One of the joys of traveling to a new place is taking in the experiences and bringing home things that remind you of your adventure. However, with that joy comes a responsibility to make the lightest impact on the habitats and wildlife you're seeing. While you're making your bucket-list, why not also consider what you should avoid? Here are several common activities that are best avoided.
Taking an elephant ride
Elephant rides seem like a fun idea at first glance. You get to hop aboard a gentle giant, see the world from a great height, and pet one of the largest land animals in the world. Elephant rides are popular tourist activities in places like Thailand or Vietnam. Unfortunately, the activity is also rife with cruelty.
The Humane Society notes, “Cruelty that may not be evident to spectators often occurs behind the scenes in various forms — in abusive training methods used to try to control animals of this size; in chaining them for many hours a day; and in depriving them of social contact with other elephants. Because of the unnatural environments in which they live, captive elephants often suffer from debilitating foot conditions, arthritis and other ailments.”
The captive elephants that tourists ride are not domesticated animals that happily and willingly do a human’s bidding. Rather, they are raised to be submissive to humans. The “training” of an elephant destined to provide rides to tourists starts as a baby and is accomplished through cruel methods. When photojournalist Brent Lewin documented the breaking of a baby elephant, he witnessed something that would turn any tourist with a heart away from the offer of a ride:
“The young elephant's mother was tied up near the training device and became really uncomfortable when she saw what was about to happen. I've never heard an elephant scream like that before, it felt like the ground shook and she actually broke off her chain and charged at mahouts and myself. The mahouts eventually scared the mother into submission and tied her up again and then started training her baby. The baby elephant was terrified and started crying. The biggest difficulty I experienced was not being able to put a stop to it. There was a point when the elephant just resigned to what was happening and stood still, the life in her eyes disappeared. It was a look that was haunting.”
Instead of going on an elephant ride, consider visiting an elephant sanctuary where elephants have been rescued from such cruelty. The support of sanctuaries and passing up rides goes a long way toward improving the lives of endangered elephants. Reputable sanctuaries include The Elephant Nature Park, The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, and The Surin Project.
Buying coral souvenirs
Coral reefs are home to one quarter of our oceans’ biodiversity, and serve many purposes including protecting coastlines from storms. Unfortunately, many factors are affecting the heath of coral reefs including one very solvable threat: coral mining. Corals are mined for a number of purposes, including using coral as road fill or cement. But they’re also mined to create souvenirs such as jewelry and trinkets or sold as live rock for aquariums.
When corals are mined for trade, the reef system degrades potentially to the point that it can no longer support life. Such a loss of a reef system means a loss of an economic and food source for local communities, let alone the damage the loss means to the ocean ecosystem itself.
It also isn’t worth buying coral trinkets if you get caught with it coming home. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, “The so-called “precious” corals most in demand for jewelry and carvings include black corals (order Antipatharia) and pink and red corals (family Coralliidae). The stony corals (order Scleractinia) include reef-building species. Many coral species are native to the United States. Most coral entering the United States in international trade comes from Asia.” Black corals, stony corals, blue corals, organ pipe corals, fire corals and lace corals are protected under CITES, and some coral species are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Being caught with corals could be an expensive offense if the item is made of a protected species.
USFWS notes, “Just because you find an item for sale does not mean you can legally bring it home to the United States. When purchasing souvenirs or gifts for family and friends, think about where that item might have come from… Permits may be required to lawfully bring wildlife or plants, including parts and products, into the United States. Even if a permit isn’t required, if you cannot provide documentation showing the species of wildlife or plant, you may not be able to demonstrate that the item can lawfully enter the United States.”
Beyond not buying coral souvenirs, you can help protect coral reefs while traveling by being reef-smart when snorkeling, diving or boating, avoiding resorts or companies that pollute or damage coral reefs, and even wearing reef-safe sunscreen when wading in the water at the beach.
Drinking snake wine
Snake wine may seem like a fascinating novelty, and is touted as a curative that can help with health issues ranging from hair-loss to virility. However, not only are the health claims unsubstantiated by science, but the novelty for travelers of trying snake wine is a serious problem for snakes.
Many times, the snake species such as the cobras used to make snake wine are endangered species. So the drink itself is pushing some species closer to extinction. Tourism has upped the issue, with the trade in snake wine increasing in recent years. The BBC reports, “Although the [snake wine] tradition has existed for centuries in Asia, the trade is presumed to have grown at a startling rate since Southeast Asia opened its doors to the West, reports a 2010 University of Sydney study.”
The practice of making snake wine is often cruel, with live snakes being drowned in alcohol to make the beverage. If this alone isn’t enough to deter you, consider that snakes can take months to die in the bottle. And that means they might take a bite of you when you try to take a drink of it. Yes, it’s happened on multiple occasions.
