Jumping cats through hoops has thankfully been abandoned in one temple back in 2012, but at another set of beautiful 16th century pagodas, large troops of macaques fought over numerous packets of nuts eagerly handed out by locals selling them cheaply to tourists. Historically it seems, macaques and the Burmese people have lived peacefully side by side and in a way it is understandable as to why they would want to take advantage of this relationship to attract more tourists. Certainly our guide thought we would find it terribly exciting. However it was obvious from the state and behavior of the animals that feeding has resulted in obese and overly confident and aggressive monkeys, not only to each other, but also the tourists themselves. Although serious fighting and aggression could be mitigated for now as there are limited tourists, as visitor numbers increase it will only get worse, and will probably only cease when a tourist is attacked by the increasingly confident monkeys.
From Kalaw, a fantastically vibrant but small town used as a starting point for eager trekkers heading to Inle Lake, you can take the opportunity to visit a elephant sanctuary near by. It is another excursion we were encouraged to see but with my concern over how these elephants were kept and why, we decided to give it a miss. This sanctuary is a retirement home for working elephants and from all accounts (online) it appears to treat the elephants with respect and care. Tourists numbers are limited each day and the elephants wander freely until rounded up to be taken to bath. Tourists are however given the opportunity to bath and occasionally ride the elephants back and here lies my concern. Although the elephants are treated well here, as tourist numbers grow and being such an obvious attraction, similar "sanctuaries" are bound to pop up. Often innocently visited by tourists because they love animals, few know the often real brutality that can goes on breaking in and managing elephants (meant for the tourist industry) so that they can be ridden or handled, a concerning issue documented in other South Eastern Asian countries. There is a strong chance that by hosting any kind of elephant/tourist interactions, it fuels the belief that elephants are yet another tourist commodity to be used and further more abused simply to make money.
Finally, like most tourists, to ensure we missed nothing, we meticulously picked through the guide books, choosing the most up-to-date one that we could find. Glancing through it I was pleased to see a section on ethical tourism, but looking closer realised all too quickly that it failed to address animal ethics and tourist activities, and positively delighted in describing certain animal practices with no reference to the potential negative impact it could have, or how tourists could support efforts to change this. There is no excuse in this day and age to not reference animal welfare concerns for tourists and as these books are often the go-to for dependable advice when visiting a new country, they have the edge on opportunities to inform visitors wisely.
Myanmar is at the start of its fledgling romance with tourism which will inevitably become a welcomed and dependable resource for this magnificent country. Although it's never possible to eliminate or even mitigate all tourist related animal welfare concerns, by learning from other countries experiences with a more advanced and dynamic tourist relationship, Myanmar has an opportunity it shouldn't ignore, for the sake of its treasured animals.