Top 10 Ethical Wildlife Experiences For Your Gap Year Bucket List.

panda conservation on a gap year

Many people who dream of traveling the world have a bucket list, and wildlife experiences are quite often right at the very top. The big problem is ensuring that you aren’t contributing to the widespread abuse of animals in the tourism industry and that you are instead observing animals in an ethical and sustainable way to ensure that travel and tourism has a positive impact on wildlife. Here are the top 10 ethical wildlife activities you can safely add to your bucket list right now.

Like many travellers I absolutely love animals of all kinds, and over the years I have become a passionate advocate for sustainable and ethical wildlife tourism, because frankly I have seen the travel industry cause a lot of harm to wildlife and their habitats and I am certain that with the right knowledge, the right paradigms and the right questions, travellers can be guided onto the right path to make tourism and travel a positive force in wildlife conservation.

But it isn’t always easy to know what wildlife attractions are good and which ones aren’t. There is a lot of greenwashing throughout the industry and it can be more than confusing, even for travellers who are relatively knowledgeable, to always make the right choices. Here are 10 bucket list wildlife experiences that are ethical and sustainable and are as good for the wildlife as they are for the travellers.

Bear watching in Slovakia.

Michael Huxley Slovakia Bear Watching

There are over 700 wild bears in Slovakia concentrated most heavily in the Tatras mountains in the North Western stretch of the Carpathian mountain range, and it was here, in this rugged and beautifully wild stretch of national park, where I was able to take a bike ride into a remote part of the mountains in the hope of spotting a wild bear or two. The best part about this opportunity was the responsible ethics of the tour provider that took me, ensuring that the bears were not disturbed, they were viewed from a distance and there was no baiting or artificial means of ensuring the bears were seen. If they came out, we saw them, if they didn’t, we didn’t, and that meant the bears needs were put above the tourists, exactly the way it should be.

Dolphin and Seal spotting in Wales.

Responsible dolphin spotting on the Gower coast, Wales

Assembling at the picturesque Swansea Marina, the crew of the ‘Sea Serpent’, a ten foot long RIB, take travellers out on short wildlife spotting trips around the Gower’s stunning coastline for the chance to spot some of the more spectacular members of the British Isles wildlife. Animals are – when spotted – viewed strictly from a distance and never disturbed or chased, but if you are really lucky you may just get a pod of dolphins racing alongside the boat on a very clear day.

Orangutan spotting in Borneo.

Semmengoh Orang utan rehab centre borneo

Seeing orangutans in their natural habitat is a major bucket list item for many gap year travellers, and many head to Borneo and Indonesia specifically for a bit of wild orangutan spotting. If you want to view orangutans in the wild then it is essential to do so in a responsible and ethical way, and the Semenggoh orangutan rehabilitation centre near Kuching is set up to do just that.

Okavango boating safari in Botswana.

Between May and October every year, the Okavango delta floods, and a number of adventure companies take full advantage of this by offering boating trips down the flooded river in traditional Mokoro canoes. This gives the more intrepid traveller the chance to spot Hippoes and Elephants swimming in the river as you pass, not to mention a host of other animals coming to the water from the river bank. As always you will come across unscrupulous operators among the more responsible ones, and it is your responsibility to ask the right questions and make sure you go with a responsible operator, but if you do this is an excellent way to see some amazing animals in one of the most uniquely epic places in the world.

Volunteering with Elephants in Thailand.

Volunteering with elephants

Thailand is famous for it’s elephant experiences, and although there is still a legacy of abuse and unethical experiences here the country has improved leaps and bounds in the last decade with a whole range of elephant camps, parks and rehabilitation centres moving away from practices such as elephant riding and elephant shows, and instead opting to have walk along treks or other more responsible activities. It’s not perfect by a long shot but it is a huge improvement and it is really important to support those that are improving. One option is to volunteer at one of many centres in and around Chiang Mai that offer work helping to bathe and feed the elephants, clean up their surroundings and bagging up dung for nearby farms and helping educate day trip visitors, just make sure you do your research and find a genuine responsible centre.

Visiting a Bison Reserve in Romania.

The Dragos Voda Bison Reserve in Romania covers 11, 500 hectares across Neamt county and is one of only four protected areas in the Vanatori – Neamt natural park. It was set up with the obvious primary aim of protecting and conserving the European Bison, which had been facing habitat destruction and hunting to the point of being driven to the point of extinction in the wild back in the 1920’s. But thanks to the efforts of this reserve and a few others throughout Europe, the European Bison has the beginnings of becoming a true conservation success story and is solid proof that the international breeding programmes run by zoos and reserves like this are an essential part of the conservation process.

Elephant spotting on a River Safari in Sri Lanka.

Baby Elephant in Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka

Elephant tourism is huge in Sri Lanka and unfortunately there are a lot of safaris and ‘rehabilitation’ centres that are far from ethical or responsible. One noteable exception to that rule is Gal Oya National Park.

