Melissa Matlow, Campaign Director for World Animal Protection Canada, talks to Travel Courier about what those in the industry can do now to benefit wildlife tourism post COVID-19.
How has wildlife tourism been impacted by COVID-19?
With many parts of the world still under lockdown, more people are likely experiencing wildlife in more natural settings in their own community and I hope, when international travel resumes, there will be increased interest in viewing wild animals in the wild in other countries but from a safe distance.
Our research shows public acceptability of captive wildlife tourism has been declining steadily over the last five years so we expect COVID-19 will influence an even greater decline in demand for close-up encounters with captive wild animals. Whether it be visiting a civet coffee farm in Indonesia, going on an elephant ride in Thailand or holding tigers and snakes for photo props across North America, people are naturally going to be more concerned about the health and safety risks of these types of animal interactions. Especially as more people become educated of the fact that the majority of emerging infectious disease impacting people originate in animals; mainly wildlife.
During this downtime in travel, what can those in the industry do now to ensure they come back stronger for wildlife?
Travel companies should consider adopting animal welfare policies and pledge not to sell wildlife entertainment as part of a broader effort to improve their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy. When travel resumes, people will want to do their part to help rebuild the world back better and change our activities to prevent future pandemics. That’s why efforts to rebuild tourism must include the goal of ending the exploitation and trade in wild animals which is the root of this current global crisis.
Companies should review their product offerings and assess the animal-related activities. If they promote or sell activities or venues where visitors can ride, hold or touch wild animals or watch wild animals perform unnatural activities in a show, that’s a red flag. World Animal protection has checklists to help identify high risk activities as well as the ethical alternatives.
This is also a good time for upskilling. We have training tools available to help travel advisors and tour operators to learn more about the animal welfare and public health risks associated with wildlife tourism. Tourism Cares for example, has launched the Meaningful Travel Platform which includes great resources on a range of responsible tourism issues including animal welfare.
What are the biggest challenges you see ahead when it comes to wildlife tourism and animal welfare?
There are many wild animals that are kept in commercial tourist venues which are dependent on visitors and ticket sales for income to care for their animals. Whether it be a zoo in Canada, a dolphinarium in Mexico or elephant riding camps in Thailand, there are likely many animals at risk of neglect. Responsible facilities will have emergency plans in place and other sources of income but may not have been prepared for a pandemic of this scale. World Animal Protection has issued an emergency appeal to help elephants in Thailand and is encouraging venues to stop breeding their animals and transition to a more ethical business model that puts animal welfare first. Travel companies can do their part by committing to not sell tickets to commercial facilities that breed and trade wildlife for entertainment and they can also support our efforts to transition the industry.
Tell us a little about the work you have been doing with travel companies like Intrepid and World Expeditions to encourage the wider travel industry to build back better?
Intrepid and World Expeditions have signed on to our letter calling on the UNWTO to include wildlife protection among its recommendations to build the travel industry back better. We’ve worked with both of these responsible travel companies on their animal welfare policies and they’ve helped us encourage the industry to follow their lead in promoting wildlife-friendly tourism. Along with Canadian-based travel companies, G Adventures and The Travel Corporation, they are members of the Coalition for Ethical Wildlife Tourism which has helped us transition elephant camps in Thailand to end the breeding and use of elephants for rides and shows and transition to meet our guidelines for elephant-friendly tourism.
When travel resumes, people will want to do their part to help rebuild the world back better and change our activities to prevent future pandemics. That’s why efforts to rebuild tourism must include the goal of ending the exploitation and trade in wild animals which is the root of this current global crisis.
Wildlife tourist attractions account for 20-40% of international tourism globally. What are some examples of ways tourists can positively impact the wellbeing of animals? What are some of the tourism experiences that are actually encouraged?
The best place to see wild animals is in their natural habitat in the wild from a respectful distance whether it be on a safari or a reputable dolphin watch boat tour. This can also bring much needed revenue to stimulate the local economy and incentivize local governments to better protect wildlife and their habitats.
We encourage visitors to Thailand to see elephants by supporting the many elephant-friendly venues that offer observational-only experiences. These elephants were previously bred in captivity or poached from the wild to be used to give tourists’ rides or perform in shows and many were used as work animals for the logging industry prior to this. While they are still wild animals, they would not likely survive if released back into the wild so the best situation is to keep them in more natural enclosures that allow them plenty of choice and the freedom to behave naturally. Elephant-friendly venues such as ChangChill and Following Giants are very special places for elephants and tourists alike – offering a unique opportunity to see elephants being elephants and to learn how to protect them.
For a checklist on what to look for and a list of elephant friendly venues visit: https://www.worldanimalprotection.ca/our-work/animals-wild/wildlife-not-entertainers/elephant-friendly-tourist-guide
Do you have any advice for travellers to be able to differentiate between companies that are doing all they can when it comes to animal welfare and those who are just doing it superficially?
Our simple rule of thumb is if you can ride, hug or take a selfie with a wild animal, chances are there was cruelty involved so don’t do it. A lot of the cruelty happens behind the scenes unbeknown to the many wildlife-loving tourists who pay tickets to go to these types of attractions. They are unaware of the harm they are causing to the very animals they love so it is up to travel companies to help them make that connection. That way they can make more responsible travel choices that are aligned with their ethical values.
Do you have anything to add?
Wildlife should not be at the whim of the fluctuating travel industry in order to survive. This pandemic highlights the vulnerability of the hundreds of thousands of wild animals that are in captivity and exploited for tourist entertainment. It’s time to break that cycle of vulnerability and build back better by encouraging a widespread transition to wildlife friendly tourism.
Lead photo courtesy of World Animal Protection.