Wildlife tourism can do a lot of good, but it can do a lot of harm too. The good news is that tourism can ensure the good and stop the harm, and travelers can play an integral role in helping all animal tourism operators ensure animal care is at the forefront of everything the industry does.
Animal facilities are a popular part of the travel industry, from viewing them in wild or semi wild conditions, visiting captive animal facilities such a zoos or animal sanctuaries to riding or interacting with domesticated animals. That is just a simple fact and regardless of peoples opinions on it, that popularity will not wane.
And nor should it.
The simple fact is that wildlife tourism is a critical part of the conservation chain. Too many people say that all animals should be in the wild, and whilst I don’t disagree that it is a lovely ideal it is hardly realistic or practical. Who will pay for the vast swathes of land and habitats needed for that? Who will ensure that land is sustainable and profitable enough to ensure that other industries and interests don’t continue to destroy it? Who will pay for the conservation research and improvements in wildlife care? Who will look after the animals that frankly will never be able to survive in the wild?
Wildlife tourism is a good thing. Unfortunately animal care in the industry isn’t always as good as it should be.
Not always perfect.
It would be naive to think that all wildlife tourism is perfect. If it was there would be no need for Global Spirit and I to be working hard to change the industry and campaign for better animal care and welfare.
Let’s get one thing clear straight off the bat, I am a huge proponent of wildlife tourism but that does not mean I don’t understand that there are absolutely abusive practices and facilities in the industry. There can be no doubt about that and I cannot say this more categorically, every single one of these places should be avoided, shut down and their owners prosecuted to the full extent of the inadequate law. I have even on occasion called for the boycott of certain places, facilities like the Tiger Temple in Thailand and practices such as street side photo ops with cute little animals for example.
Doing good and getting better.
It is important to remember though that not all wildlife tourism operators are like this, in fact I would argue the majority are not. Not all of them are perfect of course but on a sliding bell curve the majority are either getting animal welfare right, mostly right with a little room for improvement or at the very least trying to get it right to the best of their ability, and this is what we as travellers have to support.
At one end of the spectrum you may have bad, unethical operators, and right at the other end you have the perfect, responsible tour operators who care for the animals and do a lot of work for conservation efforts, but in the middle of those two extremes are a vast sliding scale of businesses and operators who are trying their best but maybe not getting it 100% right.
I would argue with the exception of the extremes, most wildlife operators would fall into the positive end of that bell curve to differing degrees.
It is this middle ground where travellers have the biggest chance to make a huge difference. That grey area where wildlife tourism operators want to do their best and look after the animals but maybe they just need a little bit of guidance, an independent viewpoint on how to make changes for the better, or expert assistance with identifying problem areas and practical solutions.
This is where the rigorous audit process pioneered by our partner Global Spirit comes in. The service provides a complete review of current practices and detailed recommendation reports will provide the advice, information and practical steps needed for the effective application of industry standards in wildlife tourism.
Maybe they just need more support, maybe they need to see that travellers want to support good, ethical and responsible operators and will pay a lot more to see animals in a responsible way.
We can use our spending power as travellers to send a clear message that we will support those businesses and operators who are doing good, who are making improvements or trying to change.
When the message is sent – either through a lack of education, awareness or wilful ignorance – that tourists will still come and pay a lot of money to see animals through irresponsible practices or in an abusive environment, that has the exact opposite effect of what we want.
And when that economic incentive is removed even from those who are trying to change and improve, that incentive is removed and there is very little hope for the animals then.
How travellers can make a difference.
Do your research.
I can’t stress enough how important research is. No one is expecting you to be an expert in everything but if you want to visit any wildlife attraction on your travels at least have a basic understanding of what – and just as importantly what isn’t – considered acceptable practice. If you see something that isn’t quite right or you don’t understand then go away and do some reading up on it, try to understand why things are the way they are. Use the tools, advice and information from websites such the World Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s code of ethics to research the types of issues you may come across in the countries you are visiting.
