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Wildlife tourism has changed dramatically in the age of modern technology and telecommunications, with everyone wanting a digital souvenir to share in real time via social media. Kirsten Luce traveled the world to survey the state of wildlife tourism today, and behind the scenes found the suffering hidden from the eyes of the average traveler.

The story began in 2018, in the Amazon where tour companies encourage locals to keep wildlife, offering incentives, just so that tourists can take selfies with them: sloths, anteaters and other species, confined in makeshift cages, are brought out every day for the throngs of tourists.

Kirsten Luce traveled to Thailand where an encounter with an elephant often tops the list of tourist attractions. Some 3,500 Asian elephants are kept in captivity in Thailand, mostly in camps where young elephants perform in shows, and tourists ride on the older ones. To make elephants docile for human interaction (e.g. riding, bathing and walking) they are often separated from their mothers when very young and broken in using cruel methods.

Thailand also has tiger zoos where tourists can pose with declawed and/or drugged animals raised by “speed-breeding,” i.e. separating young cubs from their mothers so that they can be easily handled and so that the mothers will breed again quickly.

In Russia, the tradition of dancing bears performing on the street with passers-by giving money has now disappeared, but there are still circuses with thousands of performing bears trained to walk on two feet by being chained to a wall to develop the muscles in their hind legs. One particularly shocking example is a circus act featuring four trained polar bears, the same animals seen as the symbol of conservation in the world today.

Also in Russia, Kirsten Luce documented traveling marine mammal shows with dolphins and beluga whales trucked from city to city, living in miserable conditions in tanks and inflatable tents. And animals that die are often replaced by new ones poached from the Black Sea. The report is designed to raise awareness so that people stop and think before supporting such operations, and before posting images likely to encourage abusive interactions with wildlife.

Kirsten Luce

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