Cultural Immersion – Local Cuisine & Global Shame

I was extremely dismayed this morning to read an article which highlighted the sad story of  elephants poaching in Thailand. This may not seem big news, poaching for ivory is nothing new but the difference this time; they are being slaughtered for the dinner table.

Cultural immersion; Elephants in Thailand being kept for labour  on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Elephant in chains. Image artusrj 123RF Stock photography

” Some believe that eating these organs can enhance sexual prowess”

Elephants are already on the endangered list and it is feared that continued poaching will result in their eventual extinction. The sexual organs and trunks are the most prized body parts, the rest discarded. Some believe that eating these organs can enhance sexual prowess.

The reports mentioned that some of the meat was on the menus of restaurants in Phuket. This claim was refuted, and there is not any evidence proving that foreign visitors are consuming the meat.

Many consider cultural immersion a huge part of travelling  to a foreign destination and experimenting with some of the local cuisine is a large part of the experience.

Several years ago whilst visiting Iceland I met two other travellers in Akureyri, we discussed getting something to eat. They however seemed fixated on finding somewhere serving puffin having already tried whale meat and auk. This did not really sit well with me and I made my excuses and went looking for Chinese noodles instead.

This maybe hypercritical of me as I am certainly not a vegetarian, but do refrain from eating certain meat products such as veal due to the way it is produced.

It is hard to accept the suffering involved in the whaling industry, and the effects on the populations of these magnificent creatures. However, I do accept that they are a traditional food source for several cultures.

Cultural immersion; A whale being processed on a whaling ship  on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

A whaling factory ship Image courtesy of Greenpeace

Whales along with a number of endangered species are on the menus of several countries and many species were almost hunted to the brink of extinction. These incredible creatures captured World’s imagination. and a global campaign to ban whaling proved successful.

World populations of whale species subsequently recovered,  but‘scientific’ whaling has been accepted for some time. This meat however usually ends up on the tables of restaurants and part of the travelling experience for many visitors to Iceland, Japan or Norway is trying whale meat.

I have always loved whales, and my personal feeling is one of sadness that whale hunting is becoming acceptable again, especially as there is not any humane method of doing so.

“the illegal and unsustainable killing of animals for food and for resale”

Bushmeat was originally a generic term used to describe the hunting of wild animals primarily in parts of Africa but also Asia and the Americas. Today it usually refers to the illegal and unsustainable killing of animals for food and for resale.

The bushmeat trade has serious repercussions on the populations of apes within Africa. They can offer a good return of investment for a poacher, an adult gorilla will provide a substantial amount of meat for a single round. Orphaned young apes can also be an additional revenue stream; selling them to the exotic pet trade.

Even though the meat is often more expensive than other meat options it is highly prized and many ape populations are becoming depleted.

Cultural immersion; Hunting primates in Africa part of the bushmeat trade  on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Poacher with his catch – Image “Save the Primates” Library

Visiting a destinations where it is possible to see a troop of gorillas is many travellers lifetime ambition. It is also probable a number of those same travellers have tried bushmeat and possibly even gorilla meat.

A popular item on the menu in Chinese restaurants is shark-fin soup it results in the killing of an estimated 38 million sharks annually. The fins are the only part of the shark used and the rest is usually tossed back into the ocean where the shark suffers a slow and unpleasant death.

Sharks don’t top of many people’s list of favourite animals but many species are now endangered. Wiping out sharks, an important link in the ocean food chain for a dish that requires chicken stock to be added, to actually give it flavour is plain crazy!

“a whole animal classification is in danger of disappearing”

Which also means I am crazy, as when younger, a little less well-informed and thinking it was cool I tried shark-fin soup. This a huge part of the problem that needs addressing if we are to protect our endangered species. Many are simply ignorant to the potential damage that consuming some local foods can cause.

Cultural immersion; Puffins usual prey sandeels are becoming hard to come by on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Puffin and sandeels Image Tom Curtis / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Many travellers, myself in ignorance included have tried frog’s legs. The United States now imports over twelve percent of the global trade in amphibians. Populations worldwide however are in crisis, many are crashing and amphibians, a whole animal classification is actually in danger of disappearing.

