Abused for our entertainment

This picture taken on November 26, 2016 shows a male elephant carrying two tourists for a ride at Lak lake in the central Vietnamese highland province of Dak Lak.Elephants used to roam freely in the area, mingling with potential mates, but human settlements have cut off once-popular breeding circuits. Now there are fewer than 100 elephants left in the wild and just 80 or so in captivity, mostly used to ferry tourists around the leafy forests of Vietnams central highlands. / AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM

IF you can ride it, hug it or take a selfie with a wild animal, it is likely that the animal experienced some form of abuse.

World Animal Protection estimates that at least 550,000 wild animals are suffering at the hands of irresponsible tourist attractions around the world.

That is more than half a million animals being abused for our entertainment.

According to a 2016 study by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, commissioned by World Animal Protection, three out of four wildlife tourist attractions involve animal abuse or conservation concerns.

Some cruel wildlife entertainment activities include riding elephants, taking tiger selfies, holding sea turtles, dolphins performing, monkeys or elephants dancing, charming snakes and kissing cobras, and touring civet cat coffee plantations.

A recent video I watched on the cruel side of elephant tourism comes to mind, where elephants are emotionally and mentally broken down so that humans can climb onto their backs.

The video showed a number of struggling young elephants being tied up with rope and beaten with bullhooks till they bleed.

This process is called phajaan, directly translated as “the crush”, which is to “divorce the baby elephant from its spirit” or to “split the will” of the elephant.

These baby elephants are often taken from their mothers at a young age and are typically kept tightly chained and isolated from other elephants.

They are chained, deprived of food, water and sleep, abused to break their spirit and made to follow human commands.

The video evidence of this cruel practice is truly heartbreaking.

It is sad that these animal attractions can also be found in Malaysia.

Animal NGO Friends of the Orangutans claims that a 36-year-old Asian elephant named Lasah is currently kept under deplorable conditions on a Malaysian island.

He was born in the wild and has spent over 30 years in several zoos.

Friends of the Orangutans say that Lasah was forced to work at a logging camp, perform in several shows and commercials, and even starred in the 1999 film Anna and the King.

Lasah was sent to this adventure destination in March 2006 to provide rides for visitors, and recent investigations found him chained on all four legs.

It is sad to see photos of a majestic creature like Lasah chained up at night, unable to move. I am not sure if he is even able to lie down. It is cruel and heart-wrenching.

Friends of the Orangutans are now petitioning to retire Lasah and move him to the Kuala Gandah elephant sanctuary.

This cruelty does not apply to just elephants.

Similarly, tigers don’t pose for pho­tos because they want to, monkeys or dolphins don’t dance because they want to, and sea turtles don’t want to be held for photos.

I am not saying that all wildlife tourism activities involve cruelty. But often enough, the abuse happens behind the scenes or early in the animal’s life (like in the case of elephants).

Judging by the number of positive reviews on TripAdvisor on a number of wildlife attractions, many people are still visiting these places, especially in the South-East Asian region.

However, we must give these people the benefit of the doubt: perhaps they just don’t know about the cruelty behind these wildlife activities.

Admittedly, I have been on an elephant ride as a child. But if my family had known of the cruel treatment the elephant has to go through, we wouldn’t have even visited that elephant centre.

Now, I have made it a personal rule of mine not to engage in these wildlife tourist traps, unless the facility acts as a legitimate sanc­tuary for the animal.

I believe that animals belong in the wild, in their natural habitat. They don’t deserve to be chained or in cages for our entertainment.

Governments should put an end to this unnecessary suffering and tour agencies should also stop promoting these cruel activities.

But a big part of putting an end to these cruel wildlife attractions is for individuals to stop visiting these places.

As a visitor, I much prefer seeing animals in the wild, where they belong, don’t you?

Online reporter Victoria Brown’s Behind The Cage tackles the pressing issues of animal rights and environmental awareness. She can be reached at victoria@thestar.com.my.

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Opinion , Victoria Brown , columnist


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