A terrible experience in the desert: a recap of our desert safari and some thoughts on animal-based tourism

Anyone who knows us will know that we love animals, and would never dream of doing anything to exploit them.

In the past, we've written extensively about the mistreatment of elephants in the tourism industry worldwide, and the cruel conditions in which civet coffee is made, and our never ending love for stray animals is a frequent cause for things taking much longer than they should (sorry it took me 45 minutes to buy a bus ticket, I had to stop to pat all the dogs). We do screeds of research before embarking on any kind of animal-based tourism, usually preferring to avoid it altogether unless it is in some way linked to a reputable conservation or animal welfare charity.

So it may surprise you to learn that until a few weeks ago, Zev and I were planning to do a camel safari out of Jaisalmer during our time in Rajasthan. It wasn't until Zev found this article on Wanderers and Warriors that we considered that this might not be the best idea.

We thought, I suppose, that a camel was rather like a horse - and people ride horses in cruelty-free ways all the time. That's not to say that everyone rides horses in cruelty free ways (I'm looking at you steeplechase), but generally speaking, a horse trek is not something that would be considered exploitative. 

Having considered the information available to us (which was fairly limited - there are very few articles or blog posts about the treatment of the camels in these safaris), we decided that we would take a hard pass on the camel riding, but still wanted to spend a night under the stars in the desert.

The treatment of camels in camel safaris

Camels are huge, and can certainly hold the weight of a human and some gear. They're not walking vast distances each day (largely because tourists find camel riding so uncomfortable, so much more than an hour at a time is undesirable). So what's the problem?

  • Accommodation for camels

You might think that wild camels live in the desert, so they don't need much in the way of accommodation. But when wild camels wander the desert, they are free to seek out shade and water as they see fit. Safari camels are confined in one way or another (more on that later) while they're not trekking, so they're not able to move around in the ways they would like. Similarly, when they're not in the desert (ie when they're back at the trekking base in nearby towns), they may not have much at all in the way of shelter. As we drove out to our trekking base, we passed dozens of camels tied up on the side of the road, often eating rubbish off the street. It was grim to say the least.

  • Branding

Most of the camels we saw were branded in some way. Some people don't think this is a particularly cruel thing to do, but I know I wouldn't want it done to me, so...

  • Nose pegs

In order to control the camels, most owners tether a rope to a peg put through the camel's nose. This allows them to pull the camel down to a kneeling position to get people on and off, attach all the camels together in a train so that none of them bolt, and in some cases, tie them up at night so that they don't run away. This is one of the two main things I was completely naive about that changed my mind about camel safaris. I thought they just used a bridle like a horse.

Many safari operators argue that the nose pegs are about safety - they cannot guarantee the safety of a tourist on a camel without the use of nose pegs to control them. On the other hand, as Australian Camels point out (although the article as a whole presents both sides of the nose peg argument), a happy camel is a safe camel. A hungry, thirsty camel is a dangerous camel. The whole article is really fascinating, and they offer their best solution for guiding a camel safari - a trained guide on an experienced camel with a nose peg up front, followed by the other camels attached with neck ropes. The guide at the front is then responsible for the safety and welfare of their own camel, and is able to guide it without force being used on the nose peg. Honestly, give the article a read. I never thought I could find an article about camel training interesting, but it is.

  • Leg hobbles or tethers

At night, some camels are allowed to 'free range'. This allows them some degree of freedom to wander and graze (which incidentally means the owners don't have to feed them). But of course you don't want your camels wandering off during the night. To combat this, the camels’ legs are often tied together with short lengths of rope so that they can't make a break for it. In terms of what we saw firsthand, this was one of the more distressing things we witnessed. One of the camels ridden by others in our group came over the dune as we were waiting for dinner, and watching it struggle down the side, unable to take proper steps, before stumbling away was genuinely heartbreaking. The next morning, as the camels were being saddled up, we noticed the bald skin around their ankles where the ropes had rubbed their fur off.

  • Saddles

Again, I am a naive idiot. When I picture a camel, I picture a two humped Bactrian camel. I assumed you'd just shove some cushions between the humps and off you go! This species is actually mainly found in Central Asia. The camels here are Dromedary, or Arabian camels. They have a single hump, and as such, require a saddle to be ridden easily. I have no research-backed basis for this assumption, but they look uncomfortable as hell for the camels. The straps and buckles are bound to rub and pinch if not applied correctly. 

