In Korea, this week is the peak of vacation season. Instead of "How are you?"s, people ask "Where are you going for vacation?" Highways and airports are packed with families, friends, and couples making their weekend excursions.
Lately, camper and bike-riding vacations are all the rage (a testament to changing lifestyles), but what hasn't changed is the toll our travels can exact on the vacation spots and their denizens during the holiday season. What's more, animals are suffering also.
An elephant show on Jeju Island. Courtesy of Hankyoreh News
"Dolphin Experience, Monkey Show, Elephant Show, Boar Show, Camel Rides..."
Ads with these words pop up on the search page when you type in "Jeju Travel." As someone who has deep feelings and love for Jeju Island, it's more than regrettable. Of all the so-called theme parks, museums, and play zones targeted at the visitors and increasingly the Chinese travelers who arrive by bus loads, it's always the animal shows and animal experience schemes that draw the largest crowds. The island is filled with beautiful, amazing places, yet the only places that are really popular with people are these animal-related shows, a fact that saddens me to no end. However, the real tragedy is the way these places are run.
An elephant stage on the south side of Jeju. Almost 20 elephants appear for the show. When there's no performance, they carry visiting riders along a small oval path. There are the baby elephants only a few months old, as well as elderly ones with scars around their tender parts where a sharp, pointed bull hook was used to tame and train them. They shake their heads to and fro to the techno-music being blared out, do headstands on stools, turn hula hoops and play basketball. There's even a skit where an elephant dressed as a doctor comes to the rescue of a sick-acting one. Nowhere on the grounds is there evidence of what real elephants are like, but the audience remain oblivious. In fact, they dance along and throw coins at the elephants in ecstasy.
"Phajaan" or elephant crushing for crushing the baby elephant's spirit.
Mama elephant's sad tricks
Elephant trekking is an integral part of local tourist activity in Southeast Asian countries such as Laos and Thailand. However, elephants constitutionally are not meant to carry things on their backs. If you understood the full process involved in forcing elephants to carry people and things, you would have second thoughts about ever getting on the animal.
Most of the elephants commissioned for trekking are trapped in the wild. In the process, mama elephants desperate to protect their babies are often shot and killed. It's unimaginably inhumane what takes place to make the elephants heed a man's commands. In order to get elephants to fear humans, they're placed in wooden traps called "phajaans" for a whole week, then poked with sharp metal poles, beaten with whips, starved and even deprived of sleep.
When this hellish and brutal pajaan ritual ends, there's no longer any luster in the elephant's gaze and it is unable to even recognize its own mother. This magnificent creature, with its incredible memory and even the intelligence to recognize itself in a mirror, is now ready to serve the tourism industry, "endlessly ferrying people along a tiny, narrow band." In the wild, they live among dozens of family and kin, but in captivity, except when carrying people, they remain alone to the end of their days.
Thanks to indiscriminate hunting and development, the elephant population worldwide has fallen by more than 50% since the beginning of the 20th century and now, in Asia, only about 15% of its former habitat remains.
Animal abuse as a by-product that serves the tourism industry
What's happening close to the elephant show isn't much different. Monkeys, dressed in colorful outfits, do handstands and sit-ups to the chanting of the gathered crowd. Like automatons, they bang on drums and pretend to pluck guitar strings. There's only vast emptiness in the eyes of the monkeys who dance to this alien sound. People roar at a monkey when his master calls him stupid for messing up a trick. There aren't many who think about the fate of these monkeys, creatures who can recognize themselves in the mirror and who are smart enough to do addition and subtraction.
But such problems aren't endemic to Jeju Island only. We come face to face with all kinds of animal abuse in our travels, including blatantly illegal bear farms where the bears' gall bladders are removed, but also circuses, animal shows, aquariums, photo ops with dangerous beasts such as lions and tigers, and animal-driven rides. Though we do not always witness the abuses firsthand, they exist as a by-product of the tourism industry. This kind of tourism is packaged as part of local culture exhibition, so most tourists have no idea what kind of hardships or sufferings these animals undergo behind the scenes.
