Wildlife encounters with exotic animals like the big five in Africa, mountain gorillas in Rwanda, polar bears in Manitoba, or swimming with whale sharks or dolphins are most likely on everybody’s bucket list.
And with good reason. Seeing and getting close to wild animals in their natural habitat is one of the most rewarding and inspiring memories any traveller can make.
Most importantly, wildlife tourism also funds local communities as well as nature conservation and anti-poaching initiatives. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, wildlife tourism directly contributed $120.1bn to the global economy in 2018.
There is a huge flipside to wildlife tourism, however. There are many, in fact way too many documented incidents where animals are abused and kept in conditions that are anything but near their natural environments.
According to the Coalition for Ethical Wildlife Tourism, today there are more than half a million wild animals around the world held captive and abused for tourist activities.
Though the awareness about unethical wildlife attractions is growing, many tourists often don’t realize they visit places and take part in activities that are unethical.
In fact, it is not always easy to differentiate between a place that offers ethical wildlife encounters and one that does not. Clearly none of the places that abuse animals will openly admit to this. In most cases, they will hide behind the claim to help animals, shelter them, reintroduce them into the wild and so on.
Often these claims are nothing more than marketing. For example, calling a place an animal sanctuary does not mean animals will not be abused. That’s because there is no regulation on what a sanctuary is supposed to be or what is required for a facility to use this label. This means, a place that calls itself sanctuary could potentially be a place which applies unethical practices such as separating baby animals from their mothers to allow visitors to touch and pose with them.
That said, it is absolutely possible to have awesome wildlife experiences around the world without bringing distress to animals.
To make sure your wildlife encounters are ethical, it is important to chose the place you visit and the activities you take part in very carefully.
If done in the right way, wildlife encounters are awesome opportunities not only to see wild animals in their natural environment. They also lead to a much better understanding of these environments and their fragility and to give something back.
What is ethical wildlife tourism
Ethical wildlife tourism refers to animal encounters that allow you to observe animals in their natural environment without causing any harm or distress to the animal. Ideally, it should also give back to the place you visit to support continued investment in nature conservation and animal welfare.
There are internationally recognized standards laying out the minimum requirements a facility must follow to be considered ethical. These standards refer to the Five Freedoms: freedom from hunger, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, freedom from injury or disease, freedom to express normal behaviour and being free of fear and distress.
How to understand if a destination offers ethical wildlife encounters
With a bit of research before you book that dream vacation providing you with epic wildlife encounters, it is absolutely possible to avoid ending up at places that still carry out unethical animal encounters.
Here are the most important things to look out when planning your trip to understand if a place is ethical or not.
- The best way to observe animals is in the wild where they will be free to follow their natural behaviours. Thus make sure to go only to those places that do not offer direct contact with wild animals like for example but not limited to petting, feeding or riding. You can be sure, if you are given the opportunity to touch or feed an animal, the encounter is not ethical.
- If a place allows visitors to take part in animal interactions like bathing elephants (which might seem an innocent activity but it is not natural and often elephants are forced to be bathed by several visitor groups over a single day leading to stress), taking selfies with big cats (which means they have been sedated beforehand) or swimming with captive dolphins you can be sure it is not ethical.
- Do not attend shows where animals are performing. This is not a natural behaviour and means the animals have been trained which always involves techniques that are distressful to the animal.
- Large crowds and unusual noise can cause huge distress to animals. Therefore, carefully check how many visitors are allowed to observe the animals at any time. The larger a group, the higher the stress level for the animal. Places that conduct ethical wildlife encounters will limit the number of visitors to keep any disturbance to the animals limited.
- Check what activities a place is undertaking to support nature conservation, anti-poaching projects or research and education programmes to protect and give back to local communities and the environment. If they do not take part in any such activity and just want to make a profit from wildlife tourism, they are likely not ethical.
In addition to following the rules on animal encounters, you should also never buy any souvenirs made from animals like shells, tusks, teeth or skin. This too still leads to wild animals being hunted and killed for these parts.
If you want to feel confident you are booking an wildlife experience that is ethical and does not lead to any distress or abuse to animals, you can turn to organizations and tour operators that partner with well established and officially recognized nature conservation and animal activist associations.
For example, the World Protection Organization has put together a list of more than 200 travel operators which have committed to only sell elephant encounters that comply with the regulations based on the Five Freedoms.
Have you taken part in any ethical wildlife activities? Where have you been and what have you done? Let me know.