Wildlife tourism is big business in the gap year industry now, and when you set off on your gap year it is highly likely that you will come across a number of animals that are used some way in the tourist industry, whether that be the more traditional zoos or aquariums, touts selling pictures with small animals in crowded tourist spots, animal rides or treks or even the increasingly common animal sanctuaries, rehabilitation centres and the subsequent volunteering opportunities.
Many wildlife attractions, sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres are getting it right, and support the care and wellbeing of the animals. Unfortunately the truth is that the wildlife tourist industry – and the tourists that use it – sometimes do a lot more harm than good not only to the animals themselves but also to their habitats and wider conservation efforts.
That is why it is essential that backpackers and tourists alike are educated on the issues around wildlife tourism and make the right choices to support organisations that make animal welfare and conservation, and not profit, their primary concern.
Avoiding Bad Practices.
There are so many ways that wildlife tourism can do a lot of harm to the animals involved, and by utilising the services that use bad practices or do not conform to international standards on the treatment of animals, tourists can actually support these practices by giving them their money. Here is just a brief overview of some of the things to watch out for.
Experimenting with new foods and delving into local cuisines is on of the undeniable pleasures of round the world travel, and the vast majority of the time this is absolutely fine. However there are times when you will come across certain things on the menu that may look unique and tantalising, but have a darker story behind them than most menus. Various exotic meats and dishes such as shark fin or birds nest soup for example are often supplied by the illegal wildlife trade and help to undermine conservation efforts, and that is nothing compared to the brutality of how some of these dishes ingredients are obtained.
Want a picture posing with a docile tiger or cuddling a baby monkey? Want a selfie with a sloth? You may just be contributing to the abuse of the animals involved. There are issues with vendors offering pictures with animals in heavily touristed areas, as well as travellers themselves expecting the opportunity in certain rehabilitation centres or sanctuaries where the animals should be getting less human interaction, not more. There are obviously some incidences where getting a photograph with an animal will be absolutely fine, but it is essential that the general public is educated on the issues involved so that they can make informed and ethical choices.
Tours and Safaris.
Tours and Safaris can be an excellent way to view animals in their natural habitat, one of the primary bucket list items on many backpackers wish lists, and many do a fantastic job of helping conservation efforts (because they are vital to business) and caring about the welfare of the animals they are showing to tourists. However, there are also a great many who do not, with tours and safaris that are run extremely badly. These tours – and the tourists supporting them – can cause significant disruption and damage to the habitats, not to mention the harm and abuse toward the animals themselves as they are chased and hounded by jeeps, speedboats or other vehicles filled with camera toting tourists as soon as one of them is spotted. This can cause serious harm to the animals by damaging their environment, driving them away from feeding or mating grounds and causing untold psychological damage. Research is essential to find out just how much any given tour company or safari cares about conservation and animal welfare before you utilise their services.
Zoos, Aquariums and Marine Parks.
Zoos, aquariums and marine parks are amongst the most common tourist attractions in the world, and many do a fantastic job at maintaining excellent animal welfare standards that conform to international standards, contributing to conservation efforts and internationally monitored breeding programmes and providing education to the general public.
However there are also many zoos, aquariums and marine parks that in no way conform to international standards, thanks in part to a lack of uniformity in the way different countries regulate and run them. In many zoos and animal attractions around the world it is not uncommon to see small and inappropriate cages or enclosures, substandard conditions, ill treatment, poor care and even cruel training practices in order to get the animals to perform.
It is obviously essential that travellers vote with their feet and don’t support the latter options. Only support and visit zoos and animal attractions with demonstrable efforts towrad suitable and correct animal care and conservation.
Animal rides have been a part of the backpacker trail for as long as it has been around, and are recently becoming a staple part of the gap year industry as elephant treks and horse or camel treks become more commonplace. Animals may be forced to carry unsuitable loads, work in inhumane conditions and are physically abused to make them compliant with their workloads. It is essential that travellers do not support any operator that does not put the care and welfare of the animals first.
What to do.
- If you plan on visiting any animal attraction or doing any activity that involves animals, it is essential that you do as much research as you can beforehand. If you research before you leave, then use the tools, advice and information from websites such as the WSPA or the WWF to research the types of issues you may come across in the countries you are visiting, any potential things to look out for and avoid.
- If you visit a zoo or aquarium, make sure it adheres to the World Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s code of ethics.
- If you do witness any type of animal cruelty or bad practice, then make note of everything you see, report it to the authorities or local animal welfare association if appropriate and certainly do not support it with your business.
If backpackers, independent travellers and tourists alike all choose to shun any business or attraction that contributes to the poor care or abuse of animals, and instead choose to support those attractions which help, protect and conserve animals, then we can all make a real difference.