Wildlife Tourism – For Conservation or Profit?

Photos showing human-wildlife interactions such as riding elephants, holding sea turtles, kissing dolphins, watching animal performance that show up on social media always attract a lot of attention and critics if animal rights come into the picture. It is not right to harm wildlife for the sake’s of human satisfaction but to totally prevent such interactions are challenging. Nonetheless, we should try to minimise any negative impacts arising from these interactions.

As a kid, I had been to circus where animals performed and I remembered being happy! I was unaware of the ugly side of how these animals are being trained to perform. As I grew up, I started learn about it and movie like “Water for Elephants” just shows how bad the animals are being treated. Of course, the internet has also provided a platform where people can read about, for example the worst tourist attractions for wildlife that are detrimental to wildlife. For some human-wildlife interactions, the line between right or wrong is blurred. However, ignorant act that has adverse effects on animals like bringing a dolphin on land for photography, knowing that it would not survive long out of water, is something that could and should be avoided. As for many other cases, whether it is right or wrong is often debatable.

I once visited the Elephant Village near Kenyir Lake in Terengganu, Malaysia, when it was newly opened for visitors. It is supposed to be an area gazetted as an elephant sanctuary due to the loss of habitats to development and human-elephant conflicts in some rural villages where the crops were destroyed by the elephants, which result in the killing of elephants. I was surprised to find out that visitors can pay more for an elephant performance. I feel that the elephants should have the freedom to live as they want and not being trained to perform shows for humans. Then I found out that these elephants were placed in a sanctuary as they were no longer safe in the wild but being put in a sanctuary managed by humans meaning these two species will have to learn to live with each other. Elephants are wild but can be tamed, which is the job of the trainers. Towards the end of the visit by a stream, the staff requested the trainers to bring the elephants out for a shower so that the visitors can have a closer look at the elephants. I thought it was not necessary, if the elephants were not showering at that time, then be it, but many tourists came here to see elephants so I can understand why it was important for them to ensure that tourists actually see an elephant. Maintaining a sanctuary is costly and tourism can provide the revenue to support the running of the sanctuary. Although elephant performance could generate more fund, it would be a better place if the elephants did not have to perform like puppets in order to sustain themselves and the people working at the sanctuary. I met a few of the trainers with their elephants and after speaking to one of them, I realised although he was training an elephant, I could see that he actually cares for the elephant’s welfare. In fact, most people who work directly with the animals care for the animals and many enjoy the interactions with wildlife, but whether or not the animals also enjoy being trained and doing performance, I don’t know. Animals are probably like humans, they probably do not always want to perform when they are asked to, just as how humans sometimes feel lazy to work. Wildlife should just roam freely!

Try to take the time and effort to understand what is happening in sanctuaries that are established to protect wildlife. It is easy to assume it is not good to support tourist attractions involving wildlife but some need the revenue, usually from tourism, to conserve wildlife. Do avoid those that misuse or harm wildlife to make profit but for some, without the profit from tourism, the sanctuary may not sustainable. Sanctuaries can protect wildlife but getting wildlife to do certain tasks for entertainment was not necessary. While visiting wildlife sanctuaries, try not to ask for or give suggestions like wanting to see elephant making tricks, dolphin spinning a ball or orangutan solving puzzles, as there is a tendency to fulfill such needs to attract visitors and increase revenue. A sanctuary can raise awareness but it is not a circus!

With all the information available nowadays, people are aware of the negative consequences from tourism activities related to wildlife but it does not mean people buy it. I am not here to judge as everyone has different perceptions of what is right and what is not. When two or more species occupy the same space, it is essential to coexist despite the conflicts. Although wildlife usually avoid human contact, human-wildlife interactions are inevitable, especially in places where people pay to see wildlife. Wildlife tourism can be beneficial to species conservation if it is practised sustainably but not for human’s greed, otherwise animals will have to pay for a price to be saved from other threats that may kill them.


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