You smile and strike a fearsome pose next to a tiger, confident you’ve just scored the perfect holiday photo.

You pick up an adorable sea turtle and gently pat it. You go on an incredible elephant ride, in awe of the majestic and gentle giants. You laugh hysterically as a monkey dances and rides a bike.

Approximately 110 million people visit wildlife tourist attractions around the globe each year, but most are unaware of the abuse that may be involved. Because behind these seemingly magical moments, often lies a lifetime of suffering.

That’s according to a damning new report by World Animal Protection, which believes at least 550,000 wild animals are suffering at the hands of irresponsible tourist attractions around the world.

The report states: “We want a world where wild animals live in the wild where they belong. But one of the biggest barriers to this natural freedom is global tourism.

“Up to one quarter of this trillion dollar industry is driven by demand for wildlife tourism. What most people don’t know is the unacceptable cruelty and abuse of wild animals used in most wildlife activities. These activities include elephant riding, swimming with captive dolphins, and hugging and posing for photos with lions and tigers.

“These welfare abuses include very young animals being taken from their mothers, beaten and harmed during training to ensure they are passive enough to give rides, perform tricks or pose for holiday ‘selfies’ with tourists, with the worst venues including bear, elephant and tiger parks and a turtle farm.”

Using commissioned research by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), and its own investigations in Asia and Africa, World Animal Protection has compiled a list of the 10 cruellest wildlife entertainment activities, and explained why.

The activities were rated according to how the tourist attractions fulfil the ‘five freedoms’ including: Freedom from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury and disease; to behave normally; and from fear and distress.


“To make elephants submit to giving rides, they are taken from their mothers when babies and forced through a horrific training process known as ‘the crush’. This typically involves restraining them in a small cage, or tying them in ropes or chains so that they can only move when commanded.

“Severe pain is often inflicted with pointed metal ‘bull hooks’ or wooden battens to quickly establish dominance ... This process ‘breaks’ the young elephant’s spirit so they will accept people riding on their back or other direct contact between tourists and elephants.

(Tourists ride elephants in the ancient Thai capital Ayutthaya, Thailand. Reuters)

“In elephant parks they are prevented from forming natural social relationships with each other. This is hugely damaging to their physical and psychological wellbeing, as is the size of their captive world. They are often kept on chains or in small enclosures.”


“Tiger cubs are separated from their mothers at an early age so they can be used as photo props for hours on end. They are handled and hugged by tourists and typically kept chained or in small cages with concrete floors.

“In Thailand we found 10 venues housing around 614 tigers. Although Thailand is a hub of cruel tiger tourism it’s also prevalent in other parts of Asia, Australia, Mexico and Argentina.”


“Lion cubs are also bred and taken from their mothers typically within a month of birth to supply the growing lion tourism industry, mostly located in southern Africa. Tourists handle the cubs for hours and pose with them for photos. They are also often told to hit the cubs if they display aggressive or unwelcome behavior.

(A lioness walks on a road in front of tourists' minivans. Reuters)

“When the cubs grow too big for tourists to pick up and hug — but are still young enough to control — some are used for the relatively new walking with lions tourist experience. The lions are trained to ‘safely’ walk with tourists, sometimes on leads. They face a lifetime in captivity as they cannot be released into the wild.”


“Bears are kept in sterile barren ‘pits’ with minimal — if any — behavioral enrichment. These pits are severely overcrowded. Bears are mainly solitary in the wild so this overcrowding can also lead to infighting and nasty injuries.”


“The world’s last remaining sea turtle farm that acts as a tourist attraction is in the Cayman Islands. Here, tourists can hold turtles and even eat them during their visit. Holding a sea turtle causes it to suffer a great deal of stress which can weaken its immune system and increase its susceptibility to disease. Almost 1300 turtles were recently killed at the farm following an outbreak of Clostridium infections.”


“The US is one of several countries to ban dolphins being taken from the wild for dolphinaria because of the suffering involved. Dolphins are often chased by high-speed boats before being hauled on board or caught in nets. For many, the stress is too much to take and they die during transportation to their intended destinations.