  • Overwork

These camels are so, SO often overworked. Camels are expensive, so the idea of having a rotating herd to allow camels rest days would be unthinkable to many. Some owners will have the camels taking multiple trips each day - sometimes a day safari of a couple of hours, before returning to take overnight customers out to their camp, and returning them in the morning, only to repeat the same process again day after day.

A fully grown adult camel should carry a maximum load of 150kgs. Often, camels are carrying two adults, plus bedding, food, water and luggage.

Another commonly used piece of a equipment is a camel cart, usually laden with whole families and lots of gear, which is then pulled through the sand by the camels.

  • Access to water

Camels store water in their humps! Actually, they don't. Camels' humps are in fact where they store their fatty tissue. They concentrate their fat storage on their back to assist with the regulation of its body temperature in the desert, where temperatures can soar during the day, and plummet at night.

Despite this, camels should still have access to water at regular intervals. In the same way that humans can survive without food for periods of time, it doesn't mean that they should have to.

  • Age

Camels are not fully mature until they reach 6-8 years old. Despite this, many operators use juvenile camels, which can stunt their growth and cause permanent physiological damage.

  • The use of whips/straps

Self explanatory. If the camel doesn't cooperate, beat the shit out of it. I don't need to tell you why that's cruel.

  • Lack of access to veterinary care

There are a myriad of health concerns that can crop up with working animals, and camels are no different. From cuts and grazes that can become infected, to issues with their teeth or hooves, camels require extensive ongoing care to ensure that they are healthy and happy, and able to continue working safely. Of course anyone who has owned a pet knows that veterinary care is expensive, and not all camels receive the care required to ensure their health is adequately maintained. 

Even after finding out all of this information, we still really wanted to do a camel safari. The idea of riding through the desert on a camel at sunset to spend a night under the stars is a pretty romantic one, and we weren't ready to give up on it quite yet. But despite hours of combined research, we were unable to find any camel safari that gave us any reassurance that the camels were well treated. We were incredibly disappointed while reviewing various companies online that almost no reviews from tourists even mentioned the state of the camels. With no good information to go on, we decided that we wouldn't do a camel safari.

As I said, we still wanted to spend a night in the desert. Again, we did lots of research. We looked at some pretty cool desert camps, but they mostly had permanent accommodations (ie luxury tents or cottages), so we wouldn't have the opportunity to sleep outside. We looked at jeep safaris, but these were day trips - again, no desert camping. In the end, we spoke to our accommodation. They organise camel safaris, but when we said that we didn't want to ride camels, they said that they could arrange for us to ride out to the dunes in a jeep!

I was wary. Our hotel is fantastic, and the staff are wonderful, so that made me feel more secure. But the fact that we weren't able to research the company and check reviews made me anxious. However the price was low - 1000rs ($20NZD)pp, so worst case scenario, it wasn't like we were losing out on a whole lot of money.

Heading out

We reported to the lobby at 3pm as instructed. We learned that there would be 4 other hotel guests joining us on the tour - two couples from Korea. We hung out in the lobby waiting for our ride to arrive. He finally turned up at about 3.45pm - the first of many long waits we'd be enduring over the next 24 hours.

We headed out to the jeep, and the six of us piled into a jeep built for five. Zev managed to score the front seat by virtue of being the tallest, while the rest of us climbed in the back, knees crammed against each other, bags shoved on laps, and with most of my upper body hanging out the back of the jeep. By all accounts, the front seat wasn't much more comfortable, as Zev ended up nursing all the gear that wouldn't fit in the back.

The drive out was really interesting, and the view of Jaisalmer Fort as we drove out of the city was stunning. There was wildlife everywhere (camels, cows and goats roamed the countryside, in this case, desert, and occasionally blocked the roads). We also drove past the second largest wind farm in India.

We drove 50kms out of the city, which took us a little under an hour. Not long before we arrived at the place where the rest of the group would be collecting their camels, we had our first disconcerting experience. Our driver weaved his way through a group of cows on the road, while liberally using his horn to try to get them to move out of our way, which they did (albeit slowly). As we passed one, the driver leaned out the window and slapped one of the cows on the ass. That sounds pretty harmless right? Cows are huge, and although it was startled, it was unlikely to have hurt it. But it was so unnecessary, it just seemed a random act of being a complete prick. It heckled me, but I didn't read too much into it.

Waiting, waiting, waiting

About 5 minutes later, we arrived at the staging post of the camel riding portion of the trip. Although we weren't riding, we all unloaded and were ushered into what looked like somebody's backyard. We sat down on blankets on the rock hard ground, and waited. Shortly, we were served chai, and not long after, the other couples were told that their camels were ready, and they left to saddle up and start their ride. While they were organising themselves, the driver reappeared, and chased a goat around the background while gesturing as if he was going to hit it. Again, not to my taste. Leave it alone you dickhead. But it was eating the roof of one of the buildings, so... Again, it rubbed me the wrong way, but I tried not to read too much into it.