Eating puffins will upset some because they are cute sea birds but more importantly some populations are also under threat. This is not entirely due to them being classified as food in certain destinations; climate change has a part to play too. A puffin’s usual prey is sand eels but due to warming of the seas causing them to move from traditional grounds which has taken them out of the reach of some colonies.

The fact that they are found on the plates of a number of restaurants puts further pressure on these colonies.

Experiencing cultures is a major reason for travelling; cultural immersion is often stated as a primary aim. Experimenting with the local cuisine is an important part of this but it is likely contributing to the demise of many endangered and beloved creatures.

It is a simple rule of supply and demand, if there is not a market for the goods there is not any reason to supply it. Whilst the indigenous people will continue to eat ‘bushmeat’ in its various forms, tourists adding to this demand and being willing to pay high prices to do so compound the problem. This is not responsible tourism.

“Poaching will only stop when the either the demand or the supply runs out.”

Is experiencing the traditional cuisine of a destination worth its effect on the wildlife and ecosystems of our planet?  A world without elephants, whales, primates, amphibians and yes cute puffins would deprive travellers of a lot more than an exotic meal. A high price to pay for cultural immersion and the opportunity to smoast!

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Comments 29

  1. Dayna

    This post made me sad, though it needed to be said. It reminds me a bit of that documentary called ‘The Cove’ about dolphin poaching in Japan. After watching it I was livid, but the best we can do is continue to get the word out, especially about inhumane practices like whaling, and to make responsible choices as we travel. A dish may be traditional in a culture, but it’s up to us whether we eat it or not. I am, like you, not a vegetarian, but I do go to great lengths to understand where my food comes from and to support sustainable practices. No matter which way you look at it, it’s a difficult issue. Thoughtful post, much appreciated.

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      Iain

      Sorry it made you sad it does me too Dayna. I also remember seeing that video, it was very disturbing, shocking and also made me angry too. It is true that we make our own choices, I only hope more people in future begin to make the right choices. An industry is only sustainable as long as there is a market for it and providing there is a supply. If we are to save endangered animals we will need to make the decison before the supply runs out.

  2. Natasha @ Wandering Kiwi

    Great post, it’s so important to think about the wider impact of what we consume. I was served up Puffin on a press trip to Iceland, which made me VERY uncomfortable – it was described as a normal source of food … ended up with a good debate about the state of colonies in Iceland.

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      Iain

      Thank you, that would be a difficult choice Natasha on a press trip, though personally I do think they should have asked if there were any objections prior to attending. It is a normal food source for them but not for everybody.

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  3. Laurence

    I do like to try different foods when travelling, but not if it’s something that is being hunted to extinction to satisfy the tourism demand for a “local delicacy”. lt can be hard to figure out that kind of stuff, but one example I’ve never quite understood is the fascination for eating live snake hearts and drinking the blood over in Asian countries. The bolder move, in my opinion, would be not to bow to peer pressure, and opt out of things like that, where the main part seems to be demonstrating our immense capability for cruelty as a sport.

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      Iain

      I hear what you are saying the really difficult decision might come if refusing might really offend your hosts, I don’t think a press trip can be described as such but maybe an indigenous tribe or similar. It would be a really difficult choice to make, though I think if it was an endangered species I would have to and try to explain my reasons for doing so.

  4. kittenesque kitty

    I’m proudly vegetarian – this also saves me ever accidentally eating something that I would be horrified to learn later was an endangered animal
    , or something some would have as a ‘pet’ which – let us face it – can happen when travelling and dealing with menus in other languages – I am very very saddened by what I read and see above

    Karina

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      Iain

      Thank you Karina not a topic you have to consider, but what if a culture offered you an endangered species of plant to eat, there are some?

      1. kittenesque kitty

        Forgive the delay in my reply. Well hmm if I was offered an endangered plant that I knew was endangered I would politely decline with a sudden ‘allergy’ 😉 If eaten by accident unaware, well I can’t state this could never happen – However I like to be sure of what I am eating anyway, so suffice to say it has not happened yet. 🙂

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  5. Justin

    Great POST!

