Wildlife Tourism Without Wildlife Harm. Is It Possible?

Orang utan animal conservation

Wildlife tourism is coming under increasing scrutiny in recent years, and rightly so, but 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? The truth isn’t as black and white as some people are starting to think. If you want to see or interact with wildlife on your travels, follow these 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.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with wanting to see or get relatively close to wildlife on your travels, in my experience the vast majority of travellers who want to do this are actually animal lovers and just want that special experience of seeing wildlife up close. That is why so many travellers are drawn to wildlife tourism opportunities.

There isn’t anything wrong with wildlife tourism either, when it is done right of course. Wildlife tourism can be a huge benefit to animals and conservation efforts alike.

Unfortunately not all of these opportunities are responsible or ethical, and in some cases they are even unjustly cruel and abusive. There are still far too many instances of operators who do not care about the animals or their conservation and simply want to exploit them for profit. In contrast there are so many good operators out there who care for the wildlife they rely on and contribute to their welfare and conservation, who follow best practices for the wildlife tourism industry and have a huge positive impact. And then of course in the middle of those two extremes there are varying degrees of operators who want to do the right thing or can be financially pursuaded to do the right thing, but for a myriad of reasons may not be getting everything quite right. It is in this middle ground where tourism and education can have the biggest impact. The big problem is being able to tell the difference.

Be Aware Of Your Actions And Choices.

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.

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.

The key of course is to do your research. Understand the numerous issues around wildlife tourism and conservation as much as you can, ask questions and support the operators who areproviding, or at least working hard on changing to postive and ethical wildlife tourism experiences. Your choices have consequences. Good and bad.

How You Can Ensure Your Actions Are Positive.

Ask Questions.

You aren’t going to get it right all of the time, no one can. There is so much greenwashing in the wildlife tourism industry – some of it extremely slick and professional – that it is almost impossible to see through it 100% of the time. This is why it is so important to ask questions of any wildlife operator or facility you want to visit. Ask if the animals are allowed the five freedoms under the animal welfare act (the freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom to exhibit natural behaviours, freedom from pain and the freedom from fear and distress). Ask where the animals come from, ask where the money you are giving actually goes, if any of it goes back to care or conservation efforts, ask if they are part of any international breeding or conservation programmes or if they have any educational programmes with local communities. This is not an exhaustive list but you can see what type of considerations you should be looking at when reviewing an animal attraction.

Support The Good And Avoid The Bad.

Now this one seems so self explanatory it is hardly worth going into, but there is a specific reason for it that you may not be aware of. If you support those operators who are responsible, act ethically and with the animals needs and welfare in mind, then your money is going into making those actions profitable for them. You are providing an economic incentive for wildlife tourism operators to continue to be as responsible and ethical as they can be, and by extension you are removing any economic incentive from those who simply want to exploit animals for money. You are showing them that it is in their own best interests to be as responsible and ethical as they can be, and that is a very powerful motivator.

Remember ‘Free’ Isn’t Always Best.

There is often a disconnect of logic in those who argue that all animals should be free and seen only ‘in their natural habitat’, a phrase I absolutely hate. To my mind any animal that is truly free shouldn’t be disturbed by humankind at all, and any attempt to view truly wild animals ‘in their natural habitat’ means that idiot tourists with their superior morals are instead blindly crashing through that animals natural habitat, causing significant disturbances to animals, scaring them away from their natural roaming grounds, disrupting their feeding and nesting sites, or acclimatising truly wild animals to the presence of people. Yet these travellers are under the impression they are doing the right thing. 

And it is all well and good saying all animals should be free, but what about those animals who can never return to the wild, who can never survive in the wild or are so endangered they need to be protected? I’m all for having protected environments where truly wild animals can be left in peace, but there is also room for animals who can’t return to the wild fully to be viewed at a distance, and there is room for animals who have been bred in captivity to be viewed in a controlled environment. That is at the end of the day what pays for the conservation efforts to provide those truly wild spaces and keep wildlife populations alive to enjoy them.

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 Get Too Close.

Jeep Safari at the Elephant Gathering at Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka Irresponsible Tourism

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 Photo’s 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 Ride The Elephants.

Elephant trekking, elephant riding, irresponsible tourism

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. There are many elephant centres that are now stopping or at least phasing out riding, and they may still offer some alternatives which allow you to get up close and personal with rescued elephants such as limited bathing times or walk along treks, but also balance that out with increased natural time for the elephants away from tourists and other benefits too.

Sometimes things may not be perfect, but if a facility is working hard to change and phase negative aspects of the tourism industry out, then they deserve support too. 

Visit a true conservation or rehabilitation centre and 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.

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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