World news during the COVID-19 lockdown has been full of reports documenting what appears to be a revitalised nature. As human activity – industry, transport, and tourism – has stopped during global lockdown, levels of air, water and noise pollution have dramatically dropped, and nature has taken advantage. So much so, there have been encouraging reports of rewilding of urban areas. Where wildlife, from coyotes, spotted at the Golden Gate Bridge, to deer, wild horses and boar seen gazing in downtown Washington DC, Izmir and Barcelona, to dolphins observed swimming in Istanbul’s Bosphoros and the canals of Venice, have seemingly taken advantage of the lack of humans.
In my last blog, I considered humanity’s negative impact on nature and how our activities are causing heightened loss of biodiversity, which in turn, threatens our own existence. Now that human activity is reduced, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, it presents a unique opportunity to see if, and how nature will take back control, but further how humanity can better manage its negative impact on nature.
For instance, the lack of tourists visiting national parks may well have stemmed the tide of negative impact caused by ‘overtourism’, but the lack of tourism revenue has resulted in park staff losing their employment, ending anti-poaching patrols and wildlife monitoring, and local people, their livelihoods. However, this has caused other pressures, with conservation NGOs raising the alarm that threatened wildlife are suffering from heightened illegal logging and wildlife poaching.
ANIMONDIAL’s Animal Protection Network partner, the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation recognises both the positive and negative consequences of the pandemic:
“Whilst COVID-19 has greatly impacted our research and conservation work due to travel restrictions, this unique situation has provided a unique opportunity to monitor marine ecosystems, which for the first-time face reduced human impact and minimal underwater noise pollution. It has also given Archipelagos more time to devote to the continued development of the Aegean Marine Life Sanctuary. Once complete this will provide refuge for dolphins, seals, and sea turtles threatened by the immense impact of human activity on our seas and our planet overall.”
Elsewhere, wildlife reliant on humans for food, have ventured into urban areas in search of food. The deer from Japan’s Nara Park and primates in Lopburi Thailand, who are usually fed by tourists, have invaded city streets during the lockdown to find food. Their dependency on ‘free’, and likely calory-rich foods, from people has altered their natural feeding behaviour.
Whereas animals kept in a captive environment, who are also dependent on people for food, but lack the freedom to search for it themselves, are completely dependent on their carers. However, their presence, and the quality of care they provide is often dependent on revenues raised through ticket sales, government subsidised and donations, which have all but stopped the last three months.
This sense of purpose and responsibility for animal protection is evidenced by one of ANIMONDIAL’s partners, Ape Action Africa, a sanctuary for rescued primates in West Africa:
“Our initial challenge was to do everything possible to protect our rescued primates from the risk of COVID-19. Enhanced health and safety protocols were put in place, and our team began living permanently on-site; education and community programmes were suspended, and our doors were closed to the public. Though these steps have so far been effective in keeping our endangered gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys safe, their future is by no means secure. Our income has dropped dramatically, and we are facing the biggest funding crisis in our history. We have cut our costs as far as possible, but we have to provide care for our 280 rescued primates, and our financial reserves are rapidly diminishing. We would ask anyone who is in a position to support our work to please donate and help us keep caring through these incredibly challenging times.”
Equally, the lack of tourism revenue has been tough on animal-based attractions. Reports from Thailand reveal that most of the 300+ elephant tourism venues have closed. The lack of income and restrictions on business operation has meant that many of the elephants have had to leave the venues and return home. This includes the elephant “centrals” like Ban Taklang Elephant village in East Thailand. Here the elephants’ sustenance and shelter has become the responsibility of their original owners who, before the pandemic, had survived off the rent of their elephants to the tourist camps. Now with no income, their future, that of their families and their elephants are becoming increasingly desperate.
If these hardships continue, only the most resourceful will survive. As demonstrated by ANIMONDIAL partner, the Mahouts Elephant Foundation, which runs ethical elephant-based experiences in northern Thailand:
“Overnight there was a complete stop in guest bookings that included international school groups, our own annual study abroad field course and some ground-breaking exciting research. All income came to an abrupt halt which is a huge challenge for any organisation. Whilst we have re-scheduled some bookings for later in the year, it will take some time for things to return to pre-pandemic normality. We are a highly skilled team on the ground and I am so incredibly proud of our team for re acting with professionalism and a passion for the work we do, everyone without exception has pulled together and due to some emergency funding we are keeping our whole team intact. We are continuing with planned infrastructure work, offering those in the community intensive English lessons and teaching mindfulness to key members of the team. We are excited to re-launch our guest programme as soon as travel is open again.”
Whilst it is fair to say that wildlife in the wild has had some respite from destructive human interference, it is perhaps premature to state that nature as made a comeback. However, these 100 days have given us a chance to take stock and change the way we think about change. Ultimately, whether this pandemic is good or bad for the environment depends not on the virus, but on humanity. As lockdowns are eased across the world, we have a choice of returning to unsustainable ‘business as usual’, or to take responsibility for our actions, protect nature, and work towards a better future.
ANIMONDIAL seeks a better world, where tourism is kind to animals. During COVID-19 pandemic, it is offering non-profit organisations access to FREE support and guidance through its ANIMAL PROTECTION NETWORK. Whilst tour operators have the chance to include responsible alternative animal activities in their holiday offerings. If you are interested in finding out more, drop us a message.
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.