Not long after, he wandered over and said, 'Medicine'. We asked what he meant, and he pointed to what looked like an infected cyst on his ear. Thoroughly grossed out, we told him we didn't have any. This guy was an all around charmer for sure...

Heading out to the desert

Once the others saddled up and left, we were told that we would be leaving in our jeep in about 30 minutes. So we sat on the ground and waited. And waited. And waited. An hour later, we headed out to the jeep and piled in, grateful for the extra space now that there were only two of us.

We drove along the road for a couple of kilometers, then hit the off road portion of the trip, which lasted for a whopping 5 or so minutes. Our driver parked, and we got out. Then we spent another 10 minutes waiting for him to finish faffing around in the car. Then, he asked Zev to take some photos of him with his jeep... Finally, we set off into the dunes.

The Thar Desert

Jaisalmer is situated 50kms from the border of the Thar Desert, also known as the Great Indian Desert. It covers 200,000km2 (77,000 square miles), and forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan. The Thar Desert is the most densely populated desert in the world. In fact, about 40% of the population of Rajasthan lives in the Thar Desert. 

While the word 'desert' may bring to mind images of desolate landscapes and towering sand dunes, the Thar Desert contains a lot of scrub vegetation. In fact, we remarked that it reminded us quite a lot of some of the beach landscapes we get in Northland in New Zealand. 

Arriving into camp

We climbed over the low dunes, walking into the sunset and laying our eyes on the desert for the first time. The romance of the scene was certainly killed by our driver, who (as we are rapidly becoming used to in India) chose to use the walking time to catch up with everyone in his phone book. On speaker. So peaceful.

It was now just after 6.30pm. We'd been ready to leave our hotel since 3pm, as we were instructed, and now, 3.5 hours later, all we'd done is drive to the sand dunes. I was starting to feel simultaneously disappointed that we weren't having a better experience, frustrated that this guy was clearly a con artist who was in this for a quick buck, and annoyed with myself for not trusting my instincts to not book through a company that I hadn't been able to research myself.

A short walk later, we arrived at our camp. The rest of our group was already there, taking photographs on the dunes, and we could see their camels in the distance, grazing in the scrub. There was a small shelter set up, and behind it, we could see some of the guys that we'd met earlier cooking dinner.

As we walked into camp, our driver picked up a rock and threw it at a dog that was lying in camp. He missed (I'm unsure whether that was intentional, but knowing what I know now, I doubt it). I turned and threw him a dirty look, but he'd already started walking off. This was where my high alert started. This guy was a grade A shitbag, and I was worried I might have to kill him before the night was out.

Settling in to camp

Since we'd stuffed around at the staging post for so long, by the time we got to camp, we'd pretty much missed the sunset. We set up our beds (which were wire frames), and wandered around for a bit of a look.

At the top of a dune nearby, I made friends with an absolutely stunning dog, who had blood on her fur and looked completely exhausted. We noticed two puppies nearby (presumably the source of her exhaustion), and sat to give her pats while the puppies hid.

We stood on top of the dunes looking out at the camels, noticing that their feet were tied together so that they couldn't run away. At least they weren't tied up, and were 'free' to wander and eat scrub to their hearts' content.

More waiting

As it started getting darker, we headed back down to our beds and sat on the frames. And waited. And waited. During this time, we met another super cute and friendly dog (the one who'd had a rock hurled at him earlier), with a tail wag so uncontrollable that he could hardly walk when he was excited. It looked like we'd found the father of the puppies. One thing that immediately became clear was that the two adult dogs were pretty friendly with the tourists (particularly the male one), but they were plainly terrified of the men working there. Even if you were patting one, as soon as one of the men (including two young boys who would have about 12 and 15) made a move anywhere near them, their tails and ears and drop, and they'd slink away as fast as they could.

While we waited, some boys rode up on another camel to deliver something. The camel looked pretty well cared for, but the attitude of all of the men at the camp to the camel was disheartening. I watched the boys pull painfully on its nose peg to get it to kneel, and they yelled at it constantly. It was really distressing, and I could feel my already pretty high stress levels rising.

