The Horrible Truth About Animal Sanctuaries.

Orang utan animal conservation

Animal and wildlife sanctuaries are a huge part of the gap year industry now, with countless travellers, backpackers and tourists alike all hoping to get up close and personal with some of their favourite wild animal. But not all of these sanctuaries are what they seem and many often do far more harm than good. Read on and learn the real truth behind many of these so called sanctuaries. 

If you have ever dreamed of or planned a gap year or round the world adventure, you can’t have failed to miss the mass marketing campaigns of the wildlife tourism industry. Look at any glossy brochure, website or even some travel blogs and you will be bombarded with images of wild animals, majestic creatures photographed in natural surroundings with grinning tourists looking on in awe.

This is an extensive travel industry trope, a campaign designed with the sole reason to sell tours and make money, one that seeps into every part of the gap year marketing plan, one that shamelessly taps into the love and fascination people have for wild animals, and that very human desire to be up close and personal with something they are in awe of.

They are selling the dream of a once in a lifetime chance to get up close and personal with a wild animal, to volunteer with and help save an elephant or a lion, to stroke a tiger, to cuddle a giant panda.

Why you shouldn't ride elephants in Thailand

Even personal social media feeds are clogged up with pictures of grinning idiots cuddling a cute baby sloth on a busy tourist street, posing with a docile tiger or riding an elephant, completely oblivious to the harm they are doing to both the animal and conservation efforts in general.

The Wildlife Tourism Industry At Its Worst.

Even many of those travellers who have a vague notion of the issues surrounding animal welfare in the tourism industry and express a desire to want to help the animals involved have been sucked into this greenwashed marketing campaign. Even if they don’t know it.

Because not every sanctuary is what it seems. Not every opportunity to help or rescue animals is there to actually help or rescue them.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of genuine and amazing sanctuaries out there that do so much good for wildlife conservation efforts and animal care, and tourism does play an important part in keeping those facilities well funded and the issues in the public conciousness. There is good out there, there really is. Unfortunately all too often the good is overshadowed by the bad.

There are many sanctuaries that say all the right things, have all the glossy brochures and on the surface seem to be legitimate animal welfare organisations that are there to genuinely help the animals, who use tourism as a way to do good and support the rescue, care and conservation of wild animals.

In truth, they are nothing more than cynical profit making machines that abuse and exploit animals right under tourists noses.

By supporting facilities that claim to be sanctuaries or refuges for wild animals, travellers have engaged in the exact same behaviour as before, behaviour that puts the needs of the tourist before the welfare of the animals involved, and abuse, neglect and irresponsible behaviour is overlooked and ignored in the narcissistic quest to get that perfect selfie with an awesome wild animal.

These travellers have fallen for the lies of a vast profit making industry that uses, abuses and exploits animals for profit, and simply use the term ‘sanctuary’ as a panacea to assure everyone that they are really responsible and are actually looking after the animals, when the reality couldn’t be further from that.

False Sanctuaries Need To Be Stopped.

By misappropriating and abusing the term’sanctuary’, many of these industry providers are misleading the general public into thinking they are responsible and ethical, and they know they will get away with this blatant act of greenwashing because they know the vast majority of people will not look beyond the facade of ethical tourism to get to the truth.

Many tourists won’t look any deeper than that greenwashed surface because they don’t want to. As long as they get their little selfie and that warm fuzzy feeling that they have done some good, even if they haven’t, then they won’t look any further.

True wildlife sanctuaries put the needs of the animals far before the needs of any tourist or profit. True sanctuaries are facilities where animals – who have often been previously abused or neglected – are brought in to be taken care of in a protected geographic territory and as natural a setting as possible. These are facilities where animals are rehabilitated into the wild if possible, or taken care of and assisted in a hands off way in a natural setting if not, and where tourism is allowed, it is managed and used to ensure as minimal an impact as possible and only in staged areas where an tourism presence will not cause any undue harm.

There are many true sanctuaries out there that genuinely do care for the animals in their charge, and these genuine organisations need to be supported.

Unfortunately, there are just so many attractions and facilities that do not have the animals best interests at heart, and are only interested in profiteering off the tourism industry by exploiting animals and care little for the abuse they cause.

Some of them don’t even use the term ‘sanctuary’, but still exploit and abuse animals for profit. The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, is one of the most high profile examples lately of this type of mercenary and unethical type of tourism.

Tiger Temple Abuse Thailand.

