Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism
I’ve come back to check on a baby. Just after dusk I’m in a car lumbering down a muddy road in the rain, past rows of shackled elephants, their trunks swaying. I was here five hours before, when the sun was high and hot and tourists were on elephants’ backs.
Walking now, I can barely see the path in the glow of my phone’s flashlight. When the wooden fence post of the stall stops me short, I point my light down and follow a current of rainwater across the concrete floor until it washes up against three large, gray feet. A fourth foot hovers above the surface, tethered tightly by a short chain and choked by a ring of metal spikes. When the elephant tires and puts her foot down, the spikes press deeper into her ankle.
Meena is four years and two months old, still a toddler as elephants go. Khammon Kongkhaw, her mahout, or caretaker, told me earlier that Meena wears the spiked chain because she tends to kick. Kongkhaw has been responsible for Meena here at Maetaman Elephant Adventure, near Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, since she was 11 months old. He said he keeps her on the spiked shackle only during the day and takes it off at night. But it’s night now.
I ask Jin Laoshen, the Maetaman staffer accompanying me on this nighttime visit, why her chain is still on. He says he doesn’t know.
Maetaman is one of many animal attractions in and around tourist-swarmed Chiang Mai. People spill out of tour buses and clamber onto the trunks of elephants that, at the prodding of their mahouts’ bullhooks (long poles with a sharp metal hook), hoist them in the air while cameras snap. Visitors thrust bananas toward elephants’ trunks. They watch as mahouts goad their elephants—some of the most intelligent animals on the planet—to throw darts or kick oversize soccer balls while music blares.
Meena is one of Maetaman’s 10 show elephants. To be precise, she’s a painter. Twice a day, in front of throngs of chattering tourists, Kongkhaw puts a paintbrush in the tip of her trunk and presses a steel nail to her face to direct her brushstrokes as she drags primary colors across paper. Often he guides her to paint a wild elephant in the savanna. Her paintings are then sold to tourists.
Meena’s life is set to follow the same trajectory as many of the roughly 3,800 captive elephants in Thailand and thousands more throughout Southeast Asia. She’ll perform in shows until she’s about 10. After that, she’ll become a riding elephant. Tourists will sit on a bench strapped to her back, and she’ll give several rides a day. When Meena is too old or sick to give rides—maybe at 55, maybe at 75—she’ll die. If she’s lucky, she’ll get a few years of retirement. She’ll spend most of her life on a chain in a stall.
Wildlife attractions such as Maetaman lure people from around the world to be with animals like Meena, and they make up a lucrative segment of the booming global travel industry. Twice as many trips are being taken abroad as 15 years ago, a jump driven partly by Chinese tourists, who spend far more on international travel than any other nationality.
Wildlife tourism isn’t new, but social media is setting the industry ablaze, turning encounters with exotic animals into photo-driven bucket-list toppers. Activities once publicized mostly in guidebooks now are shared instantly with multitudes of people by selfie-taking backpackers, tour-bus travelers, and social media “influencers” through a tap on their phone screens. Nearly all millennials (23- to 38-year-olds) use social media while traveling. Their selfies—of swims with dolphins, encounters with tigers, rides on elephants, and more—are viral advertising for attractions that tout up-close experiences with animals.
For all the visibility social media provides, it doesn’t show what happens beyond the view of the camera lens. People who feel joy and exhilaration from getting close to wild animals usually are unaware that many of the animals at such attractions live a lot like Meena, or worse.
Photographer Kirsten Luce and I set out to look behind the curtain of the thriving wildlife tourism industry, to see how animals at various attractions—including some that emphasize their humane care of animals—are treated once the selfie-taking crowds have gone.
After leaving Maetaman, we take a five-minute car ride up a winding hill to a property announced by a wooden plaque as “Elephant EcoValley: where elephants are in good hands.” There are no elephant rides here. No paint shows or other performances. Visitors can stroll through an open-air museum and learn about Thailand’s national animal. They can make herbal treats for the elephants and paper from elephant dung. They can watch elephants in a grassy, tree-ringed field.
