The Shocking Truth About Sanctuaries - Are All Organisations As Honest As They Seem?

The Shocking Truth About Sanctuaries - Are All Organisations As Honest As They Seem?

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on Oct 5, 2016

When it comes to tourism in exotic countries, one of the main draws for many people is the opportunity to get up close and personal with members of the animal kingdom which you’d never be able to back home. But while this curiosity can seem relatively harmless, some of the ways in which foreign societies enable tourists to fulfill their bucket-list dreams are really quite detrimental to their native wildlife.

Something that ambitious adventurers must bear in mind is, while we come from seemingly duller environments (no lions roaming free, no bears to behold, and certainly no elephants to meander through rainforests), the rules and regulations of many other countries can at times be incredibly lax and therefore the treatment of these animals can often be less than satisfactory. Take, for example, the infamous Tiger Temple – based in the Sai Yok District of Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province, the supposed ‘sanctuary’ actually enjoyed over two decades of success, enticing tourists in with their apparent Buddhist mentality and the promise of witnessing stunning tigers up close. However, the poor treatment of animals in Thailand is tragically common, and around ten years after the sanctuary first opened its doors, in came investigations from wildlife officials appalled by the management of its animals. Charges were pressed, Thai soldiers brought in to inspect the grounds and, horrifically, a number of deceased and frozen tiger cubs were unearthed from the site. So how did such an egregious practise manage to take place, right under the nose of Thailand’s governments?

Unfortunately, it is the hordes of tourists willing to support the ‘sanctuary’ that keep such foul trades afloat. While Thailand as a country has displayed multiple lapses in its care for animals, the resounding buzz in visitor circles encourage places such as Tiger Temple to persist with their trade, all the while making copious amounts of money for the country itself (thanks to admission fees and additional costs for, say, taking pictures with the animals.) The highly-publicised downfall of Tiger Temple (and its subsequent relocation of the animals themselves) should surely be enough to put off even the least clued-up of excursionists, but disturbingly this shocking focus has done little to deter a number of clientele.

Elephant back riding

As current, it would seem that the changing of social trends has put another endangered animal at the centre of cruel tourist trappings – we are, of course, talking about the majestic elephant. With their incredible height, empathetic nature and peaceful gait, it would be easy to understand the magnetic draw these animals give to globetrotters. But all of that said, are we as a population becoming apathetic to animal suffering, in place of a need to fill up our social media feeds? It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of scrolling through Instagram to see friends, bloggers or even strangers snapping pictures of their latest holiday, and a common theme of today’s online world is the notion of adventure-tourism. This can be anything from staring across the ravines of Victoria Falls, having a stick-and-poke tattoo done in the middle of a Thai street, or – you guessed it – sitting atop an elephant, big grins slapped across the face of the traveller. But while it could be easy to plead ignorance on behalf of those pictured in the snaps, some people might honestly have had good intentions from the start – and this is where our conversation on ‘con’servation begins.

The reason I use the term ‘con’servation, is due to the fact that many overseas locations are becoming wise to the trend of ethical tourism. While ethical tourism in itself is a wonderful thing, many organisations or societies have cleverly coined a way to bring in the troves of well-meaning wanderers, abusing their altruism as a way to gain money for themselves. I’m talking about so-called ‘sanctuaries’ that perpetrate the notion of do-gooding, stating to have rescued any number of animals to put into ‘safer’ enclosures when, in fact, they may well have actually been poached for the sheer purpose of making their captures a considerable fortune. It’s the knowledge of the act of ‘phajaan’ (spirit breaking) still going on around the world, that somehow manages not to extend to these fake foundations and thus, under the guise of aiding the poor elephants (to take one species as an example), many oblivious visitors are inadvertently contributing to their pain. For instance, there are enclosures around the world which offer their guests the opportunity to bathe an elephant – a wonderful idea in itself, but consider being submerged for hours and hours every single day as human beings scrub at your skin. It’s no suitable fate for these animals.

Let’s revisit for a second, the act of phajaan, and the ability some tourists have to ride atop an elephant’s back. The uneducated of us may mistake an elephant’s willingness to get close to us as part of their gentle nature, completely unaware of the fact that these poor animals have been tortured into submission from the day they are born. It’s abhorrent, and yet so many of remain oblivious to it. The cowering of these colossal beasts might not always be noticeable, as the excitement on the face of tourists often detracts from the ‘mahout’ (trainer) hired to manage each and every elephant; their bamboo sticks spiked with nails that are used to intimidate elephants to the point where they’ll simply go along with what they’re told to do. Realistically, elephants are only able to carry around 150kg of weight on their backs for an hour or so per day…so imagine again, having to carry the weight of two people at a time, plus a chair and any baggage, for hours and hours, every single day of their lives. This can often result in permanent spinal damage for the animals – does that sound at all like the safety and security a sanctuary should offer?

Mahmout and elephant

The fact of the matter is, instances such as the above are not normal behaviours exhibited by reputable sanctuaries, and as such we must strive to educate ourselves and others about the true horror that animals around the globe are subject to, all under the illusion of eco-tourism. There are plenty of wonderful organisations out there, who really have liberated and cared for our animal friends – but we must know how to spot the fakes among them. To ensure that your chosen sanctuary really has got an animal’s best interests at heart, consider some of the following:

  • Can the sanctuary guarantee that their animals have been obtained legally and safely?
  • Do they offer education about the animals themselves, or the conservation that they need?
  • Do the animals have spacious areas in which to roam, and are their habitats true to what they would require out in the wild? (For example, are social animals allowed access to others like them, or are they in separate lonely enclosures all together?)

All that it takes for the foulest of organisations to change their ways, is for consumers to be more aware of the difference between right and wrong. If a sanctuary offers performances or photo-opportunities with animals so ‘tame’ that it is disturbing, there is no doubt that their methods are unethical and unsustainable. However, if an organisation such as a zoo has an (honest) affiliation with the World Association of Zoos (WAZA), you’re a step closer to observing animals in a safer environment. It is, of course, always best to see animals in zones as similar to their native environments as possible, but so long as we cease perpetuating the unfair treatment of animals (think photo-ops, free rides and circus-type environments), we’ll be getting ever-closer to stamping out mistreatment for good.

Want to get involved with ethical elephant sanctuaries? Check out our project page to see how you can get involved with aiding these majestic giants!


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