One of the riding camels wandered over the dune at around the same time, and as I mentioned earlier, it was heartbreaking to see it struggling to walk with its legs tied together. It was at least given some hay-type food I suppose. By this stage I felt so shitty about the whole experience, I realised that this was going to be something I would just have to endure. I only had to get through one night, then I could get out of there, and put the whole experience out of my mind.

At about 8pm, we were served dinner. This was definitely the high point of the trip. We had a couple of great vegetarian curries and roti, and we ate gratefully, if silently.

Shitbag strikes again

And so, as the dinner dishes were being cleared, the whole unpleasant situation came to a head. One of the men had dropped some food scraps on the sand while cleaning up, and the male dog had come over to eat them. The driver grabbed a big stick, and threw it really hard at the dog from a few feet away. The dog yelped, and took off into the dunes. 

I was filled with rage. I screamed at him, telling him to stop, and that if he touched another animal, I'd fucking kill him. One of the other men came over and apologised and said, 'He doesn't understand, he's just a car driver'. I told him that I'd be more than willing to teach him what it's like to be hit with a stick if he's interested in a lesson. The driver wandered off, and the whole incident was like water off a duck's back.

I meanwhile was distraught. I was in tears (because that's my coping mechanism, and let me tell you it's really helpful). I felt completely powerless. There's no one we can call to help the dogs, and we can't do anything to help them ourselves. I wanted to leave, but the person who would be taking us back would be the same fucking driver who abuses animals to feel good about himself... It was the first time I've ever really felt homesick while travelling. Sure, I've missed friends at times, or wished I could pop round to see my family for a cup of tea, but I've never had that longing for home before. Although I'm also willing to acknowledge that in that exact moment, it was very much a desire to be ANYWHERE BUT WHERE I WAS.

As things settled down, the guy who seemed to own the camels came over to talk to us. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and we chatted for a while. To my delight, while we talked, the other two couples unwrapped the chicken from their meals and began feeding the dogs. That made my heart a little bit happier. The driver walked towards the female dog again and you could see her absolutely freak out - she curled up into a tiny ball and started shaking. He picked her up (I started yelling again, reminding the camel owner that I would kill the driver if he hurt the dog), but he only picked her up to move her closer to the food. That made me even angrier - now that this asshole had figured out all the tourists liked the dogs, he was going to pretend that he'd been their friends the whole time. In the end, all of the dogs (both adults, and even the puppies) managed to get a decent snack of chicken, and the female got some water in a bowl from the Korean couples, so we ended the night with happier dogs.

Despite that, I spent the rest of the night on edge. I barely slept, feeling like I couldn't relax without knowing exactly where the driver was and what he was doing. I woke the next morning exhausted, having slept really fitfully, and was very anxious to leave.

Finally leaving the desert

Again, we sat around waiting. We waited about 30 minutes for breakfast (which was boiled eggs and fruit), then we waited about another half an hour while everything got packed up and cleaned. I spent the whole time closely watching what was going on, making sure that nothing bad was happening to any of the animals.

As we sat there, we watched the men saddle up the first two camels. Again, there seemed to be a lot of unnecessary nose ring pulling, and far more yelling at animals than I think is necessary, but overall the camels seemed pretty cooperative and we didn't see anything that was any worse than the night before.

The driver came over while the camels were being organised and asked if we were ready to go. We jumped into action, more than ready to get the hell out of there.

As we walked through the sand dunes back to the jeep, the driver made a couple of half hearted attempts to strike up a conversation, but the stony looks that he got in return obviously worked, because he stopped talking.

We got in the jeep and headed back to the staging post (after 10 minutes of sitting in the jeep going nowhere while the driver 'dusted' it), and found ourselves again in the backyard, sitting on the hard ground, waiting.

And waiting. And waiting. About 45 minutes later, the rest of the group arrived, dismounted their camels, and we climbed back into the jeep, so SO grateful to be leaving the whole desert experience behind us.

Our return to the hotel

Of course, as soon as we returned we were asked how the safari was, but with all the hubub of 6 of us getting our bags and checking back in, our lack of enthusiasm was missed. I really didn't feel up to talking about it (I know, it sounds dramatic, but even writing about it is making me upset all over again), so Zev went down a couple of hours later to organise some stuff, and filled them in on our experience.

Apparently the hotel staff were upset that we hadn't enjoyed ourselves, and thanked us for giving them feedback. As far as we can tell, the hotel itself doesn't own the safari company, they just work with them, so they're not really responsible for the behaviour of the company. However, as long as they continue to promote them, knowing what's going on, they are responsible. I'm not sure if anything will be done. I'd love to think so, but I'm just not that optimistic. I keep singling out the driver - he was the only one we saw overtly being cruel. But I could tell from the reaction of all of the animals around all of the men at the camp that he clearly wasn't the only perpetrator. 

