UK plan to protect animals from tourism abuse weakened as devolved nations fail to opt in

Asian elephant Moti, who passed away due to injuries from his use in animal tourism
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An Asian elephant called Moti recently lay collapsed on the ground in India for almost four weeks. He passed away on 18 February, despite efforts by the nonprofit Wildlife SOS – and the army – to save him. Tourism effectively killed Moti, with the 35-year-old’s legs ultimately giving out. In other words, Moti was ridden – without the necessary veterinary care – to death.

Currently, a bill is making its way through parliament in the UK. It could eliminate advertising that entices tourists to engage in elephant-riding and other unethical tourism. The bill promises to outlaw the promotion and sale of all overseas activities that “involve low standards of welfare for animals”.

But the bill is already being eroded. Both the Scottish and Welsh governments have confirmed to the Canary that they do not intend to seek inclusion in its scope.

Crackdown on unethical animal tourism

MPs debated the Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill for the first time on 3 February. Parliamentarians voted the bill through at that reading. This means it’s progressing to the committee stage, where it will face examination and possible changes.

The bill appears to extend to England and the North of Ireland as it stands. The devolved governments of Scotland and Wales can choose to consent to the bill – i.e., be included in it – through a Legislative Consent Motion.

The Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill is one of a handful of Private Members’ bills that MPs have put forward in recent months. These bills aim to salvage some provisions contained in the now-shelved Animals Abroad Bill.

Read on...

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The broader Animals Abroad Bill would have comprehensively impacted the UK’s involvement in non-human animal-related issues overseas. It included provisions, for instance, to ban imports of fur and foie gras. However, senior Conservatives like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Spencer reportedly blocked it.

Devolved governments opt out

In comments to the Canary, the Scottish government confirmed that it does not intend to take the necessary action to ensure the Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill extends to the country. Wales doesn’t plan to do so either.

The Scottish government indicated that the shelving of the Animals Abroad Bill played a part in its reasoning for not supporting the Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill. A spokesperson told the Canary that although the devolved government “supports the intention” behind the latter bill:

we believe this issue should have been addressed in the now fallen Animals Abroad Bill. This opportunity has now been sadly lost.

Moreover, the spokesperson said:

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 animal welfare revolution

In 2021, the UK government released an “action plan for animal welfare”. It said the plan would “revolutionise” the treatment of non-human animals in the UK and protect others abroad. However, it appears that the ruling Conservative Party wasn’t particularly united behind the revolution. Due to this, a number of the plans were put on pause by early 2022. Many of them still hang in the balance.

The Scottish government spokesperson raised delays in the progress of other promised legislation in their comments. They said:

We remain open to all discussions relating to animal welfare, including the Kept Animals Bill which has itself suffered significant delay. Legislative proposals on these important issues deserve proper process and consideration and we hope that the UK Government will provide clarity in the near future.

The Kept Animals Bill would end people having non-human primates as pets and ban the live export of farmed animals, among other measures.

Meanwhile, a Welsh government spokesperson confirmed that it doesn’t intend to be included in the Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Bill either. They said:

We want all animals to have a good life and we are delivering this through our programme of ambitious animal welfare reforms set out in our Animal Welfare Plan. After careful consideration we have decided to prioritise the welfare of animals in Wales and therefore we won’t be included in the scope of this Bill.

‘Surprising and disappointing’

The Scottish government insisted that it opposes all animal cruelty and added:

We are committed to ensuring the highest possible animal welfare standards are met both here in Scotland and abroad.

Save the Asian Elephant’s (STAE) founder Duncan McNair echoed this characterisation in comments to the Canary. STAE is an organisation that campaigns for measures that will eliminate the abuse of elephants in tourism. McNair described both Scotland and Wales as having “good animal welfare record[s]”. For McNair, however, these records are what make their decisions on the bill all the more “surprising and disappointing”. He suggested that with the devolved governments having “no points of principle at all” against the bill, the situation boils down to “retaliatory politics” between the various governments.

McNair also stressed that the plan to ban unethical tourism has “massive public support”, including in the devolved nations.

Little unity in the Kingdom

McNair warned that unless the situation is turned around, elephants and other species abused for tourism will be the ultimate victims.

Moti’s preventable death illustrates the impact of unethical tourism. Moreover, the injuries that tourism elephants can sustain from working in the industry make up only part of their suffering. Abuse is part and parcel of existence for many individuals. Their training for tourism, for example, can involve being beaten, crushed, and starved, among other abuses.

The UK needs a strong law against unethical tourism to ensure its holidaymakers aren’t complicit in such abuse. However, there is little certainly currently that the UK can unite behind the necessary robust legislation.

Featured image via Wildlife SOS / YouTube

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