While volunteering in a hostel in Kyrgyzstan, we were struck by the interest and enthusiasm of a majority of travelers for attractions involving animals – such as multi-day horse treks with tired horses, or souvenir photo sessions with an eagle on arm… Choices that often exasperated us, but also raised many questions.
Somewhere between traditions and tourist attractions
Difficult to give lessons when it comes about animal welfare and a tradition practiced for centuries by indigenous peoples: in Kyrgyzstan for example, eagle hunting is a tradition that would have appeared between the first and second millennium BC. It is transmitted from father to son, according to very strict rules. Prohibiting wild eagles capture to train them to become excellent allies to Kyrgyz hunters would inevitably withdraw this tradition…
In this context, the enthusiasm of tourists for an ancient tradition still practiced in an exotic country is not surprising. However, it’s pretty obvious that with the growth of tourism, some people working with animals have seen a easy way to make money – by totally neglecting the animal welfare, which one is only perceived as a “livelihood”. At the end, each traveler can legitimately ask himself if animal exploitation falls within the domain of tradition, or if it’s made for tourist attraction: is it “traditional” to charge you so you can wear a falconer’s glove and pose with an eagle on your arm? We doubt…
Let’s be clear: (almost) all animal-related traditions are abusive to them. Moreover, there is no need to go far away to find creuled traditions involving animals: bullfighting in Spain and South of France, hunting with hounds in Europe, dancing bears in Balkans, circus etc.
Before undertaking this (long) journey and evolving towards more responsible behaviors while traveling, we also made some mistakes. Regarding animals, we once paid an agency for a camel ride in the desert, back on a trip to India in 2015… Back then, animals did not look subjects to mistreatment at first sight; but how to be really sure? If this had to be redone, maybe the result would have been the same… But our approach would have been very different!
Radical solution, but often the simplest: boycotting any activity / tourist attraction involving animals is a solution to not let it continue. Nobody wants to be responsible for the extreme exhaustion that can lead to the animal death (as it was the case when an elephant died in Angkor in 2016 after carrying tourists, or when horses of a horse-drawn carriage died in Carthagena, Colombia). Souvenir photos with an animal (preferably a wild and majestic animal such as eagles, tigers, lions, elephants, bears etc) are also part of tourist activities to boycott: to be docile and approachable by humans, these wild animals have necessarily been abused!
No tourist attractions in the rush
When the local Tourism Office warmly recommends a popular activity with animals: never accept it right away. Take some contacts if necessary, but above all, allow yourself the necessary time to think about it: your choice must remain free, and made in all conscience!
When you hear about an animal-related activity or attraction, find out first about animal in question and not about activity / attraction that exploits it. Today, one can read on Internet everything and its opposite concerning animal welfare. About eagle hunting in Kyrgyzstan, you will find countless Instagram or blog posts boasting the ancestral expertise of master falconers without elaborating further from the animal perspective, from its capture to the intensive training conditions that made this wild animal very docile… Ask yourself: what is the life expectancy of this animal in the wild, against the one living in captivity? Is it a solitary animal, or does it need to live in a group to survive? In order to be approached or touched by man, did one have to mistreat, chain, starve, drug it or destroy its natural habitat?
Check, and warn
Before riding or letting a trained animal carry / pull loads (like horse, camel, donkey, dog sled), check the animal general condition: is it hungry, tired? If you are worried about its condition, do not accept to tour with this animal and raise the problem with the agency / guide. Ask how often animals are ridden, if they have regular breaks, how they are maintained: adapted food, regular care (brushing, shoeing), etc. Do not forget that the good image of these agencies is at stake!
Short list of popular tourist attractions in the countries we visited
We will end this post with a list of current tourist attractions / activities involving animals in the countries we visited. This list is not at all exhaustive: we have put the main attractions / activities that we noticed during our trip, but we are aware that there are (unfortunately) many others!…
- Dancing bears (Bulgaria)
- Horseback trekking (Central Asia)
- Elephant rides (South-East Asia, India)
- Donkey hikes (Greece)
- Camel rides (India, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Iran)
- Horse-drawn carriages (Europe)
- Souvenir photos with eagles (Central Asia)
- Souvenirs photos and exotic animals exploitation (China, South-East Asia)
- Allowed visits of nesting beaches for sea turtles with uncontrolled risks of trampling nests and handling turtles by tourists (Turkey, Malaysia)
* Post written according to our personal experience *