Wildlife Tourism Without Wildlife Harm. Is It Possible?

Wildlife Tourism without wildlife harm

Is all wildlife tourism bad? Does any attraction involving any animal always harm the animals involved? Or can some wildlife tourism be a positive force for good in the conservation chain? If you want to see or interact with wildlife on your travels, follow these five simple steps for responsible wildlife tourism. 

Wildlife tourism is big business in the gap year industry now, with travel organisations and providers all over the world taking advantage of the fact that many travellers and tourists love animals and want their chance of a ‘once in a lifetime’ close up experience with them.

Unfortunately not all of these opportunities are responsible or ethical, and in many cases they are even are cruel and abusive. There are ways however to see or interact with wildlife on your travels without contributing to their harm or abuse.

The big problem with wanting to see or interact with animals on your gap year is that many travellers are simply unaware of the fact that by engaging in certain activities where wildlife are involved they are often causing more harm than good and their precious ‘experiences’ are contributing to wildlife abuse in a variety of ways.

Even many of those who think they are doing good by avoiding zoos and only seeing animals ‘in their natural habitat’, a phrase I absolutely hate, are obvlivious to the fact that hordes of tourists crashing through that habitat can cause significant disturbances to animals too. Wildlife viewing in this way can scare away animals, disrupt their feeding and nesting sites, or acclimate them to the presence of people. Yet these travellers are under the impression they are doing the right thing.

That isn’t to say all wildlife tourism is bad, far from it, there are ways for you to see and interact with wildlife on your travels in an ethical way that doesn’t harm the animals or their habitat.

It is up to you to make the right choices and ensure that your trip is as responsible, ethical and safe for wildlife as it is fun and awesome for you.

Don’t attend performance shows.


There are an unbelievable array of shows and performances around the world in some zoos, circuses and even some so called sanctuaries or rescue centers, where animals are made to perform daily for the amusement and pleasure of the crowds of tourists who pay big money to see them. This can range from elephants balancing on each other and painting, to captive dolphin shows and many others.

The issues involving these performances are varied, but many of these shows involve animals being kept in poor habitats that are totally unsuitable for their needs, have training methods that are cruel and abusive, and have – despite some arguments to the contrary – have absolutely zero value toward research or conservation efforts.

There is absolutely no excuse to put any animal through the abusive and degrading treatment that impacts their mental and physical health just so people can see an elephant balance on its front legs or watch a tiger jump through a flaming hoop. If tourists and travellers were more aware of the conditions that many animals are forced to endure, they wouldn’t attend.

Don’t go on safaris or treks that get too close to the animals.

Orangutan rehab centre

Safaris or treks to see wildlife ‘in their natural habitat’ (again, phrase I truly cannot stand) are among the biggest and most popular travel industry mainstays, and thousands of travellers sign up for them every single year. The problem is because they are so popular, and so profitable, this has led to a lot of disreputable companies who will cut corners and base safaris around pleasing tourists in an effort to make a quick buck, rather than acting professionally and ethically.

There is a lot of research that shows the negative impact of close human contact on a truly wild animal, so tours where the guides allow large groups of tourists to get too close to the animals and disturb them and their environment, or even worse where they actively chase them down so the tourists can get that all important photo, can cause untold harm to both the animals and their habitats.

There are good and professional operators out there who will run ethical and responsible tours. The keys to look out for are things like small groups, set routes a fair distance away from any habitats that they will not deviate from just to get a bit closer, trained and knowledgeable guides and an insistence on a certain level of conduct from the group. So if you do want to go on a safari or wildlife trek just take the time to do your research, ask the right questions and ensure that the guide will put the wildlife’s needs before the tourists.

No photos please.

Unfortunately so many people head out on their travels with the idea of having a selfie with a cute baby panda or a picture taken of them sitting on top of a docile tiger, completely unaware of the harm they are doing by supporting the degradation, mistreatment and abuse of the animals involved and it can have a serious long term impact on conservation issues.

Many of these animals that are offered up as ‘photo props’ have been taken from the wild, drugged, declawed and defanged and kept in cramped, horrible conditions. These animals are wheeled out and forced to work day after day as streams of tourists come and have a nice selfie taken with the, regardless of the negative effect it has on the animals involved.

If you get the chance to participate in an animal selfie on your travels, please just don’t do it. Is that facebook profile pic really worth it? There are better, ethical ways to see and photograph animals in the wild. You may not be in them for that all important profile shot, but what is more important? Your ego or the animals welfare?

Don’t go an an elephant trek. 

Don't ride elephants in Thailand

Elephant trekking is one of the most popular bucket list activities among travellers, and is a huge money spinner in the gap year industry. Fortunately, many operators are beginning to pull any tour or advertisement that promotes the activity, but there are still many tour groups and organisations out there that offer it as an activity. The truth is, elephant trekking harms the elephants and supports an industry that abuses and exploits these majestic animals.

Many people don’t know that to be able to be ridden or perform for tourists, elephants have to go through rigorous and abusive training. This training is known as the Phajaan in Thailand, or more colloquially as ‘the crush’, because of the way it crushes the elephants spirit and forces them to be more pliable and submissive. The elephants are forcibly taken away from their mothers when still very young – an act in and of itself that is obviously extremely distressing – and then they are held in confined cages or pits which allows for no movement, they are tortured and beaten constantly for an extended period with bull hooks, bamboo stick and even cattle prods. They are starved, sleep deprived and mentally and physically tortured and abused.

