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By Jason Bittel
Divers off the coast of the Cayman Islands last month came face to face with a ghoulish sight: a gigantic mass of abandoned fishing gear and its catch. The monstrous net, as wide and deep as the Hollywood sign is tall, drifted just below the water's surface with tendrils that teemed with hundreds of dead and dying fish and sharks.
Animal rights organizations expressed outrage after footage emerged of a trained bear named Tima performing ahead of a soccer match on Saturday between third-tier Russian teams Mashuk-KMV and Angusht.
The clip shows a muzzled bear led to the stadium by a handler. It lifts its arms up and down, gets on its hind legs and hands a soccer ball to the referee. It then makes clapping motions in front of the cheering crowd.
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Governments around the world are waking up to the scourge of plastics on our oceans and its creatures by banning items such as shopping bags and drinking straws. But an often-overlooked form of plastic waste is also a major threat to our seas: "ghost" gear.
A report released Thursday from World Animal Protection highlights that every year 640,000 metric tons of fishing nets are lost or discarded in our oceans each year, trapping and killing countless marine mammals, including endangered whales, seals and turtles. Shallow coral reef habitats also suffer further degradation from the gear, which can take up to 600 years to decompose.
In 2014, the President Obama's administration banned the imports of elephant trophies to protect the species. "Additional killing of elephants in these countries, even if legal, is not sustainable and is not currently supporting conservation efforts that contribute towards the recovery of the species," they said at the time.
The incident was detailed in several Facebook posts from Equinac, a Spanish marine wildlife conservation group.
TripAdvisor and its booking agency Viator will no longer sell tickets or generate booking revenue from tourism experiences where travelers come into physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species. This includes activities such as elephant rides, petting tigers and swimming with dolphins.
The travel giant has banned tickets sales to attractions where travelers come into physical contact with captive wild animals or endangered species.Flickr
"TripAdvisor's new booking policy and education effort is designed as a means to do our part in helping improve the health and safety standards of animals, especially in markets with limited regulatory protections," said Stephen Kaufer, TripAdvisor president and CEO.
Animal rights activists and organizations have long campaigned against cruel wildlife tourist attractions that can cause intense suffering to animals.
In June, officials found tiger skins, charms made from tiger parts and frozen tiger cubs at Thailand's infamous tiger temple tourism destination. For some elephant ride attractions, the animals are forced through a horrific training process known as "the crush," that involves physical restraints, inflicting severe pain and withholding food and water, as the World Animal Protection describes. And while many people love the idea of swimming with dolphins, Hawaii's population of spinner dolphins is now at the center of concerns over how increasing interactions with humans are impacting their health and wellbeing.
Alongside the ticket sales ban, TripAdvisor has partnered with several conservation experts and animal rights groups to launch an "education portal" aimed at educating travelers about animal welfare practices in tourism. Partners include the U.S.-based Association of Zoos & Aquariums; animal welfare activist groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and World Animal Protection; and experts in tourism who have studied animal and wildlife issues like ABTA—The Travel Association, Sustainable Travel International and the Pacific Asia Travel Association. The portal will also provide opinions, research and insights on wildlife conservation, guided by Oxford University's WildCRU, Global Wildlife Conservation, Think Elephants International and Asian Elephant Support.
The idea behind the portal is that users will write more informed reviews about their experience at animal tourism destinations and, in turn, enable other travelers to make more informed booking decisions and to improve the standards of animal care in tourism worldwide. The portal will link to every animal attraction listing on the travel-review website.
Some animal-interaction destinations will cease booking through TripAdvisor immediately, while the educational portal and booking policy changes will be fully implemented by early 2017. By that time, every attraction listed on the website that involves animals will be identified with a "PAW" icon linking to the portal.
TripAdvisor's announcement is a big step for animal welfare in the tourism and travel industry. As the world's largest travel website, millions of people around the world visit the online hub for travel advice and for booking accommodations and activities. The website reaches 350 million average monthly unique visitors.
"TripAdvisor's leadership position in travel means we can help educate millions of travelers about the diverse opinions that exist on matters of animal welfare," Kaufer said. "We believe the end result of our efforts will be enabling travelers to make more thoughtful choices about whether to visit an animal attraction and to write more meaningful reviews about those attractions."
"At the same time, we want to celebrate those destinations and attractions that are leaders in caring for animals and those in the tourism industry who help further the cause of animal welfare, conservation and the preservation of endangered species," he said.
The company believes that its millions of reviewers "can serve as a check-and-balance on matters of quality, customer service and social issues such as how animals are treated in the tourism industry. For this reason, all animal attractions that meet our standard listing guidelines will continue to be displayed on TripAdvisor in order for travelers to review those establishments, regardless of whether they meet the company's criteria as a booking partner."
TripAdvisor's new policy has several exemptions, including:
- Domestic animals, e.g. horseback riding, children's petting zoos with domestic animals like rabbits, etc.
- Aquarium touch pools used for education purposes where tourists are under the supervision of zoo, aquarium and/or wildlife officials
- Feeding programs where tourists are under the supervision of zoo and/or wildlife officials
- Voluntourism programs for endangered species preservation at zoos, aquariums or sanctuaries where it is possible that there might be some level of physical interaction with an animal
PETA has applauded TripAdvisor's latest move.
"By refusing to sell tickets to businesses that treat animals as entertainment or playthings, TripAdvisor is making a precedent-setting statement about the use and abuse of animals for entertainment," PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said. "PETA looks forward to contributing to TripAdvisor's industry-leading education portal, which will empower people around the world to make better decisions when it comes to animal-friendly travel."
Other big names in animal conservation have endorsed TripAdvisor's new effort.
"The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) welcomes the actions taken by TripAdvisor, a much valuable Affiliate Member of UNWTO, to strengthen its social corporate social responsibility in the area of animal welfare," said Taleb Rifai, UNWTO secretary-general.
"We commend TripAdvisor for taking steps to improve the standards for interactions with wild and captive species in tourism," Wes Sechrest, chief scientist and CEO of Global Wildlife Conservation, said. "This will encourage people to visit destinations that promote the safe viewing of wildlife in the wild, such as national parks, as well as legitimate rescue centers and zoological facilities that support on-the-ground wildlife conservation efforts. We want people to connect with wildlife and feel inspired by wild places, and this will help provide a guide for how to do so without further endangering our planet's biodiversity."