Do you dream of swimming with sea turtles, touching a tiger, or getting up close with an ape?
Encounters with incredible animals in exotic locations top many people’s bucket lists, but there is a danger that your holiday of a lifetime experience could be exploiting vulnerable animals and habitats. As a photojournalist, Emily Garthwaite has recorded animals suffering behind the scenes in tourist hotspots across Asia. In Jaipur, India, she has evidence of so-called ‘sanctuaries’ mistreating elephants and forcing them to provide tourist rides despite the animals suffering profound stress. In Sumatra, Indonesia, Garthwaite has witnessed orangutans that have been habituated to expect food from unregistered guides and become aggressively defensive of this resource. Add in crowds and flash photography and it’s a tragic situation.
These tours are often part of a package deal, and while there has been some effort by travel companies to filter out the most unethical tours, there is still huge demand for intimate experiences that offer no benefits to the animals.
“There’s a sense of it being a spectacle – there’s an apathy to it. [Tourists] don’t make the connection between the animal and the experience,” says Garthwaite. She questions what motivates us to have these artificial interactions: “What’s going on here? Is it not enough to see it as it is? Why do we have to touch, and take, and ride things? We seem to need to be involved in some way for it to be authentic.”
Garthwaite seeks to provide an emotional connection between her subjects and her audience through her photography. “It’s a hard dynamic where you want the audience to be engaged but not upset,” she explains. By framing her subjects as equals, she aims to help audiences reflect on images and understand the feelings and experiences of the animals. “Eye contact is really important in photographs with animals because that allows the audience to really look at the animal.”
Recently, her photograph of a captive sun bear kept in appalling conditions was highly commended by the judges of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. She has since been overwhelmed by concerned people asking after the future of the bear. Through the Sumatran sun bear team, a sanctuary is being set up to care for the many bears that have been rescued from similarly bleak situations. It will hopefully be a positive new chapter for the bears, but Garthwaite is determined to keep sharing the stories of these animals to encourage people to think before you book.
“Tourists have to remember that if you are paying a cheap price – you are going to get a dodgy experience,” she warns. “You should be paying for something that is authentic and has the animals’ interests at heart, it should be their welfare that is put first.”
The expert advice is to do your homework. “There can be good wildlife experiences,” says Hannah Brooks, Community Engagement Manager at Chester Zoo. She urges holidaymakers to check the conservation credentials of tour providers and establishments before you visit, and to ensure your money will be spent locally. “If the local community benefit from the wildlife around them, then that gives them the motivation to look after it,” she says.
Chester Zoo’s conservationists work to encourage high standards of animal care around the world, including a collaboration with the Indonesian Zoo and Aquarium Association (PKBSI). As well as sharing their knowledge and skills in species management, they have worked with zoo staff to improve the educational information they offer visitors.
“It became clear that they were doing lots of education work, but they weren’t necessarily doing conservation education work – so they didn’t include messages about why animals are threatened in the wild and how people can take action to help,” Brooks explains. “That was the real game-changer… to realise that if they just add in a few more messages that can get [visitors] more active in conservation.”
South East Asia is a hub for illegal wildlife trade, so Brooks and her colleagues collaborate with local communities to understand the monetary and cultural motivations behind the activity. Through educational programmes, the conservationists aim to encourage alternatives that both benefit communities and protect wildlife.
Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, you can find yourself face-to-face with animal exploitation. But there is still a way you can help wildlife on holiday. Chester Zoo are also partners on the smartphone app project Wildlife Witness that tourists can use to report illegal wildlife trade. For example, if you see pangolins for sale, or a captive tiger in distress, you can record the location and details so officials can investigate and intervene.
Rather than turning animal encounters into instant gratification - a tick on the list, or quick hit Instagram post - we can engage with wildlife more sensitively. Even photographer Garthwaite recommends putting your lens down to properly question and appreciate your environment.
She fondly recalls a childhood memory from a visit to Durrell Wildlife Park, Jersey, where her father worked as a zoologist. “[The enclosure] was so dense with foliage you could barely see anything. But from a distance, I saw the paw of a spectacled bear and I was satisfied.”
When you take your time and engage all your senses, even a distant view or partial glimpse of an animal can be exhilarating. Wherever you are, animal encounters should be respectful - and unforgettable for the right reasons.
Featured image by Steve Woods Photography/Getty