Any elephant you see performing a show or carrying huge tourist filled saddles on its back has gone through this process. Just think about that the next time you think about going on an elephant trek.

Not to mention the fact that elephants – despite their size – were never meant to carry huge loads on their backs, and day after day the constant heavy loads of tourists are causing untold and irreversible damage to their spines.

I can understand why people want to get up close and personal with these majestic and beautiful animals but there are much more ethical ways of doing so. Visit a true conservation or rehabilitation centre that advocates minimal contact and no riding. Contribute to the elephants care, not their abuse.

Think about the impact your actions have. 

All it takes is a little research, a little knowledge and a little forethought and a lot of animal and wildlife abuse can be stopped. I understand that there are very few international guidelines for wildlife tourism, but some are starting to emerge, and it is my hope that these will come together in the future to form a cohesive whole, but with the sheer amount of information that is out there now not knowing is really no excuse.

Many of the above examples and many more besides are done unwittingly or unknowingly by tourists who are simply ignorant of the facts and the issues involved.

Not all animal abuse is overt and obvious, sometimes it can be right under your nose without you even realizing it. We’ve all been there, we’ve all said ‘I wish I had known’ after the fact. So next time just do some reading and be aware of the issues involved if the activities you sign up for involve animals in any way. Do a little research and just ask yourself what harm is this causing the animals involved.

If everyone did that, the amount of animal abuse in the travel industry would drop dramatically.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Related Articldes

A Photo For Facebook? You’ve Just ‘Liked’ Animal Abuse.

How To Volunteer With Wildlife On Your Gap Year.

TBEX Dolphin Tours Cancelled In Cancun.

The Elephant In The Room: Why You Shouldn’t Go On An Elephant Trek In Thailand.

Wildlife Tourism On Your Gap Year, The RIGHT Way.

Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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Posted in Responsible Travel
9 comments on “Wildlife Tourism Without Wildlife Harm. Is It Possible?
  1. Duke Stewart says:


    I applaud you for treading on such dangerous ground and for going after these less than desirable travel activities. I’ve unfortunately witness a dolphin show and happened upon a seal show while living here in Korea. I came out of the latter with a bad feeling but didn’t seem to notice any problems with the dolphins, though your points ring true now that I think back.

    I’ve come to realize that we shouldn’t be putting animals through these sorts of things. I spent some time on Koh Chang (Elephant Island) and avoided Elephant Treks, even the ones billed as “safe.” I’ve since quit visiting zoos because of the horrible scenes that I’ve witnessed at some and have even begun to question our own zoos in the U.S.

    Do you think this is mostly an Asian/Middle Eastern problem or is mistreatment happening throughout the world? I know there were big problems with Sea World in San Diego but I wonder about other prominent zoos like in DC or elsewhere.

    Thanks for writing about this, Michael. I think this needs to be exposed so travelers can visit places more responsibly.

    Take Care.

    • Thank you Duke, I really appreciate it. I completely agree with you and have modified a lot of my own behavior since I started travelling and I beame more aware of the issues involved. I have to say though there are SOME zoos which do great work for conservation and species protection, and can be an important link in the chain when done right. Unfortunately there are just still too many bad ones too. And no I wouldn’t say it is just a Middle Eastern or Asian problem at all, wildlife exploitation and abuse happens all over the world, even in ELDC first world nations such as the US. Read my posts about TBEX promoting captive dolphin activities in Cancun for just one example (do a quick search above and you’ll find the articles).

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      • Duke Stewart says:

        I did have a look over that one in the past. It’s good that the bloggers spoke out about it. Too bad that these event organizers think that’s not a big deal. 😦
        Thanks for responding to me, Michael. Hope to stay in touch!

  2. The Globe Wanderers says:

    What a fantastic post – thank you for writing this. Far too many travellers (myself included at times in the past) get caught up in the moment and think only about the experience and not about the effect it may have on the animals involved. It’s not right.

    Since I opened my eyes a few years back, I’ve made a conscious decision to ensure that – above all else – I travel responsibly and ethically.

    I hope that this post inspires more people to think of the animals ahead of themselves… and just do the research before they sign on the dotted line. Fab post.

    • You’re so right, so man travellers place their own experience first and just don’t think. I’ve been there myself. That’s why – like you – I always try and make conscious decisions to do my research and make informed choices. Thanks so much for the comment. 🙂

  3. Jo Hendrickx says:

    It is extremely refreshing to see an article like this which deals with the issues in such a way that gives travellers the means to make an informed decision and hopefully therefore, minimise the demand for these types of interactions. It would be very interesting to connect as our organisation is currently working with the travel industry to support the implementation of ABTA’s Global Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism and I believe the more of us working together to raise awareness, the more positive impact we can make.

  4. Billy says:

    I totally agree with this, there are just too many places where animals are still exploited out of greed. It needs to stop There are so many ways now where tourists can see these amazing animals but in a good, sustainable way. There is no excuse for bad practices.

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