Gal Oya national park is an almost 26,000 hectare protected area of natural beauty set around the Senanayake Samudra reservoir, and with over 32 species of mammals living wild in the area, is considered one of Sri Lanka’s major eco tourism venues.

The guides for the river safari here followed best practice perfectly and went out of their way to ensure that groups were small, boats were quiet and didn’t disturb the animals and gave a full disclosure that there was absolutely no guarantee that we would see any animals at all. This is the exact type of mentality to have when viewing an animal in the wild. We go by their wants and needs, not ours, and if the wildlife chooses not to be seen, that’s up to them.

Wolf and Gelada Safari in Ethiopia.

Michael Huxley Monkeys in Simien National Park Ethiopia

Okay so when someone says safari you instantly start thinking of seeing lions, elephants and rhino’s in Kenya, but safari’s are about far more than just the big 5. Ethiopia may not be a traditional safari destination but you can go on safari there to see animals like the Gelada Baboon and the Ethiopian Wolf, animals that you can’t see anywhere else in the world.

Simien National Park is a truly spectacular destination in and of itself, and trekking through the stunning ranges at an an altitude of up to 4000 metres above sea level leads you through peaks and gullies that yield some of the best views in all of Africa. But if you hire a local guide from either Debark or Gondar, you can not only have a positive impact on the local economy but you can be sure you are hiring someone who knows about and cares for the local environment and will put an animals needs before yours.

So instead of going on a safari in a jeep in Kenya, hire a local guide for the Bale Mountains National Park and hike to see some amazing and unique wildlife up close and responsibly. Your safari stories will be instantly more unique than everyone heading on a traditional safari.

Saving Turtles in Malaysia.

Juara Turtle Project Tioman Island Malaysia

The Juara Turtle Project is located on Juara Beach on Tioman Island and is open to visitors who are interested in turtle conservation for a small donation fee. The conservation efforts work by protecting turtle eggs in a hatchery and patrolling Juara beach for poachers and predators. It is well worth visiting if you are there and there are limited volunteering opportunities for anyone who is interested.

Visiting Singapore Zoo. 

Gap year wildlife conservation white tiger

That’s right I said zoo. Many people assume that all zoos hold captive animals and are therefore bad and unethical, but that simply isn’t the case. Good zoos form a vital part of the conservation chain, and Singapore Zoo, along with the neighbouring River Safari, Night Safari and the new Rainforest park are among the best in the world! With world class open habitats and a wide range of conservation initiatives, research and wildlife campaigns to raise funds and awareness, Singapore Zoo is one of my favourite places in the world.

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.

Responsible Orang Utan Spotting In Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.

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

The Horrible Truth About Animal Sanctuaries.

Why Are People Still Visiting Thailand’s Tiger Temple?

Why Zoos Are An Important Part Of Responsible 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
17 comments on “Top 10 Ethical Wildlife Experiences For Your Gap Year Bucket List.
  1. Carl says:

    I love safaris, but you are right that there has to be those responsible elements and it can be hard to determine that beforehand.

  2. Barbara says:

    I’ve been to the elephant sanctuary on Chiang Mai and it was expensive (and didn’t have any volunteer spaces) but was so worth it! It was amazing to see how they rescue and care for elephants. And for those who say they should be in the wild yes, wild elephant populations are and should be, but these are elephants who have never been or can never be in the wild again after being rescued from abuse or exploitation and they are well looked after there.

  3. Emily says:

    But wh6 do you have a zoo on the list if its supposed to be about ethical wildlife tourism? Surely animals should be free?

    • Well it isn’t as black and white as that Emily. Without Zoos you have no conservation efforts, and many zoos are a vital part of that process.

    • Matt says:

      And where do you propose the free animals roam Emily? Where are the hundreds of acres of land coming from for them to do that? Will the farmers and loggers and industry just willingly give it all up? Or do they need some economic incentive to do that, like oh, I don’t know, tourism? Who will care enough about conservation issues to make all that happen if they aren’t connected to the animals through tourism? Just saying animals should be free is not a solution.

  4. Joanne says:

    I had no idea there were wild bears left in Europe! What tour company did you use to do that?

  5. Alison says:

    Ive always wanted to see animals in the wild or go on safari but am aware that there is so much abuse and bad practice out there I have not taken the chance yet, thank you for showing the positive ones!

  6. Emma says:

    Animals do not exist for our convenience and entertainment. To perform for us, be ridden, or for dangerous animals to be close to humans requires harsh training, and they do not choose that. All animal attractions need to be boycotted.

    • You are right they aren’t, but there are a great deal of animal tourism attractions that don’t make them exist for our convenience and entertainment, but instead use those resources to save, help and care for the animals. Some attractions should be boycotted absolutely, but the good ones should be supported.

  7. Carol H. says:

    We are always trying to do better when we travel! Ethical animal tourism is one area we have learned so much the past few years and its always something we at least try to incorporate into our decisions.

  8. Sam Harris says:

    Such an amazing collection of experiences! Well done on trying to make those choices as responsible as possible. I know it isn’t always possible but the importance is in the trying as much as the outcome.

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