(Performing dolphins entertain tourists. AP)

“Those kept in dolphinaria, whether wild caught or captive bred, face a lifetime of suffering. They spend their entire lives in a space not much bigger than a swimming pool — completely unnatural and restrictive compared to their natural open sea environment.


“Many species of primates are used for street entertainment but we have also uncovered the systematic abuse of 290 macaques housed in venues offering macaque shows in Thailand. Young macaques are trained aggressively and painfully, to make them walk, behave and appear more human. They are often dressed up to look like geishas and repeatedly forced to dance and perform tricks for groups of tourists.

“When they’re not performing, the macaques are often kept chained in small barren cages or outside on short chains. As the macaque grows, the chain can become embedded in the skin leading to painful infections and disease.”


“A single cup of civet coffee or Kopi Luwak, fetches up to $10,027. Civets love to eat coffee cherries and Kopi Luwak coffee is made from the beans within the cherries that the civets excrete in pellets. When the pellets are collected from civets in the wild, no cruelty is involved. But in an attempt to produce more civet coffee, farmers have started catching the civets and keeping them in small, crowded barren cages.

“Caged civets are encouraged to gorge on an unbalanced diet of coffee cherries. This unnatural captivity and forced feeding results in injuries, disease and poor nutrition. Many show signs of great stress, including pacing and self-mutilation.”


“Snake charming has been a street entertainment activity for hundreds of years, and the latest twist on this includes kissing a cobra in Thailand. Cobras are commonly used for performing even though they are venomous and their bites can be fatal to humans.

“The cobras are usually captured from the wild, then they are defanged with metal pliers and their venom ducts are either blocked or removed — often with un-sanitised equipment. This often results in painful infections, and can kill the cobras.”


“Crocodile farming involves large numbers of crocodiles being kept on farms and intensively bred — mainly to supply the fashion industry with their skins, but also for their meat. These farms are also now a more common wildlife tourism experience. People come to see the crocodiles then eat them in on-site restaurants.

“The conditions on the farms are often so appalling that they can actually kill the crocodiles. The animals are usually housed in concrete pits and conditions are often severely overcrowded and unhygienic. Crocodiles are very sensitive to stress. And severely stressful situations — like the intense farm environment — can lead to septicaemia.

“If a crocodile remains in a stressful environment, it may not be able to fight the infection and fatal diseases can develop. Because of competition for limited space in the pits, and also for food and water, the crocodiles will fight each other, sometimes to the death. They also rip off one another’s legs — such serious injuries can eventually kill them too.”


For their study, the World Animal Protection compared scientific reviews of wildlife tourism venues with more than 50,000 tourist reviews on TripAdvisor. They found that 80 per cent of people left positive reviews for places, not aware they are treating the animals cruelly.

The organisation says it doesn’t mean that people don’t care about animals — once told about the cruelty behind the scenes most decide not to go.

“It’s clear that thousands of tourists are visiting wildlife attractions, unaware of the abuse wild animals’ face behind the scenes,” Kate Nustedt, Director of Wildlife at World Animal Protection said.

“As well as the cruelty to animals, there is also the very real danger to tourists, as we saw earlier this week with the very sad death of British tourist Gareth Crowe in Thailand.

“We need to stop the demand for elephant rides and shows, hugs and selfies with tigers and lions by exposing the hidden suffering behind wildlife attractions. If you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with a wild animal, then you can be sure it is cruel. Vote with your feet and don’t go.”

It’s a major challenge to get the tourism industry on board to improve how wild animals are treated and used in tourism. But World Animal Protection has so far secured commitment from 87 travel companies to stop selling elephant rides and shows.

However, it’s quick to remind us that it’s not all doom and gloom — a quarter of wildlife attractions investigated do look after the welfare of their animals, including sanctuaries that have rescued some 13,000 animals from abusive conditions. They don’t provide any wildlife shows or let tourists interact with the animals.

This story originally appeared on news.com.au.