EcoValley’s guest book is filled with praise from Australians, Danes, Americans—tourists who often shun elephant camps such as Maetaman because the rides and shows make them uneasy. Here, they can see unchained elephants and leave feeling good about supporting what they believe is an ethical establishment. What many don’t know is that EcoValley’s seemingly carefree elephants are brought here for the day from nearby Maetaman—and that the two attractions are actually a single business.
Meena was brought here once, but she tried to run into the forest. Another young elephant, Mei, comes sometimes, but today she’s at Maetaman, playing the harmonica in the shows. When she’s not doing that, or spending the day at EcoValley, she’s chained near Meena in one of Maetaman’s elephant stalls.
Meena Kalamapijit owns Maetaman as well as EcoValley, which she opened in November 2017 to cater to Westerners. She says her 56 elephants are well cared for and that giving rides and performing allow them to have necessary exercise. And, she says, Meena the elephant’s behavior has gotten better since her mahout started using the spiked chain.
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We sit with Kalamapijit on a balcony outside her office, and she explains that when Westerners, especially Americans, stopped coming to Maetaman, she eliminated one of the daily shows to allot time for visitors to watch elephants bathe in the river that runs through the camp.
“Westerners enjoy bathing because it looks happy and natural,” she says. “But a Chinese tour agency called me and said, ‘Why are you cutting the show? Our customers love to see it, and they don’t care about bathing at all.’ ” Providing separate options is good for business, Kalamapijit says.
Around the world Kirsten and I watched tourists watching captive animals. In Thailand we also saw American men bear-hug tigers in Chiang Mai and Chinese brides in wedding gowns ride young elephants in the aqua surf on the island of Phuket. We watched polar bears in wire muzzles ballroom dancing across the ice under a big top in Russia and teenage boys on the Amazon River snapping selfies with baby sloths.
Most tourists who enjoy these encounters don’t know that the adult tigers may be declawed, drugged, or both. Or that there are always cubs for tourists to snuggle with because the cats are speed bred and the cubs are taken from their mothers just days after birth. Or that the elephants give rides and perform tricks without harming people only because they’ve been “broken” as babies and taught to fear the bullhook. Or that the Amazonian sloths taken illegally from the jungle often die within weeks of being put in captivity.
As we traveled to performance pits and holding pens on three continents and in the Hawaiian Islands, asking questions about how animals are treated and getting answers that didn’t always add up, it became clear how methodically and systematically animal suffering is concealed.
The wildlife tourism industry caters to people’s love of animals but often seeks to maximize profits by exploiting animals from birth to death. The industry’s economy depends largely on people believing that the animals they’re paying to watch or ride or feed are having fun too.
It succeeds partly because tourists—in unfamiliar settings and eager to have a positive experience—typically don’t consider the possibility that they’re helping to hurt animals. Social media adds to the confusion: Oblivious endorsements from friends and trendsetters legitimize attractions before a traveler ever gets near an animal.
There has been some recognition of social media’s role in the problem. In December 2017, after a National Geographic investigative report on harmful wildlife tourism in Amazonian Brazil and Peru, Instagram introduced a feature: Users who click or search one of dozens of hashtags, such as #slothselfie and #tigercubselfie, now get a pop-up warning that the content they’re viewing may be harmful to animals.
Everyone finds Olga Barantseva on Instagram. “Photographer from Russia. Photographing dreams,” her bio reads. She meets clients for woodland photo shoots with captive wild animals just outside Moscow.
For her 18th birthday, Sasha Belova treated herself to a session with Barantseva—and a pack of wolves. “It was my dream,” she says as she fidgets with her hair, which had been styled that morning. “Wolves are wild and dangerous.” The wolves are kept in small cages at a petting zoo when not participating in photo shoots.
The Kravtsov family hired Barantseva to take their first professional family photos—all five family members, shivering and smiling in the birch forest, joined by a bear named Stepan.
Barantseva has been photographing people and wild animals together for six years. She “woke up as a star,” she says, in 2015, when a couple of international media outlets found her online. Her audience has exploded to more than 80,000 followers worldwide. “I want to show harmony between people and animals,” she says.
On a raw fall day, under a crown of golden birch leaves on a hill that overlooks a frigid lake, two-and-a-half-year-old Alexander Levin, dressed in a hooded bumblebee sweater, timidly holds Stepan’s paw.