Although it never called itself an actual sanctuary by name, it claimed to support, care for and save the tigers in its care in a blatant attempt to emulate the responsible reputation the moniker brings with it, and profited greatly from naive tourists who paid a lot of money to pose next to what was in reality a beaten, abused and docile tiger.

Campaigners fought against this despicable attraction for years, and even presented a decades worth of evidence of abuse and criminal activity that was blatantly ignored, and in some cases passionately rebuked by patrons who were more interested in their own selfish desires and ‘bucket list’ selfies, and naive volunteers who knew what was happening but thought they could change things. It is only since it has been shut down and raided that the true extent of the abuse at the Tiger Temple has been discovered and its supporters have gone strangely silent.

This isn’t the only example though, and it is far from the only facility that claims to be a responsible and ethical wildlife sanctuary when it is not. The entire elephant trekking industry is rife with the greenwashed terminology, with every other camp claiming to be a sanctuary of sorts yet still offer the type of elephant riding activity or entertainment show that is now beginning to be widely reviled and recognised as abusive and exploitative.

Turtle sanctuaries in Indonesia and Greece, jaguar or sloth conservation sanctuaries in South America, there are countless examples to use and these so called responsible sanctuaries are widespread. Wherever there is a big ticket animal or cute, endangered wildlife and giddy, gullible tourists ready for a once in a lifetime selfie, there will be people ready to take advantage.

These false sanctuaries need to be stopped, they need to be shut down, and the only way that will happen is if travellers and tourists stopped financially supporting them.

Boycott The False, Harmful Sanctuaries.

Not every sanctuary out there is a false one. There are genuine wildlife sanctuaries out there that do care for the animals welfare and work hard toward the conservation efforts of both the species and their habitats. There are even many examples of tourism having a positive effect supporting these genuine sanctuaries.

The problem is that all the great work these genuine sanctuaries are doing is being lost in the destructive profiteering of the fake ones.

The trick is to know how to tell the difference between the genuine sanctuaries and the bad ones.

Orangutan animal conservation Borneo

Greenwashing, False Legitimacy And The Problem Of Tripadvisor.

This isn’t always easy, as there is quite often layer after layer of very clever greenwashing applied to false sanctuaries that make them seem absolutely legitimate to the general public, a general public who often take things on face value and assume that whatever is stated in an official brochure or advertising must be true. If an attraction says all the money is going toward the animals care and conservation, then it must be, right? Then of course there is the problem of tacit support from national tourism boards and the tourism industry who promote these attractions and give a false sense of legitimacy to them.

Tripadvisor is one such industry booking agency that has come under strong criticism for supporting facilities that abuse and exploit wildlife. They have of course tried to squirm out of the accusations by claiming that they don’t endorse the listings, they just promote them for their booking agents and that the reviews are from individual tourists. This is such a nonsense cop out and they know it. By promoting places such as the Tiger Temple and many other unethical wildlife tourism operators, they are adding a legitimacy to it. They are declaring in tacit terms that the attraction must be okay because it is being advertised legitimately and has a ton of reviews. Never mind those reviews are from general tourists who often have no idea about the issues involved, the vast majority have no idea about the cruelty or abuse involved in many attractions and those that do know think it is okay to put their experiences above any thoughts of conservation or animal welfare.

Tripadvisor know they cannot get away with this lie for too long, when they received a powerful backlash against supporting and advertising unethical places like the Tiger Temple, they of course immediately vowed to do something about it, only to return to their normal M.O when the controversy died down.

Of course as I said Tripadvisor is far from the only one doing this, they are just one of the highest profile names. There are countless industry providers who are more than happy to use greenwashing to promote wildlife attractions and make money from selling tours and experiences without doing the due diligence of ensuring these attractions are responsible and ethical.

This is dangerous, as it adds a false legitimacy to these unethical attractions and means that the majority of visitors have no reason to look beyond the facade of faux conservationism and greenwashing.

How Do You Tell A Genuine Sanctuary From A Fake One?

