Josephine Parsons – Among the world-famous paddy fields and rainforests of Ubud, at a "welfare-certified conservation park", a baby elephant named Krishna poses for selfies with tourists. Only three years old, Krishna was born and raised at the park for this purpose – to be cute and photogenic. There is a rope around his neck to ensure he does a good job.
Like all elephants, Krishna is an inherently social creature. Yet when Suzanne Milthorpe from World Animal Protection visited the park, she didn't see Krishna freely socialising with his mother or with the 25 or so other elephants living there. Probably because they were busy too – hoisting tourists on their back for rides, getting patted and prodded by curious hands, waiting to be chained up on their concrete pads.
"Normally in the wild, they would be roaming with their herd," Milthorpe says. "They would be in a social group, they would roam quite widely and they would have the freedom to escape situations they find stressful or harmful."
Thinking of Krishna confined at the park for the rest of his life – what will end up being 70 years if he lives to the average age of his species – deeply distressed Milthorpe.
"It really struck me that he has essentially been bred into this lifetime of suffering for an industry that is on the shift," she says.
The dark side of animal tourism
World Animal Protection has named Krishna among one of 1,300 animals held captive in tourism venues and attractions across Bali and Lombok. In their newly released report, they reveal a harrowing picture of animal exploitation within the tourism industry today and the key drivers keeping it alive. These include over-tourism, a lack of robust policies from travel providers and misleading conservation claims.
Milthorpe, who works as Head of Campaigns at the global charity's Australia and New Zealand outpost, says every traveller has a part to play in ending animal exploitation.
First and foremost, she recommends avoiding any experience that involves riding or bathing, taking selfies, or generally interacting with an animal up close. Also, to check the animal welfare policies of your travel provider.
"It can be quite hard as a tourist, to be honest, to know if a venue is good or if it's not, and that's the simplest way to know that you're not accidentally booking into or visiting a venue that goes against your values," Milthorpe says.
While a number of other travel providers have been put on notice by World Animal Protection, Intrepid Travel is an example of a company that takes animal welfare seriously. They have adopted a policy of "zero contact, zero interaction experiences".
"We believe that wild animals should simply be observed in exactly that – the wild," says Intrepid's Senior Product Manager Jenny Gray.
Intrepid are constantly revising their policies against evolving trends and challenges, but Gray admits it can be difficult to always get it right. She identifies "businesses profiteering under the premise of conservation" as a current issue for the travel industry to reckon with.
When 'conservation' is exploitation by another name
Animal parks, such as the one Krishna was born in, claim they are committed to elephant conservation and protection. They list certifications and trophies, and justify their practices in a way that confuses well-meaning travellers.
"Too frequently the primary intention is to generate revenue to line people's pockets," Gray says of these venues. "Animals are caged, handfed and their natural behaviours are completely altered, meaning they can never live in the wild again."
Another misleading claim is that seeing an animal up close is an educational experience, and it helps with the ongoing protection of the species. Suzanne Milthorpe disagrees.
"It doesn't foster a real understanding of wild animals and it doesn't really support their conservation because it shows them in these unnatural environments doing unnatural things," she says.
Instead, seeing animals in the wild is the best way to make sure you're engaged in responsible animal tourism and conservation. It's also much more exciting. Milthorpe references a recent trip she took to Kenya, where she witnessed an elephant herd moving freely in a national park.
"It was absolutely magical," she says. "I contrast that with my experience as part of this investigation in Bali, seeing elephants chained on concrete pads, seeing them jabbed with bull hooks, seeing them walk around and around in circles carrying heavy saddles with tourists on them for photos. It absolutely can't compare."
Ultimately, Milthorpe's recommendation is simple. "If you can ride, hug or have a selfie with a wild animal, there is cruelty involved, so don't do it."
[Sponsored by World Animal Protection.]