Selfies in the jungle: Abuse, exploitation and the dark side of wildlife tourism

Whether it is bathing with elephants, feeding tigers or watching bears dance, tourists are often offered entertainment involving wildlife that raises concerns about animal welfare.

Photographer Kirsten Luce and writer Natasha Daly spent months documenting the exploitation of animal in the Amazon, Thailand and Russia.

The first results of the investigation, published by National Geographic, inspired the pair to continue to follow the story and this month their work was displayed at the Visa Pour l’Image international journalism festival in Perpignan, France.

Luce told Euronews that she hoped the work helped raise awareness of animal exploitation and tourism.

High demand, little responsibility

“We decided to go to Thailand, which is a very popular spot to see wildlife. There we focused on native species. In Thailand those were Asian elephants, tigers and other types of animals too,” Luce said.

One of the exhibited images shows Gluay Hom, a five-year-old elephant who was found beneath a stadium at an entertainment facility near Bangkok.

His leg was broken and there were open sores on his face. Six months after this image was taken the team’s fixer found Gluay Hom at the same spot in the same condition.

In Thailand animal welfare laws either don’t exist or aren’t strictly enforced so there is no punishment for keeping a sick elephant in a backyard – even if people find it upsetting.

There is rarely enough attention to the cause for crucial changes to happen, says the photographer, although sometimes the images go viral.

This is how Gluay Hom’s story ended happily. After his photograph was shared online he was rescued by the Elephant Nature Park, which purchased the elephant from his previous owner.

However, Luce said, the owner will likely use the fund to purchase more elephants.

Let elephants be elephants. Are there ethical options for tourists?

After photographing around two dozen elephant attractions, Luce said that a couple were really bad, a couple were good and the rest fell across the range in between.

To find an ethical one, she suggests tourists check reviews and comments for the attractions online and choose ones that are observational: where visitors don’t get to touch the elephants.

These institutions are sanctuaries which take care of the animals until they die, giving them access to food and water while they can freely interact with each other. Simply put, they let animals be animals.

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