“The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception, it creates the illusion that they’re always happy.”
Ric O’Barry, former dolphin trainer and animal advocate.
Phuket Island is a wonderfully eclectic destination in so many senses. The island hosts a diverse population of Buddhists, Muslims, Chinese descendants, Phuketians, non-Phuketians, and a large number of long-term expatriates all living together on this 534km2 island.
Despite having faced a steady influx of tourism for a few decades, which resulted in widely urbanized areas such as Patong Beach and the outskirts of Phuket Town that host endless shopping centers and attractions, those who spend any significant amount of time in Phuket will know that the island still has that old provincial charm where traditions, cultures, and a sense of community still play a significant role in everyday life.
Still, there is no denying that tourism is the life source of Phuket today, and more and more locals and businesses are increasing their commitment toward the sustainability of Phuket as a destination. Social responsibility is a common language and many stakeholders on the island work tirelessly to fulfill their role, whether they are businesses, local authorities, communities, visitors and individuals. But even though words and actions promoting conservation and sustainability have become part of Phuket norm today, it is painfully obvious that there is one particular aspect that is still very much lagging, and that is the use of animals for entertainment.
Upon stepping out of Phuket International Airport terminal building, visitors to our beautiful island are immediately bombarded with billboard advertisements for elephant shows, tiger interactions, and dolphin and seal shows, to name a few. And if you have not noticed, the animals used are often listed as being endangered or are reaching that status with continued poaching. Sadly, vacationers often view these seemingly exciting entertainments as a unique part of their travel experience, and many choose not to question the nature of these establishments. Business operators also choose to maximize this view by dramatizing and sanitizing the image of these activities as educational, conserving and good fun for kids to appeal to tourists.
The ugly truth is many of these animals have been captured from the wild and forced to live a very unnatural life in order to entertain the crowds. Babies are often separated from their mothers at a very young age and intimidated into submission. Death is often also the result of capturing, training, transporting, and working these majestic animals in the name of profit. Sadly, and many people are not aware, but those who choose to attend these establishments are directly helping to prolong this cruelty. It is a blatant cause and effect that must be stated and recognized, as this is the root of the issue.
Although we often hear business operators claiming that the animals in their care have a good quality of life, are treated well, and receive good medical care, those who have looked deeper into these topics know that the reality is so grim it is unspeakable. For example, the annual dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, Japan, continues to this very day despite having been exposed and condemned for its cruelty years ago through the award-winning documentary ‘The Cove’. Wild pods of dolphins are driven by banger boats toward Taiji Cove and trapped in by nets. The beautiful ones are selected to be trained and sold to dolphinaria world wide, and the rest slaughtered for their meat. Many dolphins die within a year of captivity or suffer from severe depression, stress, starvation, and other physical ailments.
Another argument business operators tend to make is the education value of these animal shows and interactions. However, with today’s advanced scientific technology, studies of these animals can be done in the wild and yield a much more realistic result than when studying them in captivity. We no longer need to forsake the animals’ freedom and wellbeing in the name of education.
This day in age travelers tend to place high importance in ‘eco’ and ‘responsible’ labels of their resorts, food, and other travel related choices. And the good news is, Phuket offers a wide variety of non-exploitative attractions, activities, and experiences. Many leading hotels and resorts now opt for their guests to immerse in cultural experiences instead such as frequenting local markets, temples, charities and communities to get the true Phuket experience. Still, animal lovers also have many options available to them if they are willing to go slightly off the beaten track for a truly valuable interaction.
Phuket Marine Biological Center in Ao Makham runs an extensive sea turtle rehabilitation program where you can visit and learn about the plight of sea turtles, their habits, and survival. The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project by The Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand in Paklok accepts volunteers to help care for rescued gibbons and help reintroduce them back to the wild. Soi Dog Foundation in Mao Khao is always enlisting volunteers to help care for, walk, and interact with dogs in their shelter, as well as flight volunteers to help transport adopted dogs to their forever homes.
Dolphin lovers can spot wild dolphins swimming free with their pods off the coast of Phuket and on their way to Koh Maithon with Blue World Safaris and then, of course, the quintessential John Gray’s Sea Canoe eco tour that highlights natural cave systems and wildlife in Phang Nga Bay and also infuses traditional Thai cultural aspects.
As residents in Phuket we hope your unique Phuket vacation will leave a mark to help make Phuket a better destination than when you arrived. This makes a truly memorable experience for all visitors and residents to Phuket.
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