Brady Ng, a food writer, adds, “The snakes also often have parasites within their bodies, so if they're not gutted and cleaned properly, drinking homemade snake wine can be lethal. People in China have died from both causes, but some still prefer a hands-on approach, caution be damned.”
Much like coral species, snake wine likely needs a permit if it can be imported at all since many of the species used are endangered and thus protected under trade laws. So buying a glass of snake wine while traveling is problematic enough, but bringing it home might be impossible.
Eating shark fin soup
Our perception of sharks is often that of a soulless killer. But whereas sharks are responsible for the death of perhaps one person per year, humans are responsible for the deaths of an estimated 100 million sharks every single year. Much of this over-harvesting is done for shark fin soup, an expensive Asian delicacy popular for high-end meals and celebrations like weddings. However, shark fins have no nutritional value and have little or no taste. So they add nothing of any value to the soup itself.
Sharks are apex predators, and are thus critically important to ecosystems. They help to maintain a balance of prey species, and improve the health and gene pool of their prey by going for the sick and weak. As long-lived animals, they are slow to reproduce. Depending on the species, sharks may take a decade or more to reach reproductive age and only give birth to one or a few pups per year. Killing an adult or female shark has a profound impact on the long-term survival of that species.
The fishing practices behind this product are also cruel. Often, sharks caught specifically for shark fin soup are hauled up, their fins cut off, and the the still-living shark is tossed back into the sea to slowly drown. Other than the fins, their bodies are wasted.
Worldwide, shark species are in rapid decline. Some populations of sharks have declined by 90 percent in recent decades. Shark Savers notes that due to the shark fin trade, "a total of 141 shark species are classified as threatened or near threatened with extinction, and others are data deficient, meaning there is not even enough information to decide if they are at risk."
Luckily, a cultural shift is happening, with fewer young people approving of shark fin soup. With celebrities like Yao Ming advocating against shark fin products and an increase in bans around the world on importing the product, there may be hope yet. And tourists can also help. While the dish may seem like a novelty to try while traveling, it is best to save a shark — or even an entire species of shark — and skip it entirely.
Lion and tiger cub petting
Getting close to big cats and having the opportunity to touch them is on the bucket list of many people. The chance to pet a lion or tiger cub is something that pops up for tourists, especially those visiting African and Asian countries. However, there is a darker side to cub petting that few cuddle-eager tourists are privy to.
Sometimes the operations claim that they're working toward big cat conservation. However, cubs made available for petting and photos are created by factory farming the big cats, and no lion or tiger can or would ever be released into the wild for conservation efforts. In fact, you may be participating in the future killing of that cat, as these cubs are often used for canned hunting, or will be killed and parts sold by wildlife traffickers.
Africa Geographic reports, "The harsh truth is that when you’re cuddling a lion cub or bottle feeding one, you’re directly funding the canned lion hunting industry. The cute cub you’re cooing over will likely meet its end at the end of a hunter with a hunting rifle or bow and arrow."
The famed — or rather infamous — Tiger Temple was recently exposed as not a peaceful monastery where you could cuddle with tiger cubs, but rather a cruel for-profit operation that not only kept cubs sedated so they are safe around people, but bred tigers for wildlife trafficking. ABC news reports, "When Thailand's controversial Tiger Temple was raided in June last year, authorities uncovered the carcasses of 40 tiger cubs inside a freezer. The body of a small bear, a set of deer horns and plastic bottles reportedly containing animal parts were also found, and over 100 tigers were gradually removed from the premises."
Sadly, cuddling or bottle-feeding a cub, or posing for a photo op, might be contributing not to conservation of big cats, but rather to the hunting a trafficking of them.
Buying anything made of ivory
When considering souvenirs from your travels, one important consideration is knowing what those trinkets are made of. The ivory trade is the number one threat to elephant populations. According to Save the Elephants, a leading conservation organization:
Recent research by STE revealed that an estimated 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory in Africa between 2010 and 2012. The number of elephants remaining in Africa is uncertain, but are likely to be in the region of 500,000. Taking into account births these losses are driving declines in the world’s wild African elephants on the order of 2-3% a year.
The price of ivory has fallen significantly over the last few years. The New York Times recently reported that "the price of ivory is less than half of what it was just three years ago, showing that demand is plummeting. Tougher economic times, a sustained advocacy campaign and China’s apparent commitment to shutting down its domestic ivory trade this year were the drivers of the change, elephant experts said."
This price drop may make souvenirs more tempting. But supply and demand is what drives poachers, so avoiding all items made from ivory is the only way to protect elephants from extinction.