RECENT pictures on the Internet of tourists harassing, restraining and trying to ride a sea turtle caused an uproar and resulted in an investigation by the Departments of Fisheries and Marine Parks.
Not only were the tourists engaging in cruel and irresponsible acts of harassing the turtle, they were encouraged to do so by the tour guide. There was no regard for the safety, welfare or well-being of the unfortunate turtle, despite the obvious consequences of stress on its feeding, mating, breeding and resting patterns.
Such cases of cruelty to wildlife are often packaged by irresponsible tour operators as ecotourism. Tourists happily pose for photos with restrained crocodiles, tigers, turtles, primates and dolphins.
Insufficient regulations exist on how businesses may use the label “ecotourism”, despite a National Ecotourism Plan and a legal framework for wildlife and the environment.
Some tour operators even argue that direct contact with animals in elephant rides, posing with captive wildlife, feeding wild birds and monkeys and petting zoos enable tourists to get acquainted with wild animals and learn to love them. This is not only fallacious but harmful to animal welfare.
Tourists should do basic research on tour destinations and operators before paying for experiences that may harm animal populations, the natural environment and the local community. A basic guide may include:
1. Avoid feeding wild animals, which causes them to lose their fear of humans and make it easier for them to be hunted or poached.
It may also promote aggression and human-animal conflict, affecting their ability to forage for their own food and causing them to be dependent on humans.
Processed snacks and sweets can also pose health and choking hazards to animals.
2. Avoid companies that drive off-track to harass animals. Insist on walking to a sensitive ecological site to appreciate the local flora and fauna. Ecotourism must sensitise people to the beauty and fragility of Nature.
3. Avoid activities like elephant rides and posing with wild animals. Most of these animals are physically restrained with ropes and chains, or drugged or overfed into lethargy so they can be handled easily.
Animals are trained to give rides or perform tricks through beatings and cruel training methods, including withholding of food. Learn to appreciate wildlife as it is and from a distance.
Be happy knowing you have seen them in their natural habitat, and that your money helps improve their living conditions.
4. Conduct due diligence on your destination. Research the travel operators or destination and read reviews and complaints of other travellers. Some zoos, safari parks and aquariums may have contributed to poaching or used cruel training methods.
Avoid travel attractions with performing animals.
5. True ecotourism will consider natural resource and waste management, provide empowerment and economic opportunities to indigenous and local communities, minimise environmental impact, and foster environmental awareness.
Good ecotourism may include hands-on activities like beach and reef cleanups, planting trees and data collection that enable holidaymakers to make a positive difference to ecologically sensitive sites.
Tourists should be proactive and help inform NGOs and enforcement agencies of harmful practices or offences.
Trade in and consumption of wildlife should be reported to WWF Malaysia, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks or the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) Hotline. Cruelty to and mistreatment of wildlife should be reported to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the state SPCA.
Offences against marine life should be reported to the Department of Fisheries or the Department of Marine Parks. Responsible tourism begins with you and me.
WONG EE LYNN MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY Petaling Jaya
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