As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, lockdowns are extended and restrictions on global travel continue to tighten, one of the industries hit hardest by the lack of travelers has been animal tourism.
For many zoos and aquariums, the lack of guests has both opened up and forced them down new avenues. Some are now holding live streams for the public, expanding interactions with zookeepers through spaces like Facebook Live, and allowing their permanent animal residents to check in on some of their longtime neighbors.
Elsewhere, whole swaths of animal industries dependent on global tourism have been thrust into crisis mode, and many animal conservation efforts are facing uncertainty with the unprecedented decline in human and animal movement alike.
Natasha Daly, a writer for National Geographic who covers animal welfare, wildlife conservation and animal exploitation, says it’s too soon to tell how conservation will be affected by the lack of tourism. But she’s encouraged by the reality that for many people, humanity’s relationship to nature is now front of mind.
“This crisis has put the issues of the wildlife trade and the ways that people exploit animals for all sorts of things — it has thrust it into the spotlight,” Daly said. (Netflix’s wildly popular documentary series “Tiger King” has only added to the attention.) “So, I think that maybe more people than ever are aware of some of the issues involved in the wildlife trade, just because it’s dominated the headlines over the last few months.”
That dominance has become especially notable on social media, where news of animals acting in never-before-seen ways has become a salve.
Posts about swans returning to Venetian canals and elephants passed out after drinking corn wine in the fields of China were showered with hundreds of thousands of likes, endorsing the idea that the lack of human activity had reversed the course of nature and given animals a break from our disruptive ways.
The only problem with the feel-good stories is that they were fake. And Daly — the author of the piece debunking them — says that although she was heartened to see that people care, fake nature stories can be harmful to our understanding of how we can help going forward, no matter how good it feels in these troubling times.
“The bottom line is that it’s important that these things we’re cheering on are actually true,” she said.
There are plenty of posts that are. In one of the more heartwarming videos (with nearly 15 million views on Twitter), a pair of rockhopper penguins at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago were shown wandering around the empty facility, interacting with various underwater exhibits and even waddling past the reception desk.
Meanwhile, at the Fort Worth Zoo, a Patagonian mara spent quality time with a trio of otters on the other side of the glass, and the Toronto Zoo shared a photo of donkeys and llamas getting up close and personal with a couple of polar bears.
Andrew Lentini, senior director of wildlife and science at the Toronto Zoo, says it’s important that the animals still be able to do walkabouts as a part of their training and care, but many of them miss guest interaction and the joys of people-watching. “One of our oldest residents here is an orangutan named Puppe who just loves to watch people and particularly loves children,” Lentini said. “She’ll often go right up to a mom and a young child. She just loves to watch them, and not having guests here, she misses that a little bit.”
Lentini says the biggest change in day-to-day operations has been safeguarding the staff and maintaining precautions like social distancing for some of their animals, including the great apes, who may have a similar susceptibility to covid-19 as humans.
With reopening pushed further down the calendar, Lentini says the zoo is focused on maintaining its mission to connect people with animals and its dedication to conservation science. The zoo has received positive feedback from its social media outreach and online programs, such as a virtual zoo school. Lentini says his goal, with the zoo’s continuing work, is to give people hope.
“It’s not business as usual,” he said. “We rely on our guests to really help support the zoo, not just in our mission but also through their attendance here. So, without that, we’re making some changes to really control our spending — just spending on essential items that are critical for our operation — and we’ll continue to adapt as this goes on.”
For some animals outside of zoo and aquarium settings, pandemic-related restrictions and the decline in travelers have provided not just an opportunity for rest, but also a lifesaving turn.
One of the most profound shifts in tourism is the shutdown of elephant parks in Thailand. The country derives a significant source of its annual revenue from elephant tourism, with 40 million visitors per year.
The Maesa Elephant Camp, in Chiang Mai, has released its 78 elephants from the large wood and metal seats strapped to them, which animal rights groups said caused “psychological anguish.” And the camp announced that it won’t place the seats back on even when business continues, according to Britain’s the Independent.
Since elephants in captivity are forbidden to be released back into the wild, the park said it plans to let them roam free, in hopes of attracting future visitors to an elephant sanctuary.
Not all of the industry’s owners have the luxury of doing so, however, and many advocates in Thailand fear that elephants, which are expensive to feed, will be left starving on the streets, with their owners begging for money or forced into the illegal logging sector.
Daly worries that the reliance on foreign tourism to take care of the elephants will lead to widespread problems in Thailand. There are an estimated 3,000 captive elephants in camps, and the country, she says, has to contend not only with the “scary” business-side reality of camps struggling to feed and water elephants, but also with the conservation side — of rescue organizations not being able to raise funds to save elephants from captivity.
Thousands more elephants, in Africa, are getting a reprieve from one of the world’s most controversial forms of tourism: sport hunting.
That’s because Botswana has banned entry for travelers from 18 countries it has deemed high-risk, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain, countries that make up the majority of the world’s foreign trophy hunters.
The southern African country, which holds close to 130,000 elephants, recently overturned its ban on commercial hunting, alarming conservationists. But with travel restrictions in place globally to help stop the spread of coronavirus, Botswana’s hunting season — which was set to begin this month — is at a standstill.
Ultimately, Daly says the decline in tourism is a global issue that will continue to affect the animal industry in uneven ways. And smaller facilities will face a heavier burden than larger, more established ones.
“There’s a very real concern that many of these animals that are languishing in some of these substandard facilities around the world may not be getting the care or food or veterinary attention that they would if the facilities had the sort of money coming in that they’re used to,” Daly said. Some desperate animals in the wild have been recorded wandering into city centers in search of food.
Daly hopes the lack of access to animal tourism will help people reevaluate what they do while on vacation, because the industry largely depends on tourist dollars to keep the animals fed.
Since the reality of city lockdowns is temporary, when coronavirus concerns blow over and societies return to normal, she wonders how many people will go back to living their normal lives.
“If anything, [coronavirus] might bring some attention to the fact that this industry exists and that many animals depend on us to keep them fed and keep them thriving,” Daly said. “For people who care about this and care about animals as they’re affected by us, this is an interesting case study in terms of how animals may be affected in the long term.”
Antonia Noori Farzan and Siobhán O’Grady contributed to this report.