giraffes and elephants, among other large and charismatic African mammals, are the main tourist attractions. And they generate an annual revenue of about US $ 200 million in Africa.
“The more in danger a species is or the rarer it is, the more hunters want it as a trophy. They also tend to look for unique characteristics of their 'prize', such as a rare black mane on a lion, ”Mkono says. Once permits are obtained - which often cost tens of thousands of dollars - nothing stands between the hunter and his prey. For about 50,000 American dollars (44,500 euros) the tourist slays a lion.
In most South African countries this practice is legal and regulated through quotas, with quantitative limits on hunting. In them, you can also specify the age of the killed animals, the geographical area where they are captured, and even the hunting method. In general, rifles are often used, since "hunting with a bow is usually illegal," says the scientist.
The wild game is also joined by the ‘farms’ of wild animals, bred in captivity for the hunting market. These farms, which have become a big business, not only allow tourists to pet lion cubs, but also encourage 'canned' hunting of adult specimens. This occurs in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
“Canned game has faced intense criticism in recent years. There is also a strong movement against trophy hunting more broadly ”, says the expert who has analyzed the role of social networks in denouncing these practices.
"Social networks have become a powerful platform for activism against trophy hunting in recent years," reports the scientist, citing the use of Facebook to name and shame hunters as an example. Users spread the messages and raise awareness with initiatives in favor of animal welfare, but the basic problem remains: the tourist is not always environmentally aware.
Tourists under magnifying glass
Traveling abroad, away from home, travelers do not uphold ethical codes and consider certain experiences a "guilty pleasure." Are they really aware of the impact they have on wildlife? "I think they are, for the most part, but many are more concerned about themselves, so much so that they put their own interests above those of the animals," says researcher Valérie Sheppard to Sinc.
The tourism industry has been evolving and adopting policies related to animal welfare for years, according to Sheppard, who has reviewed 123 tourism policies from 73 different countries with David Fennell. While in the 90s, these were more focused on the economy, in recent years the trend is towards a protection of natural environments.
However, although tourist activities tend to lean more towards photographic safaris than hunting, travelers still do not differentiate when they can interact with the animals, and in some cases become frustrated when sightings are not enough.
"What we found interesting and puzzling at the same time is that many of the reviews posted by tourists on TripAdvisor lamented the fact that there were no more opportunities to see more animals at one of the sanctuaries we are studying," Sheppard emphasizes. For the scientist, it is important to "educate" the visitors. "Animals are not and should not be an exhibition for them," he highlights.
Society is, however, putting some pressure on the animal recreation industry, calling for more ethical and humane practices. "It is making more noise with animal welfare and now it is up to the industry to respond to those concerns, if it wants to survive in the long term," says Muchazondida Mkono to Sinc.
In fact, through tourism conservation can also be promoted. For scientist Elitza Germanov, human and animal interactions can serve to increase awareness of key conservation issues, connect the public and awaken empathy.
“Tourism, like most things, has acceptable limits before becoming a burden on nature, the infrastructure and the surrounding communities. It is important that we recognize these limits as early as possible, as recent examples in the Philippines (Boracay) and Thailand (Phi Phi Island) have taught us. This is even more important when it comes to endangered species ”, stresses Sinc Germanov.
Despite growing concern about wildlife in tourist spots, scientists agree that nothing will be entirely effective until the animals are no longer seen as stakeholders in the tourism industry. To achieve this, its existence should no longer be related to increasing the attractiveness and economic potential of a destination.