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An investigation into using wild animals as photographic props in holiday resorts


Using wild animals as photographic props in holiday resorts is a growing problem in countries like Thailand and Mexico. Kate Riordan reports on a trade that is being unwittingly funded by naïve tourists

 You can see how it might happen if you didn’t know any better. You’re on holiday in Thailand, the air sultry, the bars full and the streets thronged with happy tourists like you, when someone approaches with a furry animal curled around their hand. For a small ‘tip’, this is your chance to have a photo taken with a native slow loris; a heart-melting souvenir shot of a tiny creature that will grip your fingers adorably, its eyes round as saucers, its body clad in a miniature T-shirt. It’s bound to get you loads of likes and comments on social media when you post such a picture – after all, when pop star Rihanna did the very same thing recently, she got more than 200,000 thumbs up from her fans around the globe.

The glaring problem here is that an animal like Rihanna’s loris will have been snatched from the wild – expendable fodder for the money-spinning machine that is the photo prop trade. It’s estimated that for every one of the once-wild animals seen and snapped on the streets of bustling tourist destinations like Thailand’s Phuket, around 50 animals die behind the scenes. Many succumb to the stress and terrible physical conditions they endure in transit between their homes in the wild and the markets where they’re sold on, often dying long before they even meet the tourists they have been stolen to entertain. The rest of the body count is collateral damage; adult animals that have been killed by poachers to get to the cuter and therefore more desirable infants.

Even the animals that make it to the resorts don’t last long. For a nocturnal animal like the slow loris (classified by the IUCN Red List as ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Endangered’ depending on the sub-species), the teeming streets of Phuket represent a neon-lit hell. Music blares from every bar and the lorises’ huge and sensitive eyes – which have evolved so they can see at night – are damaged by the constant barrage of camera flashes.

Conservation specialist Petra Osterberg is on the scene in Thailand, working to rehabilitate rescued photo prop animals. She says that lorises – who are known to have a venomous bite – frequently have their anterior teeth removed. Done without anaesthesia or veterinary care, this often causes splintered roots, damaged nerves, infection and even death. It also ensures that the loris can never be released back into the wild – it would no longer be able to gouge out the tree gum that constitutes an important part of its diet.

Osterberg is currently working with the Love Wildlife Foundation, which has already established a specialist loris rehabilitation centre at a government wildlife centre east of Bangkok. They are now hoping to open something similar on Phuket. Osterberg has previously worked with gibbons from the photo prop trade but says the popularity of the slow loris as a prop has “exploded” into a huge problem “in just the last two years”.

The issue extends beyond the streets, though, and away from the sensory overload of the busy resorts is the other, legal side of the same coin: the tourist attraction that styles itself as an animal sanctuary when the reality is very different. One of the best known is the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi in Thailand where – ironically – its popularity has been founded on the myth that its tigers have been rescued from poachers. In fact, what may have started out as a rescue centre is now a thriving enterprise where the tigers are a mere commodity.

According to an undercover investigation by conservation charity, Care for the Wild International, the Tiger Temple is also operating as a breeding facility. At least 10 cubs have been born there even though the attraction holds no licence to breed. Despite the exchange or sale of tigers being illegal under international and Thai law, there is also evidence of trading with a tiger farm in Laos. In order to cover this up, newly arrived cubs are given the names of older tigers that have been shipped out to make way for the younger models.

When the so-called sanctuary is closed to visitors, the tigers are kept in small, bare cages. During opening hours, they are controlled with drugs, punched, beaten and even have tiger urine thrown in their faces – an act of extreme aggression to a tiger.  In response to this, as well as the street trade, Care for the Wild has just launched a new campaign to try and put a stop to wild animals being used and abused as photo opportunities. As CEO Philip Mansbridge puts it, “these are not pets, they’re business assets.”

The new campaign will form part of Care for the Wild’s ongoing RIGHT-Tourism campaign, which aims to provide animal welfare and conservation information to travellers so they can make informed decisions when abroad. The new offshoot campaign – called ‘No Pictures Please’ – will target tourists about the specific photo prop issue on three fronts: pre-destination (using advertising), en-route (with airline magazines and leaflets) and in the destination itself (using posters in hotels and resorts).

The common thread that binds the three is the education of an eminently receptive demographic: western, middle class tourists, many of whom will already be aware of the threats faced by wild animals. The charity believes that if people understand the back-story they will stop spending money on tipping vendors in the street and on entrance tickets to pseudo-sanctuaries – hitting the trade in the only place it hurts. “It will go away if people stop spending money on it,” says Mansbridge. “We’re talking [mainly] about western tourists and they can’t play the naivety card: they have the internet.” Osterberg agrees: “Education is the key… It is a cruel thing to do and something that people would not want to be participating in if it took place in our home countries.”

Mansbridge was first struck by the issue of this burgeoning trade when – rather fittingly – he was visiting Thailand for a CITES conference. Trade in animals such as the slow loris is banned in the country and Petra Osterberg says that “authorities on Phuket have in the last 15-16 months confiscated more than 50 slow lorises, as well as iguanas and macaques”. However, while the demand from tourists remains, any seized animals are swiftly replaced. Besides, the problem goes far deeper than the person touting the animal on the street. Like the prostitute working for a network of pimps, the vendor is only the public tip of a gang-dominated iceberg that is far harder to tackle. Even arresting the vendors is not straightforward; spies in the shadows will signal a warning when police are about to stage a raid.

In the Phuket area alone, there are known to be around 100 slow lorises on the streets – and that’s not counting the animals that never made it that far, as well as all the other places in the world where similar practices go on. While in Thailand gibbons, macaques, iguanas and birds of prey are also popular as props, in parts of Eastern Europe it’s still possible to see dancing bears, while lion, tiger and jaguar cubs are becoming an increasingly common sight in the Mexican resort of Cancún. Unlike Thailand, photo props are still legal there.

Like the lorises, these cubs often have their sharp teeth removed, as well as their claws. They are separated from their mothers at birth and, when they’re deemed too old, they are transferred to roadside zoos and circuses, or killed. A joint campaign between Care for the Wild International, Born Free Foundation and the Spanish organisation Faada is currently collecting signatures for an online petition.

The Rihanna story illustrates the power a western tourist can wield, albeit – in this case – misguidedly and on a grand celebrity scale. After Rihanna posted her ‘selfie’ with the slow loris, the Phuket Governor ordered a raid and two vendors were arrested. During the following days, there were apparently no photo prop touts to be seen on the usual streets. If tourists used their own power in a more educated way, staying away from the pseudo-sanctuaries and saying no to the photo prop touts in large numbers, the trade – no longer turning a healthy profit – might simply melt away.

What do you think?

Have you ever come across wild animals being abused in this way? What did you see? And did you do anything about it? Let us know and join the discussion via the link below http://www.wildlifeextra.com/do/ecco.py/view?listid=18&listcatid=2807