The bear’s owners, Yury and Svetlana Panteleenko, ply their star with food—tuna fish mixed with oatmeal—to get him to approach the boy. Snap: It looks like a tender friendship. The owners toss grapes to Stepan to get him to open his mouth wide. Snap: The bear looks as if he’s smiling.
The Panteleenkos constantly move Stepan, adjusting his paws, feeding him, and positioning Alexander as Barantseva, pink-haired, bundled in jeans and a parka, captures each moment. Snap: A photo goes to her Instagram feed. A boy and a bear in golden Russian woods—a picture straight out of a fairy tale. It’s a contemporary twist on a long-standing Russian tradition of exploiting bears for entertainment.
Another day in the same forest, Kirsten and I join 12 young women who have nearly identical Instagram accounts replete with dreamy photos of models caressing owls and wolves and foxes. Armed with fancy cameras but as yet modest numbers of followers, they all want the audience Barantseva has. Each has paid the Panteleenkos $760 to take identical shots of models with the ultimate prize: a bear in the woods.
Stepan is 26 years old, elderly for a brown bear, and can hardly walk. The Panteleenkos say they bought him from a small zoo when he was three months old. They say the bear’s work—a constant stream of photo shoots and movies—provides money to keep him fed.
A video on Svetlana Panteleenko’s Instagram account proclaims: “Love along with some great food can make anyone a teddy :-)”
And just like that, social media takes a single instance of local animal tourism and broadcasts it to the world.
When the documentary film Blackfish was released in 2013, it drew a swift and decisive reaction from the American public. Through the story of Tilikum, a distressed killer whale at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, the film detailed the miserable life orcas can face in captivity. Hundreds of thousands of outraged viewers signed petitions. Companies with partnership deals, such as Southwest Airlines, severed ties with SeaWorld. Attendance at SeaWorld’s water parks slipped; its stock nose-dived.
James Regan says what he saw in Blackfish upset him. Regan, honeymooning in Hawaii with his wife, Katie, is from England, where the country’s last marine mammal park closed permanently in 1993. I meet him at Dolphin Quest Oahu, an upscale swim-with-dolphins business on the grounds of the beachfront Kahala Hotel & Resort, just east of Honolulu. The Regans paid $225 each to swim for 30 minutes in a small group with a bottlenose dolphin. One of two Dolphin Quest locations in Hawaii, the facility houses six dolphins.
Bottlenose dolphins are the backbone of an industry that spans the globe. Swim-with-dolphins operations rely on captive-bred and wild-caught dolphins that live—and interact with tourists—in pools. The popularity of these photo-friendly attractions reflects the disconnect around dolphin experiences: People in the West increasingly shun shows that feature animals performing tricks, but many see swimming with captive dolphins as a vacation rite of passage.
Katie Regan has wanted to swim with dolphins since she was a child. Her husband laughs and says of Dolphin Quest, “They paint a lovely picture. When you’re in America, everyone is smiling.” But he appreciates that the facility is at their hotel, so they can watch the dolphins being fed and cared for. He brings up Blackfish again.
Katie protests: “Stop making my dream a horrible thing!”
Rae Stone, president of Dolphin Quest and a marine mammal veterinarian, says the company donates money to conservation projects and educates visitors about perils that marine mammals face in the wild. By paying for this entertainment, she says, visitors are helping captive dolphins’ wild cousins.
Stone notes that Dolphin Quest is certified “humane” by American Humane, an animal welfare nonprofit. (The Walt Disney Company, National Geographic’s majority owner, offers dolphin encounters on some vacation excursions and at an attraction in Epcot, one of its Orlando parks. Disney says it follows the animal welfare standards of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, a nonprofit that accredits more than 230 facilities worldwide.)
It’s a vigorous debate: whether even places with high standards, veterinarians on staff, and features such as pools filled with filtered ocean water can be truly humane for marine mammals.
Dolphin Quest’s Stone says yes.
Critics, including the Humane Society of the United States, which does not endorse keeping dolphins in captivity, say no. They argue that these animals have evolved to swim great distances and live in complex social groups—conditions that can’t be replicated in the confines of a pool. This helps explain why the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, announced in 2016 that its dolphins will be retired to a seaside sanctuary by 2020.
