Known for their complex social societies, far-ranging travel and remarkable cognitive skills, cetaceans have long been admired. It is therefore not surprising to learn that cetaceans attract tens of millions of tourists a year: this includes visits to captive facilities to watch cetaceans perform daily shows and interactions, to reportedly increasing numbers of tourists choosing to view these animals in the wild.
Much like captive elephants in tourism, the subject of my previous blog, captive cetaceans continue to generate debate in the travel industry. Species experts claim that cetacean welfare is compromised in current captive facilities*, whilst established marine parks insist that they provide practical-based learning that inspires people into action (AMMPA). Whatever your opinion or alliances, it is important to acknowledge: the decline in acceptability in keeping cetaceans in captivity for entertainment purposes; the fact that many travel businesses have decided to no longer offer these activities; and the increasing interest in responsible and sustainable alternatives.
So, what does the future hold for cetaceans in tourism?
Recognising that once popular animal attractions are now falling out of favour, which can place the lives of the animals involved in jeopardy, finding solutions that protect the animals is a journey worth taking. Although complex and fraught with challenges, this is a task that ANIMONDIAL has taken on to support and guide efforts to improve animal protection and minimise negative impacts in global destinations. In my previous Blog, I considered the future for the thousands of Asian elephants involved in tourist interactions, and the necessary collaborative work of stakeholders to modify activities, safeguard livelihoods and improve elephant welfare. A similar approach is needed to safeguard cetaceans in tourism.
When considering the future for cetaceans in captivity, evidenced bad practice needs to end, activities to improve cetacean welfare should be applied, and long-term solutions to current problems need to be enacted. Dolphins First, a strategic perspective being formulated by a group of cetacean experts, endorses an approach that would deliver short-term and incremental improvements to dolphin welfare while longer-term solutions are developed:
- Provide animals with ongoing environmental enrichment, involving a variety of different enrichment objects and activities that encourages species-specific behaviours, to curb behavioural abnormalities;
- Permit animals to access both the holding tanks and the larger display pools during rest time;
- Permit animals unrestricted social contact with each other, unless there are medical issues or social incompatibilities;
- Manage and redirect captive breeding under a conservation and welfare-based regime, controlled by an independent scientific commission in compliance with laws and regulations of international authorities and agreements;
- End the wild capture of cetaceans, unless required for rescue and rehabilitation for release;
- End any public contact and theatrical shows, requiring a focus on educational output: natural attributes and species conservation;
- Invest in the creation of coastal sanctuaries to rehome displaced animals from closing commercial facilities;
- Phase out in-land concrete tanks for coastal facilities by 2040 or as the latter become available.
Cetaceans are also viewed in the wild, and with the growing popularity of whale/dolphin-watching, animals can be subjected to large numbers of vessels carrying tourists. Unless these activities are controlled, the welfare of wild cetaceans can also be under threat. Tourist boats have been reported to chase cetaceans or encroach on their space for close-up experiences, whilst the feeding of, or direct contact with wild cetaceans can cause injury and unnatural behavioural change.
Establishing international standardisation, such as the World Cetacean Alliance’s (WCA) ‘Global Best Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching’, would improve viewing practices and safeguard wild cetaceans. Whilst initiatives such as WCA’s Whale Heritage Sites recognise destinations making a concerted effort to end captive exploitation and protect wild populations of cetaceans. ANIMONDIAL is supporting the work of WCA to realise these viable solutions.
Working with stakeholders that includes destination partners and suppliers, higher standards in animal welfare can be achieved, ending bad practice and identifying more sustainable and ethical cetacean experiences. For decades the tourism industry has been the primary driver proliferating the numbers of captive cetacean facilities and captive cetaceans; it would be irresponsible for them to now walk away from the problems and instead should do all they can to influence and deliver meaningful change.
If you would like to work together with ANIMONDIAL to phase-out bad practice, improve the protection of cetaceans and define responsible alternative experiences, please get in touch.
ANIMONDIAL is proud to work with Dolphins First, the World Cetacean Alliance and the Aegean Marine Life Sanctuary to bring compassion to cetacean tourism.