So what can we do?

Inherently, animal based tourism isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are many cases where, if not for tourism, there would be no impetus for animals to be protected in any way. We've visited many animal attractions during our travels, some good and some bad:

  • Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who were doing their best to rehabilitate rescue animals and educate locals with very little money
  • Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where rescued elephants are rehabilitated from horrific injuries from logging and riding camps
  • Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, Malaysia, where injured orangutans are rehabilitated in a semi-wild setting within a huge protected reserve
  • The Sun Bear Sanctuary attached to the Orangutan Centre in Sepilok, Malaysia, where bears who had been saved from bile farms, and hotels were homed
  • The Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in Sepilok, Malaysia, where palm oil plantation owners had shaved off the tiniest sliver of land to keep as the natural habitat for proboscis monkeys following huge pressure from animal welfare organisations - which they charged tourists ridiculous rates to visit to see monkeys being fed bread (so not one of our top animal experiences for sure)
  • Elephant Freedom Project near Kandy, Sri Lanka, where rescued elephants were supposedly rehabilitated, although I saw nothing that convinced me that it was anything more than a non-riding tourist trap, where the elephants were just as exploited as in any other tourist attraction (in fact, I didn't even write about it for the blog because you all know how we feel about elephant tourism, and we shouldn't even have gone)

Without wildlife rehabiliation centres to help rescue animals and more importantly, provide education, absolutely nothing will change. We think that it's important to support these organisations, which is why we continue to visit them (after as much research as possible to verify that they're not just using tourist-friendly buzz words to draw the money in, while not actually providing any real care for their animals).

So what are some steps you can take to make sure the activity you're about to take part in isn't exploitative or cruel?

  1. Do your research
    The first step really is getting hold of all the information that you can. We generally start by looking at websites like TripAdvisor, then looking through the reviews to find people who seem like they might have similar worldviews to us. You need to be discerning here, because there will always be people who don't care that animals are being mistreated, and will write a glowing review. We tend to look at the 3-star reviews - what specifics do these folks mention about the treatment of the animals, and do they seem reasonable? Look at the 5-star reviews too - do they mention outstanding animal welfare? Don't just look at the rating - read the comments. Many people will still give good ratings, while mentioning their concerns in their comments.
  2. Don't support any organisation that displays or serves captive animals
    This may seem obvious, but don't go to restaurants that have monkeys either on display, or on the menu. Use your dollars to make a difference. You may see places like this heaving with tourists and think that you're not making any difference, but as awareness increases and spreads, it will have an impact.
  3. Don't support the use of animals for photographic props
    If you're able to take a selfie with a wild animal on the street, it's likely to have been taken from its family at a young age, and beaten when it misbehaves. If the animal becomes too large or difficult to control, it will probably be killed. No photo opportunity is worth that.
  4. Avoid any kind of humanised behaviour, or animal performance shows
    If an animal is behaving in an unnatural way, the training involved is unlikely to have been kind to the animal.
  5. Consider your own welfare
    These are wild animals, and their behaviour can be unpredictable. Are you putting yourself in a situation where you could be seriously injured, or even killed?
  6. Once you're at an attraction, keep researching
    They may already have your money, but you have the ability to review the attraction and get word out if they're not living up to their end of the bargain. Do the animals have food, water, and shelter? Are they allowed to rest or get away from people whenever they would like? Can I see any animals in pain, distress, or suffering? Are there any 'unnatural' behaviours being encouraged for entertainment? Does anything not feel right, or not add up?

In terms of horses, donkeys/mules and camels, the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA) have created a Holiday Hooves Guide to help you select ethical hoof-based experiences! This amazing charity works largely in Africa and the Middle East, and take a three-pronged approach to animal welfare: treat (providing free treatment for working animals), train (providing training to local vets and animal owners) and teach (providing education in schools to promote positive beliefs, respect and compassion towards animals).

What does this mean for us?

We like to think we're pretty careful and conscious consumers while we travel, both generally, and in terms of animal welfare. With that in mind, I think we've both agreed that regardless of any glowing reviews or seeming legitimacy of animal based attractions, we'll be giving them a miss in developing countries from now on. As much as we have had success in the past, and want to support people who are working to protect vulnerable wildlife, until we can guarantee that we're not contributing to exploitation, we'll be giving it a miss. Instead, we'll support these agencies via donations to the larger NGOs and charities who work with them. 

Lots of love,
S & Z