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A Visitor's Perspective on Tourism and Animal Welfare in Myanmar

28/01/2015 14:24 GMT | Updated 25/03/2015 09:59 GMT

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Recently I was lucky enough to visit Myanmar. The tourist floodgates have opened into the genuinely amicable and hospitable welcoming arms of the local people, living in incredible landscapes and towns interjected only by smatterings of stunningly awe-inspiring pagodas. Myanmar, also known as Burma, has for many years remained isolated, self-imposed by leading military dictatorship. As it now moves down the difficult path to democracy, restrictions have been lifted and international trade and tourism is beginning to boom, seemingly welcomed by the Myanmar people. Every street has a sense of joyful hustle and bustle, with markets and street trade roaring, catering for locals and tourists alike.

Amid this enjoyable chaos, dogs and cats are plentiful with breeding unchecked they wander in droves aimlessly around the towns, pagodas and monasteries alike. Their lack of fear and gentle nature suggests they are mostly treated well. Indeed we observed monks sharing their lunches with stray dogs who sat patiently in the shadows while the cats not far behind waiting their turn. However It would be mendacious to say that the mainly Buddhist wide culture resulted in strong welfare ethics as the "leave them be" attitude has also resulted in the majority of these street dogs and cats looking malnourished, injured and flea bitten, with pups galore galloping along busy main roads, street wise but an unknown fate ahead of them. With many dogs approaching wary tourists for food, it is an inevitable that after the first few dog-related tourist injuries a culling programme will be issued which I fear would be anything but humane. Our guide also mentioned an increase in dog trafficking to China to feed (literally) the dog meat trade over there. Noting my horror at this, he merely shrugged and suggested it was a good way of keeping the numbers down, hardly the ethical solution I was hoping to such a problem.

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The use of horse and cart to take tourists around temples as a means of transport seemed a common and understandable trade up from just market use, for local burmese. However these ponies, often no bigger than 12.2 hands, relentlessly dragged carts all day in 34c plus heat. Add to this up to at least four often over-sized tourists jostling around to get a good photo and enjoy this novelty experience, it makes for an exhausting job for these animals. The wear and tear on the ponies under such a constant routine must be considerable. With limited actual space for many more carts, but a growing number of tourists pouring through the doors everyday, ponies will be pushed more and started younger as the demand continues to grow. Although horse and carts are a means of transport used by Burmese and tourists alike, If tourists took a more welfare conscious approach to the cart rides (either avoiding those horses which appear to be subject to below par standards or boycotting carts altogether) then the drivers/operators maybe compelled to pay attention to welfare standards, improving them not just in relation to horse and carts used in tourist areas but across the board.

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Jumping cats through hoops has thankfully been abandoned in one temple back in 2012, but at another set of beautiful 16th century pagodas, large troops of macaques fought over numerous packets of nuts eagerly handed out by locals selling them cheaply to tourists. Historically it seems, macaques and the burmese people have lived peacefully side by side and in a way it is understandable as to why they would want to take advantage of this relationship to attract more tourists. Certainly our guide thought we would find it terribly exciting. However it was obvious from the state and behaviour of the animals that feeding has resulted in obese and overly confident and aggressive monkeys, not only to each other, but also the tourists themselves. Although serious fighting and aggression could be mitigated for now as there are limited tourists, as visitor numbers increase it will only get worse, and will probably only cease when a tourist is attacked by the increasingly confident monkeys.

From Kalaw, a fantastically vibrant but small town used as a starting point for eager trekkers heading to Inle Lake, you can take the opportunity to visit a elephant sanctuary near by. It is another excursion we were encouraged to see but with my concern over how these elephants were kept and why, we decided to give it a miss. This sanctuary is a retirement home for working elephants and from all accounts (on line) it appears to treat the elephants with respect and care. Tourists numbers are limited each day and the elephants wander freely until rounded up to be taken to bath. Tourists are however given the opportunity to bath and occasionally ride the elephants back and here lies my concern. Although the elephants are treated well here, as tourist numbers grow and being such an obvious attraction, similar "sanctuaries" are bound to pop up. Often innocently visited by tourists because they love animals, few know the often real brutality that can goes on breaking in and managing elephants (meant for the tourist industry) so that they can be ridden or handled, a concerning issue documented in other S-E Asian countries. There is a strong chance that by hosting any kind of elephant/tourist interactions, it fuels the belief that elephants are yet another tourist commodity to be used and further more abused simply to make money.

Finally, like most tourists, to ensure we missed nothing we meticulously picked through the guide books, choosing the most up to date one that we could find. Glancing through it I was pleased to see a section on ethical tourism, but looking closer realised all to quickly that it failed to address animal ethics and tourist activities, and positively delighted in describing certain animal practices with no reference to the potential negative impact it could have, or how tourists could support efforts to change this. There is no excuse in this day and age to not reference animal welfare concerns for tourists and as these books are often the go to for dependable advice when visiting a new country, they have the edge on opportunities to inform visitors wisely.

Myanmar is at the start of its fledgling romance with tourism which will inevitably become a welcomed and dependable resource for this magnificent country. Although it's never possible to eliminate or even mitigate all tourist related animal welfare concerns, by learning from other countries experiences with a more advanced and dynamic tourist relationship, Myanmar has an opportunity it shouldn't ignore, for the sake of its treasured animals.

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