That some people, who have spent a large sum of money for a trip and might really want to take that selfie with a fierce tiger and post it on Facebook or Instagram, is understandable. But remember, in order to enable such a photo, a baby tiger was forcibly separated from its mother, its fangs and claws were ripped out, it was whipped and sometimes shot up with so many non-aggression drugs that it has become addicted.
This photo of Tiger Temple Thailand Tour is courtesy of TripAdvisor
A tourist poses with a live tiger at Thailand's Tiger Temple (c)"Tigertemple" by Dmitri1999 at en.wikipedia
"Fair Travel" and animals' five freedoms
Following in the footsteps of the "fair trade" ideal, a new concept in travel that respects the environment and the local denizens called "fair travel" has emerged. It includes respect for local people's rights, a promise to not take advantage of laborers and to not engage in prostitution tours, and also a vow "not to attend animal shows or tours which are known to abuse animals" as well as "to not purchase products resulting from threatened animal or plant species."
Most of the vendors who make money using animals give you a sugarcoated answer such as, "These animals are well taken care of in good environments" so that people won't feel guilty about attending their shows. Sometimes they even claim that "part of the proceeds are used to help the animals." When you hear such a claim, it's helpful to know the "five basic animal freedoms" in regard to their welfare.
Though more declaratory than anything else, even Korea's animal protection statute names the five freedoms. They are "freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain and disease, freedom to express normal behavior, and freedom from fear or stress." If you're ever tempted to engage in one of these animal exhibitions thinking, "It doesn't look sick, so I guess it doesn't matter," then ask yourself whether the animals, while performing on a stage or while giving you a ride, are being fully granted these five freedoms.
Tours that aspire to coexistence rather than exploitation
When asked what the purpose of traveling is, we often answer with positive sentiments such as "growth," "self-discovery" or even "relaxation." There may be differences, but practically no one starts his travels with exploitation or abuse as goals. If you've set off to enrich your heart and mind, isn't the fact that another being could be hurt or abused contradictory to that purpose?
It's time to consider very carefully what coexistence means with regard to oneself and the local population. Coexistence between animals and me, between nature and me, coexistence that encompasses all living things and the individual traits of each one of them are what really makes travel worthwhile.
As an aside, if you're traveling to Jeju Island, there is a coastal drive along its northern shores where you can get a glimpse of a school of large bottle-nose dolphins peacefully swimming in the sea.
▶How To Become An Animal-Loving Humane Traveler
1. Decide on activities before beginning your travel.
A lot of the people going on package tours to Southeast Asia oftentimes do not even know whether their tour includes such things as animal shows or trekking. Before you even begin your trip, check if these things are included. Some might even have you visiting bear gallbladder and snake wine shops, so find out beforehand.
2. Stay away from animal shows, animal photo ops, bullfights, etc. as well as animal-based products.
Boldly strike from your schedule any animal shows, aquariums, animal photo ops and bullfights. If you're dying to see an animal during your trip, go wild. Take to the sea to watch the whales or buy yourself a set of binoculars and go bird-watching. In Thailand, there are now tours where you can go and administer aid to elephants which were once used for trekking purposes.
3. Do not eat wild animals or purchase so-called cultural goods made from them.
Each year about $200 million worth of wild animals and by-products are traded illegally. Resist purchasing supposed medicinal products such as bear gallbladder bile, snake wine, etc. as well as elephant tusks, animal furs, skin, teeth and horns. You could be stopped at customs for illegally bringing in endangered animal products.
4. Be proactive.
If you witness an animal being abused, protest to the owner on the spot or alert local law enforcement or animal protection groups of such behavior. Photographs or videos are good evidences to have. If it happens while on a guided tour, let the tour operator know because there is no operator who wants his traveler to end up feeling guilty about his/her trip. You can also let those in your group know via social media, or, if you're overseas, you can write an email to your embassy in that country.
The above was translated/edited from Korean.