Some U.S. attractions breed their own dolphins because the nation has restricted dolphin catching in the wild since 1972. But elsewhere, dolphins are still being taken from the wild and turned into performers.
In China, which has no national laws on captive-animal welfare, dolphinariums with wild-caught animals are a booming business: There are now 78 marine mammal parks, and 26 more are under construction.
To have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see rare Black Sea dolphins, people in the landlocked town of Kaluga, a hundred miles from Moscow, don’t have to leave their city. In the parking lot of the Torgoviy Kvartal shopping mall, next to a hardware store, is a white inflatable pop-up aquarium: the Moscow Traveling Dolphinarium. It looks like a children’s bouncy castle that’s been drained of its color.
Inside the puffy dome, parents buy their kids dolphin-shaped trinkets: fuzzy dolls and Mylar balloons, paper dolphin hats, and drinks in plastic dolphin tumblers. Families take their seats around a small pool. The venue is so intimate that even the cheapest seats, at nine dollars apiece, are within splashing distance.
“My kids are jumping for joy,” says a woman named Anya, motioning toward her two giddy boys, bouncing in their seats.
In the middle of the jubilant atmosphere, in water that seems much too shallow and much too murky, two dolphins swim listlessly in circles.
Russia is one of only a few countries (Indonesia is another) where traveling oceanariums exist. Dolphins and beluga whales, which need to be immersed in water to stay alive, are put in tubs on trucks and carted from city to city in a loop that usually ends when they die. These traveling shows are aboveboard: Russia has no laws that regulate how marine mammals should be treated in captivity.
The shows are the domestic arm of a brisk Russian global trade in dolphins and small whales. Black Sea bottlenose dolphins can’t be caught legally without a permit, but Russian fishermen can catch belugas and orcas under legal quotas in the name of science and education. Some belugas are sold legally to aquariums around the country. Russia now allows only a dozen or so orcas to be caught each year for scientific and educational purposes, and since April 2018, the government has cracked down on exporting them. But government investigators believe that Russian orcas—which can sell for millions—are being caught illegally for export to China.
Captive orcas, which can grow to 20 feet long and more than 10,000 pounds, are too big for the traveling shows that typically feature dolphins and belugas. When I contacted the owners of the Moscow Traveling Dolphinarium and another operation, the White Whale Show, in separate telephone calls to ask where their dolphins and belugas come from, both men, Sergey Kuznetsov and Oleg Belesikov, hung up on me.
Russia’s dozen or so traveling oceanariums are touted as a way to bring native wild animals to people who might never see the ocean.
“Who else if not us?” says Mikhail Olyoshin, a staffer at one traveling oceanarium. And on this day in Kaluga, as the dolphins perform tricks to American pop songs and lie on platforms for several minutes for photo ops, parents and children express the same sentiment: Imagine, dolphins, up close, in my hometown. The ocean on delivery.
Owners and operators of wildlife tourism attractions, from high-end facilities such as Dolphin Quest in Hawaii to low-end monkey shows in Thailand, say their animals live longer in captivity than wild counterparts because they’re safe from predators and environmental hazards. Show operators proudly emphasize that the animals under their care are with them for life. They’re family.
Alla Azovtseva, a longtime dolphin trainer in Russia, shakes her head.
“I don’t see any sense in this work. My conscience bites me. I look at my animals and want to cry,” says Azovtseva, who drives a red van with dolphins airbrushed on the side. At the moment, she’s training pilot whales to perform tricks at Moscow’s Moskvarium, one of Europe’s largest aquariums (not connected to the traveling dolphin shows). On her day off, we meet at a café near Red Square.
She says she fell in love with dolphins in the late 1980s when she read a book by John Lilly, the American neuroscientist who broke open our understanding of the animals’ intelligence. She has spent 30 years training marine mammals to do tricks. But along the way she’s grown heartsick from forcing highly intelligent, social creatures to live isolated, barren lives in small tanks.
“I would compare the dolphin situation with making a physicist sweep the street,” she says. “When they’re not engaged in performance or training, they just hang in the water facing down. It’s the deepest depression.”