  • Genuine sanctuaries put the needs of the wildlife first, and the needs of tourists a very distant second.
  • They will be a part of – or work alongside – international conservation organisations such as the Global Federation Of Animal Sanctuaries or the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and will be open and transparent about the work they do.
  • Genuinely responsible sanctuaries will be able to show evidence and proof of their involvement with international conservation organisations and charities, and all claims will be easily verifiable through those organisations too.
  • Not all genuine sanctuaries will have a specific rehabilitation programme where they release animals back into the wild, because not all animals are able to be released into the wild again, but many of those who don’t will work with sanctuaries that do, and will at the very least provide quality of care and a quality of life for those animals that will need some assistance in as natural setting as possible.
  • For those animals that cannot be released into the wild again, then the five freedoms principle will be applied to their care. Freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain and distress and freedom to express normal behaviour.
  • Genuine sanctuaries will often provide a lot of information or educational opportunities about what they do, the projects they support and the organisations that support them, and general wildlife and conservation issues for the species they look after.
  • A hands off approach is used wherever possible as best practice, this means when tourists do get to see the wildlife there are no rides, no posed selfies, no unnatural contact at all, and certainly no wildlife performances.
  • As much distance as possible should remain between the tourists and the animals, especially if they are in a ‘semi wild’ staging area where they are allowed to roam free in a large area and are provided with food or assistance as needed.
  • Responsible sanctuaries will encourage tourists to view animals from a distance in as natural a setting as possible, and will strongly discourage any type of intrusion.
  • Look at the types of animals they hold at the facility. Are they endangered? Can the ‘sanctuary’ guarantee (and prove) that the animals are there legally and haven’t been wild caught?

There is definitely a lot to look into and think about, but with a bit of research and forethought you should be able to tell a lot about the wildlife attractions you come across on your travels, and you should be able to tell if the ‘sanctuary’ you want to go and give your hard earned money to and support genuinely has the animals best interests at heart or not.

All it takes is a little bit of thought, research and asking the right questions. That way we can all support genuine wildlife sanctuaries on our travels, and hopefully boycott the fake sanctuaries until they change their ways or get pushed out of existence altogether.

Travellers really can make a huge difference.

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.

Thailand’s Cruel Tiger Temple Finally Shut Down.

Why Zoos Are An Important Part Of Responsible Wildlife Tourism.

Wildlife Tourism.


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
20 comments on “The Horrible Truth About Animal Sanctuaries.
  1. Such an important message! I wish more travellers would read this before they start travelling!

  2. Caroline Swift. says:

    How horriffic I had absolutely no idea about greenwashing!

  3. Natalie says:

    Yes, yes and yes!!! This article should be spread everywhere for everyone to read! It is such an important issue yet so many people still don’t know all the facts about it. Love this!

  4. Natalie says:

    I forgot to say I’m sharing this on all my social media and hope others do the same!

  5. Rob Green says:

    Amazing, I have definitely been seeing this more and more in Thailand where they say they are all responsible and then you see the same old practices or get a bad feeling that everything isnt on the up and up. More people should read articles like this!

  6. Michelle Banks says:

    I just wanted to say great job on such a thought provoking article and also for getting this message out there. It really is time tourists stopped destroying the things they want to see.

  7. Louisa says:

    I loved reading this, you are doing such a great job of raising some important issues! I think there are so man sanctuaries out there it is so hard to know not only which are good ones and which are bad, but also which are the real ones and which ones are just using the name santuary when really they are only there for profit and just exploit the animals.

  8. Sanna says:

    Well written and you have raised the awareness really well. I recently visited a sea turtle sanctuary in Sri Lanka and it was heartbreaking to see how they handle sea turtles

  9. I was duped by one of the deceptive fake ‘sanctuaries’, Elephant’s World, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. I was a volunteer there and on day one I had a gut feeling that wasn’t good about the place. They made us lie to the tourists that the bullhook wasn’t sharp and only used as a ‘guiding’ tool. The elephants were chained at a feeding platform for 2 hours in the morning, then the elephants had a schedule of events where tourists broke up into groups and did bathing and feeding activities where the elephants had to show up for the tourists to interact with them. They were chained all night, up to 12 hours. Instead of building enclosures for the animals to roam freely, the owner built a spa (not for the elephants) and larger viewing platform. Many of the elephants had wounds from the bullhook, treated with the purple antiseptic. There were cattle on the property – which put the elephants at risk because of the disease risk. There was no positive reinforcement training and the mahouts were paid very poorly. The owner claimed to be raising money to buy the land but never produced any records of accountability on the funds. Thanks for this . . . it’s the deceitful places that especially anger me.

    • Me too Patty, me too. Fortunately it is a lot easier to raise awareness and spread the truth now that it used to be. And don’t blame yourself for being duped, we all have at some point.

  10. Roman says:

    So important to raise awareness about this. It’s all too easy to support somewhere which isn’t completely ethical.

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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