Tigers, elephants, monkeys – oh my!

Ethical tourism is a hot topic. How do you experience other cultures and perspectives without negatively affecting them? How do you experience the natural environment in a way that minimizes your impact?  How do your everyday decisions impact the world around you?

One of the typical tourist attractions outside of Chiang Mai is Tiger Kingdom.  It’s a place where you can go into an enclosure with tigers and pet them, touch them, hug them.  The online world of reviews is rife with disagreement about the ethics of this place – are the tigers drugged?  Are they willing?  Are they abused?

There’s two questions worth exploring here for me: would tigers act this way in their natural habitat?  What’s driving our very human desire to see and touch large animals like these?

After visiting the New England Aquarium in Boston a few years back, I promised myself I would never visit another zoo or aquarium again.  I had loosely made this commitment to myself many years before that, but had heard good things about this aquarium and I wanted to form my own opinion.  I found it to be a very depressing place.  Walking in, the penguin enclosure reeked of urine.  Each species had a very small pool, didn’t interact with any other species of anything, it was dark and dank and had no visual interest. I realize that these animals live in a place without trees and differing amounts of sunlight than Boston – it just felt very unnatural.  The rest of it wasn’t much better.

I left with a new resolve.

We decided we would not visit the Tiger Kingdom because it seemed absurd that tigers would welcome a life of being petted by humans.  And there was still the outstanding and unanswered question of how the tigers came to accept this style of life?  Drugs or abuse?  Or perhaps something else?

Indochinese tigers are critically endangered – WWF reports that there’s thought to be less than 350 living in their natural habitat.  Zoo-based breeding programs have notoriously poor results.  Though in a turn of good news, news agencies like the BBC are reporting these tigers breeding in the wild.

The situation for Asian elephants isn’t much better.  WWF reports them as endangered. I visited an elephant sanctuary where they were purchased out of trades like teak logging and various tourism activities (trekking, riding, performing) to live out their lives in relative peace.  There are lots of options for visiting sanctuaries – I visited one of the first to have been established, though many others followed suit once they realized that profit incentives had switched.  A case of someone making the bold decision to lead and paving the way for others to join.

I’ve been following a lot of discussion on these elephant sanctuaries in various Thailand travel groups online.  It’s a hot debate.  Some people elect out of the whole thing, some want assurances that these elephants have been given a new life and that the staff are also treated well, and some people don’t really seem to care either way.

I fall in the second group – I wanted assurances that the elephants and staff were treated well.  I wanted to support people buying elephants out of these abusive trades to give them a new life.  Maybe these elephants would never be able to live in their natural habitat again, though this seemed like the best possible solution to a large-scale and very complex issue.

Last week, I visited a monkey cave outside of Chiang Rai – that was an interesting experience.  It was a stop on a tour we booked to see the local temples, as well as the Golden Triangle. It was suggested that you pick up a stick when exiting the van in case a monkey got too aggressive with you.  Some of the visitors were teasing the monkeys with nuts you could purchase to feed them with.  Others were more interested in getting their photo taken with them than treating them well.

The telling moment for me was when we were standing in a group talking and one of the monkeys, who hadn’t yet seen us, was calmly eating some nuts on the edge of a fountain – all of sudden he noticed us, looked over and flinched when he saw the stick.  It was a moment of surprise and brief fear that flickered over his face until he settled back in to eating when he realized we were just standing around.

This one was taking a break from us up in a tree.

What’s the human desire that brings us to these places?  The desire that leads us to exploiting these creatures?  Especially in the light of incredible works of art like Planet Earth, where zoos no longer seem necessary.

I think the desire can be a very positive one – a drive of our natural curiosity, of awe for the natural world, a sense of adventure.  Like all of our desires, it comes with a potential negative side if we don’t ask ourselves what impact we’re having.

How will augmented reality change this even more?

We each have to ask ourselves how we spend our money, how do we balance development and consumption with the natural world?

My home town of Fredericton is struggling with this type of question – how do we balance development with nature – in a slightly different way.  The city wants to develop the trail system for competitive skiing and mountain biking.  The people that I know engaging in these activities are primarily those who love and respect nature.  They’re really trying to balance development with respecting the natural world.  But there’s lots of debate – lots of people saying that we shouldn’t develop any further.  I don’t have the right answer, though I’m happy to see the city reaching out to those of us who live there to have a conversation, to not make the decision without us.

We have to ask ourselves the same questions about human culture – what impact do our small, every day decisions make?  We know the internet is leveling the playing field – it’s easier than ever for our small decisions to have great impact.  It’s the reason why Uber’s CEO was replaced, why Harvey Weinstein was let go, and why CBC let go of Jian Ghomeshi.

I loved this video making its rounds of Meghan Markle, writing letters at the age of 11, to make it known that she thought it was unacceptable that P&G have a commercial stating that women were struggling with grease in the kitchen – they finally responded with changing women to people.  What a victory!

Consumers, the every day person, have more power than ever.  As ol’ Spidey (or Voltaire) would say, ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’.

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