What people don’t know about many aquarium shows in Russia, Azovtseva says, is that the animals often die soon after being put in captivity, especially those in traveling shows. And Azovtseva—making clear she’s referring to the industry at large in Russia and not the Moskvarium—says she knows many aquariums quietly and illegally replace their animals with new ones.
It’s been illegal to catch Black Sea dolphins in the wild for entertainment purposes since 2003, but according to Azovtseva, aquarium owners who want to increase their dolphin numbers quickly and cheaply buy dolphins poached there. Because these dolphins are acquired illegally, they’re missing the microchips that captive cetaceans in Russia are usually tagged with as a form of required identification.
Some aquariums get around that, she says, by cutting out dead dolphins’ microchips and implanting them into replacement dolphins.
“People are people,” Azovtseva says. “Once they see an opportunity, they exploit.” She says she can’t go on doing her work in the industry and that she’s decided to speak out because she wants people to know the truth about the origins and treatment of many of the marine mammals they love watching. We exchange a look—we both know what her words likely mean for her livelihood.
“I don’t care if I’m fired,” she says defiantly. “When a person has nothing to lose, she becomes really brave.”
I’m sitting on the edge of an infinity pool on the hilly Thai side of Thailand’s border with Myanmar, at a resort where rooms average more than a thousand dollars a night.
Out past the pool, elephants roam in a lush valley. Sitting next to me is 20-year-old Stephanie van Houten. She’s Dutch and French, Tokyo born and raised, and a student at the University of Michigan. Her cosmopolitan background and pretty face make for a perfect cocktail of aspiration—she’s exactly the kind of Instagrammer who makes it as an influencer. That is, someone who has a large enough following to attract sponsors to underwrite posts and, in turn, travel, wardrobes, and bank accounts. In 2018, brands—fashion, travel, tech, and more—spent an estimated $1.6 billion on social media advertising by influencers.
Van Houten has been here, at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, before. This time, in a fairly standard influencer-brand arrangement, she’ll have a picnic with elephants and post about it to her growing legion of more than 25,000 Instagram followers. In exchange, she gets hundreds of dollars off the nightly rate.
At Anantara the fields are green, and during the day at least, many of the resort’s 22 elephants are tethered on ropes more than a hundred feet long so they can move around and socialize. Nevertheless, they’re expected to let guests touch them and do yoga beside them.
After van Houten’s elephant picnic, I watch her edit the day’s hundreds of photos. She selects an image with her favorite elephant, Bo. She likes it, she says, because she felt a connection with Bo and thinks that will come across. She posts it at 9:30 p.m.—the time she estimates the largest number of her followers will be online. She includes a long caption, summing it up as “my love story with this incredible creature,” and the hashtag #stopelephantriding. Immediately, likes from followers stream in—more than a thousand, as well as comments with heart-eyed emoji.
Anantara is out of reach for anyone but the wealthy—or prominent influencers. Anyone else seeking a similar experience might do a Google search for, say, “Thailand elephant sanctuary.”
As tourist demand for ethical experiences with animals has grown, affordable establishments, often calling themselves “sanctuaries,” have cropped up purporting to offer humane, up-close elephant encounters. Bathing with elephants—tourists give them a mud bath, splash them in a river, or both—has become very popular. Many facilities portray baths as a benign alternative to elephant riding and performances. But elephants getting baths, like those that give rides and do tricks, will have been broken to some extent to make them obedient. And as long as bathing remains popular, places that offer it will need obedient elephants to keep their businesses going.
In Ban Ta Klang, a tiny town in eastern Thailand, modest homes dot the crimson earth. In front of each is a wide, bamboo platform for sitting, sleeping, and watching television.
But the first thing I notice is the elephants. Some homes have one, others as many as five. Elephants stand under tarps or sheet metal roofs or trees. Some are together, mothers and babies, but most are alone. Nearly all the elephants wear ankle chains or hobbles—cuffs binding their front legs together. Dogs and chickens weave among the elephants’ legs, sending up puffs of red dust.
Ban Ta Klang—known as Elephant Village—is ground zero in Thailand for training and trading captive elephants.
