Last week, wildlife conservation and the animal rights movement got a shot in the arm when TripAdvisor and its Viator brand of tours announced that they will stop selling tickets “for specific tourism experiences where travellers come into physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species.” These will include attractions that allow elephant rides, petting tigers, and swimming with dolphins around the world, including India.
Investigations by various animal welfare and conservation groups in the past have revealed the darker side of this form of tourism—big cats are drugged so that tourists can take selfies while petting them, whales are confined to tiny pools to perform tricks, and elephants are broken in with extremely cruel practices.
The numbers are staggering. Research conducted by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) revealed that some 5,50,000 wild animals endure suffering because of these attractions, which receive an estimated 110 million visitors annually. The report compared expert scientific reviews of such venues with over 50,000 reviews left by tourists on TripAdvisor and found “that 80% of people left positive reviews for venues that are treating wild animals cruelly.”
TripAdvisor and Viator will discontinue the booking of some of the attractions immediately, though the bulk of booking policy changes will be launched fully by early 2017. They will however, “only affect bookable attractions and not the listings themselves,” said Nikhil Ganju, country manager, TripAdvisor India, over email. According to the company’s press release, the website already prohibits the listing or publishing of reviews for businesses that use captive wild animals or endangered species for blood sports such as bullfights. Ganju said that when animal advocacy groups such as UK-based World Animal Protection (WAP) approached them, it made the company realise that they could do more to promote better animal welfare standards in tourism. “We wanted to find a solution that, on the one hand, would encourage attractions with poor animal welfare standards to improve their practices, and on the other hand would not cause unintended harm to animal conservation groups and organisations which rely on tourism to support their efforts,” he said.
By 2017, TripAdvisor listings that involve animals will have a paw icon, so customers can identify these attractions. They are also launching an educational portal that will “provide links and information on animal welfare practices, helping travellers to write more informed reviews about their experience.” The content on TripAdvisor’s education portal will bring together opinions from experts in the fields of sustainable tourism, animal welfare, wildlife conservation and the zoological and marine sciences.
The policy change, however, does not include petting zoos or aquarium touch pools that are used for educational purposes, voluntarism programs for endangered species preservation, and supervised zoo feeding programmes. Ganju said that the exemptions were made after much research. “In our view there are clear and apparent differences in how members of the public can safely and humanely interact with domesticated animals like horses and petting zoos compared to captive wild animals like tigers,” he said.
Two years ago, TripAdvisor acquired Viator, an online platform that sells tickets and tours for attractions. “As the volume of bookable attractions on TripAdvisor grew, a number of animal rights advocacy groups reached out to us to highlight the poor standards of animal welfare at many elephant ride attractions around the world, and urged us to ban those attractions from our booking platforms,” said Ganju. The WAP launched a campaign protesting the sale of these tickets, and National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch had been reporting on the promotion of such attractions. The petition, “Wildlife Not Entertainers” garnered the support of 5,58,000 people.
For Stephanie Shaw, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ corporate liaison, TripAdvisor’s decision is a reflection of a sea change in public opinion: “Consumers are more aware than ever of the suffering that wild animals endure whenever they’re kept in captivity, and they don’t support it,” she said over email. PETA was one of the animal rights group that was involved in the discussions with TripAdvisor and Shaw said that this commitment is an important step in the right direction.
“Any time animals are held captive for profit, the animals lose,” she said “and PETA will continue to work with TripAdvisor and with all travel companies to shift the focus away from these types of facilities, in favor of animal-free entertainment options.”In its statement, the WAP also said that they will continue to engage with the global travel industry “urging tour operators and others to commit to not sending customers to venues where they can ride elephants, take selfies with tigers or can pet lion cubs.” Both groups hope to use the educational portal to encourage customers to opt for more ethical wildlife tourism choices.
Given that TripAdvisor and its allied sites see some 350 million unique visitors every month, this change could have a huge impact on steering customers away from cruel attractions. The Checking Out of Cruelty report found that 25% of all wildlife attractions—such as sanctuaries and centres that don’t allow performances or direct contact with the animals—have a positive impact on the welfare of animals involved. As Steve McIvor, WAP’s CEO said “This is a significant step towards ending wildlife tourism cruelties, and we hope it will have a huge influence on the tourism industry as a whole.”
Bijal Vachharajani , when not reading Harry Potter, can be found pottering about in the jungles of India. She is the author of two children's books, "So You Want to Know About the Environment" and "What's Neema Eating Today?"