    We certainly have to be careful with our choices. I don’t put to many limits on myself, but when it comes to eating at the expense of destruction and simple cruelty, then I draw the line.

    Goes to show how important it is to be educated and properly informed. I’m sure everyday we unintentionally support some cruel or abusive pratcice due to our ignoranance. But once you KNOW it’s wrong, and you still do it – that’s a problem.

    Thanks Iain!

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      Iain

      Thanks Justin that is the bottom line I believe we must all be guided by our conscience and hopefully this will lead us to make the right choices.

  6. ericka

    its all cannibalism, pure and simple. to be any kind of carnivore is to make culturally determined choices
    which animal you will hunt/farm/torture/decimate. whether dog or dolphin, it’s consuming protein through death.
    travelling in places where fresh plant life is not available, i choose canned veggies and bread/rice. yes, and miss
    out on the local culture of live monkey brains or whatnot.

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  7. Elaine Masters

    Very important and sobering post. It takes a diligence and nerve to ask where your protein source comes from. Hard enough to do at home but harder often if sharing the table in a foreign land. I’ve seen the ‘Cove’ and am well acquainted with over-fishing problems in many areas of the world. I’ve also seen it from another perspective and ask for education. On the west coast of America, commercial fishermen, some of the most highly regulated in the world, have volunteered to regulate themselves and yet are subject to diminishing sales due to fears about radiation (from Japanese reactors across the ocean), the re-introduction of Sea Otters (who have decimated Sea Urchin fisheries, families and livelihoods while no longer endangered HERE), and misinformation from supposed standard bearers. Ask where your fish, your meat comes from. Favor locally harvested, sustainably and humanely raised fish and meat, and eat with awareness.

    There was some good news in Fiji where I was diving last year. Chinese interests were coming in to promote high returns for Shark and fins. Certain Fijians surely participate and I don’t judge their decision (another complicated picture to unveil person by person), but others have realized that their protecting their abundant, pristine waters have longer, positive results for the communities and the future. Once you dive with sharks, and I have several times, they can be seen as the intelligent, gorgeous creatures they are. Education is key again, don’t swim with a belt of speared fish and avoid Great Whites! Thank you.

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      Iain

      Thank you for your informative and well reasoned comments Elaine and for sharing the good news regarding the Fijian fishermen, it is heartening to hear of communities that are realising that their environments need protecting. It is especially good news if they have come to this conclusion largely of their own volition without too much outside persuasion. For tourism and conservation to truly work hand in hand and to become sustainable they need to be community led.

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      Iain

      I have to agree Bret supply and demand, buy sustainable alternatives and the ‘bushmeat’ trade will become pointless without the demand.

  8. Jennifer

    I have to tell you, I could barely stand to read this post. It makes me so upset. I know this is information that needs to be told, and understood, so thank you…But i need to go curl up in a ball now.

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      Iain

      Sorry for upsetting you Jennifer, but I think it is important to inform people and create some debate on travel related topics as well as merely tell everybody how great travel is. Subjects such as this need to be highlighted, if it makes one person take a little more care about what they eat whilst travelling then it was worth my time in writing and posting it.

  9. Abhishek Behl (Wild Navigator)

    Thanks Iain for this post and i remember tweeting about the Thailand elephant death a few days back. Its seriously a sad phenomenon to see such an act for human consumption – that is so bizarre. The biggest threat apart from habitat loss for asiatic elephants are that the species is becoming more tamed then they are in the wild – Ivory trade on the asiatic species is gone down from before but yes, as its only the male asiatic species that has tusks and makes it vulnerable nevertheless to poaching.

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      Iain

      Thank you for sharing your perspective my friend, I just wonder if the poaching of Asiatic elephants for their tusks is possibly due to the difficulty of finding them now? The supply is therefore drying up, this being its very unsustainability.

  10. Anji

    Its quite a shame how inhuamne we have become! Food has become such an entertainment and important part of our lives when really, its just supposed to keep us alive! We eat out of greed and not out of need. I wish people were more aware of this fact and rationally actually think about what they’re eating and not get carried away by their senses!

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      Iain

      I am glad you found it stimulating Leah it is a disturbing subject but sometimes difficult matters need to be discussed

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