“House elephants,” Sri Somboon says, gesturing as he turns down his TV. Next to his outdoor platform, a two-month-old baby elephant runs around his mother. Somboon points across the road to the third elephant in his charge, a three-year-old male tethered to a tree. He’s wrenching his head back and forth and thrashing his trunk around. It looks as if he’s going out of his mind.
He’s in the middle of his training, Somboon says, and is getting good at painting. He’s already been sold, and when his training is finished, he’ll start working at a tourist camp down south.
Ban Ta Klang and the surrounding area, part of Surin Province, claim to be the source of more than half of Thailand’s 3,800 captive elephants. Long before the flood of tourists, it was the center of the elephant trade; the animals were caught in the wild and tamed for use transporting logs. Now, every November, hundreds of elephants from here are displayed, bought, and sold in the province’s main town, Surin.
One evening I sit with Jakkrawan Homhual and Wanchai Sala-ngam. Both 33, they’ve been best friends since childhood. About half the people in Ban Ta Klang who care for elephants, including Homhual, don’t own them. They’re paid a modest salary by a rich owner to breed and train baby elephants for entertainment. As night falls, thousands of termites swarm us, attracted to the single bulb hanging above the bamboo platform. Our conversation turns to elephant training.
Phajaan is the traditional—and brutal—days- or weeks-long process of breaking a young elephant’s spirit. It has long been used in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia to tame wild elephants, which still account for many of the country’s captives. Under phajaan, elephants are bound with ropes, confined in tight wooden structures, starved, and beaten repeatedly with bullhooks, nails, and hammers until their will is crushed. The extent to which phajaan persists in its harshest form is unclear. Since 2012, the government has been cracking down on the illegal import of elephants taken from the forests of neighboring Myanmar, Thailand’s main source of wild-caught animals.
I ask the men how baby elephants born in captivity are broken and trained.
When a baby is about two years old, they say, mahouts tie its mother to a tree and slowly drag the baby away. Once separated, the baby is confined. Using a bullhook on its ear, they teach the baby to move: left, right, turn, stop. To teach an elephant to sit, Sala-ngam says, “we tie up the front legs. One mahout will use a bullhook at the back. The other will pull a rope on the front legs.” He adds: “To train the elephant, you need to use the bullhook so the elephant will know.”
Humans identify suffering in other humans by universal signs: People sob, wince, cry out, put voice to their hurt. Animals have no universal language for pain. Many animals don’t have tear ducts. More creatures still—prey animals, for example—instinctively mask symptoms of pain, lest they appear weak to predators. Recognizing that a nonhuman animal is in pain is difficult, often impossible.
But we know that animals feel pain. All mammals have a similar neuroanatomy. Birds, reptiles, and amphibians all have pain receptors. As recently as a decade ago, scientists had collected more evidence that fish feel pain than they had for neonatal infants. A four-year-old human child with spikes pressing into his flesh would express pain by screaming. A four-year-old elephant just stands there in the rain, her leg jerking in the air.
Of all the silently suffering animals I saw in pools and pens around the world, two in particular haunt me: an elephant and a tiger.
They lived in the same facility, Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo, about 15 miles south of Bangkok. The elephant, Gluay Hom, four years old, was kept under a stadium. The aging tiger, Khai Khem, 22, spent his days on a short chain in a photo studio. Both had irrefutable signs of suffering: The emaciated elephant had a bent, swollen leg hanging in the air and a large, bleeding sore at his temple. His eyes were rolled back in his head. The tiger had a dental abscess so severe that the infection was eating through the bottom of his jaw.
When I contacted the owner of the facility, Uthen Youngprapakorn, to ask about these animals, he said the fact that they hadn’t died proved that the facility was caring for them properly. He then threatened a lawsuit.
Six months after Kirsten and I returned from Thailand, we asked Ryn Jirenuwat, our Bangkok-based Thai interpreter, to check on Gluay Hom and Khai Khem. She went to Samut Prakan and watched them for hours, sending photos and video. Gluay Hom was still alive, still standing in the same stall, leg still bent at an unnatural angle. The elephants next to him were skin and bones. Khai Khem was still chained by his neck to a hook in the floor. He just stays in his dark corner, Jirenuwat texted, and when he hears people coming, he twists on his chain and turns his back to them.
“Like he just wants to be swallowed by the wall.”