THE BLOG

A Jumbo Problem for the Travel Industry

28/05/2014 12:28 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 10:59 BST

Nothing makes a good holiday brochure richer than the generic picture of a couple aloft an elephant, trekking through lush forest. What could be more authentically backpackery than that? A truly 'real' experience - just add some fire-juggling, a full moon party and copious amounts of local spirits and you have 1000 Facebook likes right there.

But, in terms of the elephant at least, at what cost does this come? Animals being used for the tourism industry always been an issue, but now it seems the tide could be changing.

The conundrum for the travel industry has always been: how do you keep your CSR and serve your customers' needs, and make some good profit too. This is a dilemma being faced by more and more travel agents when it comes to animals in tourism.

Last week, in quite a monumentus decision, leading 'yoof' travel agent STA Travel openly stopped selling or promoting tickets to the infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand. The Tiger Temple, in case you're not aware, is home to over 100 'tame' tigers: if you believe the marketing, they have all been 'saved from the wild', despite the fact that all but a couple have been bred on site, and all have a 'unique bond between them and the monks that care for them'. Really? I guess nothing bonds you more than fear-based dominance and malnourishment.

Anyway, back to the point. It wasn't just Tiger Temple and similar that was now off the menu from the gap year favourite, it was also elephant trekking and, vitally, SeaWorld too.

'Why?', I hear you scream, 'everyone loves Shamu, don't they?' Well they do, but they may love him more in the wild, where he can be part of his highly complex social structure, where he can stay with his mum for life (unlike so many of STAs clients who have literally booked the furthest place they can possibly get away from their parents), and he can swim free - covering a range of hundreds of miles, diving deep, not just swimming round a concrete pool.

Last year saw the release of the film Blackfish, a highly acclaimed documentary about Tilikum, a Sea World orca caught from the wild and responsible for the tragic death of three trainers. Since then, more and more people are becoming wise to the fact that some animals just cannot be kept in captivity and be happy and healthy too, with whales (and dolphins) fairly high on this list.

In fact, it's not just STA getting cold feet re Sea World, visitor numbers are down by around 15% since the release of Blackfish and even our very own bearded adventurer and knight of the realm Sir Richard Branson is currently openly reviewing Virgin Travel's association with SeaWorld and will shortly be making a decision on their future partnership.

So, back to elephant trekking. It's fine right? They are big, we are small, we've all seen locals doing it on TV and in films after all. Well, it's a little more complex than that. One of the great unknowns, or at best, one of the most ignored topics, is just where did that polite elephant come from and how did he become so damn domesticated?

The answer to that is easy. This week saw a report released showing well researched estimates that over 50 wild elephant calves had been stolen from the wild in Sri Lanka since 2011. It's not just Sri Lanka either. It is widely known that calves are snatched from their mothers in Myanmar (the mums sometimes killed in the process) and moved across the border to Thailand to serve the massive elephant park tourism industry there - one driven entirely by backpackers and mainly western tourists looking for that 'authentic' experience.

And it doesn't end there. Also this week a well known South African elephant park, Elephants of Eden, was accused of cruelty by the SPCA after horrific undercover footage of elephant training (referred to in my industry rather more aptly as 'breaking') emerged. The techniques of breaking - sorry, training - are normally by severe restriction of movement coupled with beating and prodding the young elephant with bull hooks and cattle prods, repeatedly, over long periods, whilst the 'trainers' clamber all over the deeply stressed calf. This is just to prepare the calf for a life of elephant safari trekking for good nature-loving people like you and I.

At Care for the Wild, our RIGHT -tourism campaigns and website aim to drive awareness of the truth behind animal exploitation in tourism. We don't aim to preach, we simply want people to make informed choices.

So, next time you're on holiday, with anyone less valiant than STA (or, breaking news - Intrepid Travel from Australia, who have also stopped selling elephant rides), and you're thinking of popping out to ride an elephant, stroke a tiger, take a photo with a wild animal in a bar or nightclub, or simply to watch a highly intelligent marine mammal splash a crowd in a giant concrete swimming pool, please just do one thing - think.

Ask yourself a question - is it normal for this animal to be doing that? If the answer's no then the simple truth is that there is a backstory, and the unfortunate reality of that is that the backstory is going to be highly unpalatable.

You can learn more about Care for the Wild's tourism campaign at www.RIGHT-tourism.org, where you can also read about our new No Photos, Please! campaign and our undercover reports at the Tiger Temple. The truth is out there - just don't be too sad when you read it.