Come and spend your money.
There are a lot of wildlife tour operators out there who may not be getting everything 100% right when it comes to animal care, but are taking a lot of steps to try and get to that point. Unfortunately not everyone has the resources to do so and this is where tourism comes in.
Animal care and animal welfare costs money, and where tourism operators are trying to make improvements and care for animals, tourism can provide the source of income that pays for that care. Those profits can be used to pay for land, upkeep, food, veterinary care and other conservation efforts.
Global Spirit and I see a lot of businesses who want to improve, who want to do better and want to care for the animals they rely on, but they need your money to do so. We can help them with practical advice and assistance, we can show their improvements and their responsible actions off to the world, but it is up to you to come and support those businesses to do better.
Crusading is no longer enough, it is time to support real change and help those who are trying to improve standards of animal care and welfare.
Support the industry.
Income from tourism has a much wider impact than just paying for immediate care or staff or facility upgrades. By supporting an industry that puts the care and welfare for the animals first and has conservation at the heart of what they do, you are helping to create a paradigm that proves responsible, ethical and sustainable tourism is both profitable and a preferable and viable alternative to other industries that would destroy habitats and hurt wildlife. You are showing the industry that caring for the animals and their habitats is in their best interests too, that by ensuring they are as responsible as possible they are ensuring the long term success of their business too. You are helping to create that link between local communities, animals and their habitats and showing that caring for animals and their habitats is in everyone’s best interests.
The simple fact is there is a lot of evidence that shows that when they have a personal stake in things, locals are the best protectors of wildlife, and the wildlife industry is the perfect conduit for that.
Support local businesses.
Alongside this paradigm of creating an industry that is in partnership with wildlife and their habitats is the importance of supporting local businesses and local communities who are to a large degree already doing that.
There are a great many smaller wildlife operators around the world who employ locals from towns or villages that surround protected land or private reserves, locals who are already passionate and knowledgeable about the animals and the land around them. There are often educational programmes run by these businesses that teach children about the importance of wildlife conservation. They often employ people as wardens or guides who would otherwise turn to poaching as a way to survive or use revenue to support local farmers to care for and protect wildlife as an alternative to seeing them as predators or pests that were a threat to their business and killing them.
There is an interconnectivity between local communities, wildlife tourism and conservation issues that should be fostered.
Don’t boycott, at least not all of the time.
Don’t get me wrong sometimes avoiding an irresponsible business with abusive practices is absolutely the right thing to do, sometimes calling for an outright boycott is absolutely the right thing to do, but just stop and think before you take that extreme action. Ask yourself is this a business that is exploiting and abusing animals purely for profit or is it a business that is on the whole trying to be responsible but not quite getting it 100% right? What are the motives of those in charge? Are they genuinely trying to help the animals but are for whatever reason not quite succeeding or are they in it just for themselves? Ask yourself if this is a business that could do a lot of good and still allow wildlife tourism to flourish if they just made a few changes? If that is the case then simply walking away and calling for everyone to do the same won’t help them, and it won’t help the animals.
Ask the right questions.
If you see something that you think may not be quite right in any wildlife tourism practice, then don’t be afraid of asking the tough questions to the right people. Ask to see those in charge, ask why they do things in a particular way. If occasions arise where you need to leave and no longer want to support them for whatever reason then make sure they know exactly why as well. As much as it is important to positively reinforce responsible and ethical tourism with your money, when you feel like you need to walk away then it is equally as important to let those operators know exactly why they won’t be getting your business.
There can be no doubt that when poorly managed, or done for the wrong reasons, tourism can have a negative impact on animals and the environment, but when done right the impact travellers can have on animal care and welfare in the industry can not only be positive, but absolutely staggering.
Wildlife tourism is a critical part of the conservation chain, and by encouraging and supporting businesses who want to improve and take care of animals and wildlife, travellers can be a huge part of a real, positive change.
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