Among all the stories about endangered animals’ habitats being destroyed and poachers dwindling the numbers of wild rhinos, elephants and tigers, I wanted to write a post about animal viewing when you’re traveling. Recently, I posted a throwback photo of when Julio and I first went to Thailand and visited the now closed “Tiger Kingdom.” A concerned friend mentioned that I shouldn’t be encouraging people to visit places where animals are mistreated and suggested I “do my research,” before visiting these places. I explained the circumstances of our visit, and how had I known what was going on two years prior, we would have never planned a visit to the temple. I’m very outspoken on animal cruelty, protecting endangered species, and not disturbing wild animals in their natural habitats, so I wanted to help others who travel make educated choices when attempting to see wild animals in other countries.
The first step, obviously, in planning an activity that involves animals native to the country you’re visiting is exactly what my friend suggested- do your research. I had heard about the Tiger Temple through my uncle, who had visited the year before on his trip to Thailand. I googled the temple online, and found out that while it was run by monks, volunteers came from all over the world to share their time and help take care of the facility. At the time, there was nothing to suggest that there were any illegal activities going on; no articles about possible animal mistreatment or whispers of illegal tiger selling and trading. I also worried when we got there that I would see the tigers and be upset about the size of their habitats or that they would be too skinny. In fact, our tour group went to the Tiger Zoo in Pattaya later in the week, and we all voted to leave early because of the conditions of the tigers and thei enclosures. It was horrible. But that wasn’t the case at the Tiger Temple- the tigers had very large enclosures and the well-fed looking males that had been hand-reared by the monks and volunteers were out in a large field for visitors to view (later I found out they were so calm and sleepy because they were likely drugged). We also signed up for the tiger cub encounter, which gave us an hour to play with 6 healthy looking, lively cubs in a large nursery enclosure. Long story short, we had a wonderful time and would have suggested it to anyone- until the stories of drugging and illegal trading came out. Had I known any of this beforehand, we would have never gone, and it makes me so upset to think of what happened to so many tigers that were sold. Luckily, the temple is closed now and the tigers have been rehomed into zoos and other sanctuaries. Moral of that story: research only gets you so far, and what seems to be a great place can turn ugly. But there was no way we could have known what was going on, and the animals we saw looked well cared for. It’s unfortunate that a place that started as a tiger sanctuary turned into something terrible.
Another suggestion when viewing wild animals in another country is to do just that- seek them out in the wild. There are many eco -friendly tour groups that run trips into the jungles of Rwanda searching for the endangered gorillas, and you can even volunteer with the African Conservation Foundation to track and monitor gorillas in Cameroon. If you want to go on safari, there are many group tours you can take throughout the Serengeti, or you can plan your own self-guided tour at Kruger National Park in South Africa. We planned a week in the southern section of Kruger last year in an attempt to catch the Big Five (rhino, leopard, lion, elephant and water buffalo) in their natural habitat. Kruger has an area of over 7,500 square miles, so it can be a little difficult to spot the animals. By choosing campsites near watering holes and rivers, we were able to catch the Big Five two days in a row, with some of our encounters being right next to the vehicle! When viewing animals in the wild, it’s always important never to disturb them, and take all the necessary safety precautions. At Kruger you were allowed to roll down your windows but under no circumstances could you get out of your vehicle. There were curfews every night for the campsites so you wouldn’t be out during hunting time for the larger predators. Never leave trash or anything else harmful behind, and take nothing but pictures. There are many opportunities to visit wild animals in their natural habitats but unless we keep up our efforts to preserve land and national parks, many of these species could become extinct in our lifetime, which would be a horrible tragedy.
Lastly, when viewing wild animals, make sure you follow all the rules and regulations for the area you’re in, as I said before, but also make an effort to take environmentally conscious tours as well. This year on our trip to Thailand, I was disappointed to find our guides for the Similan Islands tour were not more vigilant about reminding everyone on the boat not to step on, touch or disturb the coral reef. The coral reef is a very diverse but sensitive eco-system and standing on it or touching the corals kill them. Irreparable damage has already been going on in reef systems all over the world today with coral bleaching and global warming, and I was very upset to see people standing up in the middle of the reef during our stops. On my upcoming trip to Belize I plan on doing more research when choosing a snorkel tour so that I know the guides are as concerned as I am about preserving our coral reefs for the future, and spreading the word about how to enjoy this underwater paradise safely.
Overall, it’s very important to be conscious of your environment and the safety and health of the animals you’re trying to see while traveling. Protection of habitats, national parks and the trees in forest/jungle areas is essential to preserving some of the most magnificent creatures in our world today. Speak up if you see an animal being mistreated or in an unsafe living environment. Encourage others not to support places that are known for questionable or illegal activities. Help spread the word about safety and preservation issues while on environmental excursions, and do your part to help keep our wild animals just that- WILD.