* Key captivity concerns:
- Keeping cetaceans in small, featureless tanks has a negative impact on physiological, mental and social needs (Waples & Gales, 2002);
- Denied adequate space, wide-ranging carnivores, like cetaceans, develop problems such as abnormal repetitive behaviour (termed stereotypies) and aggression (Clubb & Mason, 2003);
- Limited social environment and unnatural group dynamics lead to aggression and injuries;
- Sedatives are administered to suppress anxiety and aggression (& encourage eating) (Knight 2013);
- Loud music and the regular, repetitive noise of pumps and filters cause significant stress and damage (Couquiaud, 2005; Wright et al, 2007);
- Mothers and calves are routinely, prematurely separated to stock other dolphinariums;
- Performances include conditioned, unnatural behaviours, such as “tail-walking”, the balancing of balls, spinning of hoops, and trainers being pushed and pulled through the water;
- Captive facilities are not self-sustaining (Van Lint et al., 2006);
Captive orcas live shorter lives compared to wild orcas (Jett & Ventre, 2015);
- Captive beluga whales live about half as long as wild beluga whales (Stewart et al., 2006);
- Cetaceans are still captured from the wild to stock dolphinariums (e.g. Cuba, Japan, Russia).
Driven by the ban on timber extraction in Thailand and a devised programme to monetise the thousands of displaced elephants, tourist facilities sprung up across the country in the late 1990s. These offered elephant riding, performances and hands-on interactions, and tourism demand rocketed, attracting private business to the highly lucrative industry. Today, reports indicate that there are over 4000 captive Asian elephants in Thailand, many kept in substandard conditions, housed in hundreds of ‘elephant camps’, and visited by tens of millions of tourists each year. This includes quite a diversity of different models: from the traditional elephant camp, to the so-called ‘hook-free’ and ‘chain-free’ elephant ‘sanctuary’, to observation-only experiences.
This March, I visited 10 elephant camps in Thailand as part of my new role at ANIMONDIAL, the animal welfare in tourism specialist consultancy. The small, but representative selection included traditional camps, offering elephant riding and performance, as well as facilities that are heavily marketed as an ‘elephant sanctuary’. These so-called sanctuary camps appear to have been recently established in response to the elephant-ride boycott and, whilst riding is not offered, tourists can engage in other interactions like elephant bathing, unsupervised contact and uncontrolled feeding.
Whilst my specific findings relating to animal welfare have already been relayed to our client for follow-up, I did want to raise concerns about some of the activities offered by these facilities:
- Importantly a true animal sanctuary should operate a non-breeding and not-for-profit approach. Therefore, a facility that is proactively breeding, commercially trading in elephants, or encourages direct contact interactions, should not be considered a sanctuary or rescue centre.
- A large, wild animal, an elephant can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Therefore, any activity where tourists are in close proximity to, or in direct contact with elephants, there must be constant supervision by a competent mahout. Pregnant or infant elephants should not be involved with tourist activity.
- Elephants require sufficient space to move about freely and comfortably, and to exercise choice, to maintain a healthy condition (Asian elephants can walk between 25km to 200km a day in the wild). Whilst the chaining of captive elephants overnight is commonplace in Thailand, longer chains (up to 20 meters) will permit elephants to interact with their environment.
- Elephant diets should be high fibre and low nutrients and provided in sufficient quantities to permit 16 hours of feeding a day. Food for captive elephants should ideally comprise of 70% browse (freshly-cut branches, grasses, hay) and 30% high-fibre animal pellets. Whilst high calorific foods, like bananas and sugar cane, vegetables and bread, should be kept to a minimum, as large quantities are likely to lead to obesity and related health problems.
These are important factors for travel businesses to consider if selecting captive elephant experiences for your itineraries.
Boycotts may have had good intentions, but they can often result in wider issues of concern that require a greater effort to tackle. The good news is that efforts are underway to standardise the captive Asian elephant industry, improve elephant welfare and safeguard the safety of the tourist. It is an initiative devised by the travel industry, for the travel industry.
For decades tourism has been the primary driver proliferating the numbers of elephant camps and captive Asian elephants, it would be irresponsible to now walk away from the problem and should do all it can to influence and deliver meaningful change.
ANIMONDIAL is collaborating with Travelife for Tour Operators and other key stakeholders to bring compassion to elephant tourism.