A Westminster bill to prohibit the sale and advertisement of cruel animal experiences abroad will not be extended to Scotland due to a row between the Scottish and UK governments, The Ferret can reveal.
International wildlife attractions and animal experiences, such as elephant rides and swimming with dolphins, are promoted and sold by mainstream travel companies in the UK.
However, critics concerned over the abuse of animals such as Save The Asian Elephants, argue that by selling these trips, companies such as TUI Musement and Jet2holidays are allegedly “profiting from animal exploitation and fuelling the problem”.
In an attempt to tackle the issue, the Animals (Low Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill unanimously passed its second reading at Westminster on 3 February. A private members’ bill sponsored by Angela Richardson MP, it has the support of the UK Government.
Animal welfare campaigners welcomed the proposed legislation and had hoped it would be extended to Scotland.
But the Scottish Government told The Ferret it will not be extended because the UK Government did not give it sufficient time to consider the legislation, despite repeated requests for an update on its progress.
The Ferret understands the Scottish Government has written to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) minister, Lord Benyon, expressing its disappointment. Defra said it will “continue to engage with the Scottish Government” on the issue and wider animal welfare policy.
The row has prompted animal welfare groups to urge the administrations to try and resolve the situation, arguing that the aims of the bill are popular across the UK.
Save The Asian Elephants (STAE) said Scotland has a good animal welfare record and there is a risk that “unscrupulous” travel agents in the UK will sell unethical holidays through agents or sub-offices in Scotland, turning the nation into a “magnet for unethical and brutal” holidays.
The not-for-profit organisation campaigns to protect elephants in India and South East Asia. It says that young elephants are “snatched from their forest homes” to supply tourist attractions, and that capture from the wild often entails slaughtering the mothers and other herd members who attempt to protect their young.
Captured elephant calves are isolated, forced into a pen and tied with ropes to prevent them moving. They are deprived of water, food and sleep, and beaten with rods, chains or bullhooks – a rod with sharp metal hooks at the striking end.
This practice, called “pajan”, is designed to “break their spirits and brutalise them into submission”, STAE explained, adding that the beatings are so ruthless that at least half of the animals die during this “domestication” process.
Duncan McNair, CEO of STAE, told The Ferret that following discussions last year, he had anticipated that the Scottish Government would support the extension of the bill. This could be done by a legislative consent motion – sometimes referred to as a Sewel motion – which allows a devolved legislature to agree for the UK Parliament to pass a law on a devolved matter.
McNair said: “So we are surprised and disappointed that the (Scottish) government should stand out against what all describe as a very important bill. Enquiries indicate there is no objection to the bill in principle but that Defra in London still needs to engage adequately with the Scottish Government.
“We hope it will do so immediately as time is short. This would be a huge missed opportunity for Scotland and will cause great disappointment across the nation’s electorate if Scotland stands back.”
STAE was also critical of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), which represents the commercial interest of thousands of UK-based travel companies.
McNair said: “STAE has been asking ABTA endlessly since 2015 to support new laws to protect Asian elephants against brutal tourism, so much of that market is generated by its members. It has resisted throughout. ABTA just claims its guidelines are adequate. Yet its guidelines, which we have analysed closely, are full of holes and opaque, and have been rejected by experts.”
Last month, campaign group World Animal Protection (WAP) produced a report accusing travel firms TUI and Jet2holidays, among others, of “exploiting wildlife for profit”.
Elephant riding, selfies with tiger cubs and swimming with dolphins were some of the “cruel wildlife activities” on offer by these travel brands, according to WAP’s report. It said thousands of wild animals are forced to perform for tourist entertainment or be subjects for tourist “experiences” that are “incredibly unnatural and stressful” for them.
“Dolphins used for entertainment are mostly bred in captivity, (although some are still captured from the wild) and kept in barren tanks a tiny fraction of their natural home range, which creates huge distress for these wonderful animals,” the report said.
Katheryn Wise, wildlife campaign manager at WAP, told The Ferret the campaign group is “extremely disappointed” that the Scottish Government is not taking forward Richardson’s bill, but added there may still be time for ministers to change their minds.
“This bill is an opportunity to stop British tourists, often unknowingly, supporting the exploitation of wild animals in tourism abroad,” she said. “Companies such as TUI Musement and Jet2holidays, are profiting every year from animal cruelty.”
The Association of British Travel Agents said the “vast majority” of its members, including the UK’s largest travel companies, have already stopped selling elephant rides and similar experiences, adding it would “encourage consumers to avoid these activities”.
“ABTA believes strongly that elephants should not be subject to punishment and cruelty in order to make them submissive to humans. We are supportive of government action on the sale of tickets in the UK to attractions, which involve activities like riding or bathing with elephants – ABTA’s own guidelines say these activities are unacceptable,” an ABTA spokesperson said.
Its guidance on animal welfare says unacceptable practices include “performances or tourist interactions involving wild animals where training involves punishment or food deprivation, causes the animal fear, injury or distress, or the tasks are not based on normal behaviour”.
The Scottish Government said it opposes animal cruelty in “all its forms” and is committed to ensuring the “highest possible animal welfare standards” are met both in Scotland and abroad. “The Scottish Government supports the intention behind the Animals (Low Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill and the improvements that it hopes to achieve,” a spokesperson added.
“However, we believe this issue should have been addressed in the now fallen Animals Abroad Bill. This opportunity has now been sadly lost. We would like to give these important proposals our full support. Unfortunately, due to last minute handling by the UK Government, the time we were permitted to consider the legislation or make any necessary amendments was prohibitively short.”
The government spokesperson said legislative proposals on these important issues “deserve proper process and consideration”. They added: “We remain open to all discussions relating to animal welfare, including the Kept Animals Bill which has itself suffered significant delay.
A Defra spokesperson said it will continue to engage with the Scottish Government “on this issue” and wider animal welfare policy. “Ministers and officials have been engaging with devolved administrations on many of the measures set out in the Action Plan for Animal Welfare, including unacceptable practices conducted abroad,” they added.
Kirsty Jenkins, policy officer at the Edinburgh-based charity, OneKind, said: “We are glad to hear that the Scottish Government supports the intention behind the Animals (Low Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill and, like us, recognises the cruelty that some tourism companies are profiting from. It is important that solutions can be found to allow the necessary legislative scrutiny and processes to take place, to end the advertisement and sale of these exploitative activities.”
TUI declined to comment. Jet2holidays did not reply to our requests for a comment.
Cover image thanks to Devaiah Mallangada Kalaiah/Unsplash
This article was also published in The Sunday National.