What Questions To Ask Before You Visit A Wildlife Tour Operator.

Elephant Safari Responsible Tourism Minneriya National Park Sri Lanka

Wildlife tourism is a huge industry and there are a lot of ethical and responsible wildlife tour operators that are using tourism’s positive impact to care for animals and help fund conservation issues. Unfortunately there are also lot out there who are still exploiting animals for profit and greenwashing their services. But how do you as a traveller tell the difference? What questions should you ask to make sure that the wildlife tour operator you choose to support is really ethical and responsible?

Most people who want to see and interact with wildlife on their travels genuinely love animals, and they want to do so in an ethical and responsible way. That’s a great thing. Tourism can have a hugely positive impact on both animal welfare and the various conservation issues around it by telling locals there is more money and profit in ethical tourism, and giving them an incentive to practice high standards, than there is in any other industry that would hurt or harm wildlife. But the problem is there are a lot of operators out there who still put greed and profit above animal welfare, and not every tourist always gets it right. It is important not to lay blame on them because their intentions may be pure but they just don’t know what to look for, they don’t know what questions to ask and the greenwashing that is prevalent in the industry is slick and very, very persuasive.

As responsible and ethical travellers who want to contribute to the welfare and positive experience of the animals you love, you want to ask as many questions as possible so that you aren’t contributing to the mistreatment of animals. So here are just some of the questions you need to ask of both yourself and the wildlife tour operator before you support them with your hard earned money.

Remember, this list is not exhaustive and is there to provide you with a good grounding to start questioning and looking at things in a different way. The more research you do, the better informed you are both on the industry as well as animal welfare and behaviour, the more you will be able to ask.

Are The Animals Allowed The Five Domains?

The five domains, based on the previously held best practice of the five freedoms are a minimum industry standard, established in partnership with ABTA and wildlife charity groups that all animals in the tourism industry need and should have unfettered access to. These are in short:

  • Nutrition
  • Environment
  • Physical Health
  • Behaviour
  • Mental Domain.

These standards should be a bare minimum standard used for any wildlife facility, trek or safari.

Is The Facility Captive Or Free?

There is a popular but erroneous narrative that all captive facilities are bad and all animals are seen in the wild are good. That is wrong. There are actually good and bad to both sides, but each involve looking at things slightly differently. Captive wildlife facilities play a role in rescuing and caring for animals that can never survive in the wild de to poaching or industries such as logging taking their homes, but do need to allow for the five freedoms above and other issues as well to ensure the animals are being cared for. The notion of seeing animals ‘in their natural habitat’ can lead to unethical tour groups and hordes of tourists crashing through, ruining and scaring animals away from those natural habitats, but can have a positive impact if done unobtrusively from a distance by ensuring tourist money keeps those habitats protected. Whichever type of activity or facility you choose, start by asking what your impact as a tourist is having.

Whose Needs Come First? The Animals Or The Tourists?

This is probably one of the most simple and most important questions you can ask and is always a good first go to question. Is the animals care and welfare a priority? Or is the animal exploited to suit the needs of the tourist? It really is that simple.

Do The Animals Have To Perform?

This should go without saying at this point but any facility that has captive animals that are made to perform for tourists such as elephant painting shows, bear dancing, tiger selfies or whatever it might be is not a facility you want to support, and the same goes for animal prop selfies out on the street. This is clearly against ABTAs guidelines for captive animals. There are some zoos that offer tourists a time where they can watch the animals carer feeding them or they give a talk about the species and tourists are at a distance. This is not the same thing and shouldn’t be confused.

How Does The Facility Keep And Care For The Animals In Captivity?

This goes back to the five freedoms above. Any animal in captivity should be provided with a healthy, balanced diet that is species appropriate, as well as access to trained healthcare professionals and veterinarians. Ask what the procedures for monitoring animal health are and the procedures taken if animals become ill and look at their feeding regimes, are they allowed time to eat in peace and quiet away from people? What are the actual facilities like? Do they have enough room to roam, interact and have some private space if they want it?

How Much Space Do The Animals Have?

This is closely related to the last point but is a bit more in depth so deserves a few more questions. Space in captive facilities is essential, especially if there are multiple animals or groups of the same species, and this needs extremely careful management by qualified behaviour and veterinary experts, so that should be the start of your questioning, who exactly is managing this? Animals need enough space to roam relatively freely, they need space to hide away if they need it and they need space to avoid stress and conflict with other animals.

Can The Animals Escape From Tourists If They Want To?

Closely linked to the space issue this important question works for both captive facilities and ‘roam free’ safaris and treks. Ideally most facilities will be hands off completely but there are exceptions to this rule such as walking alongside/bathing with elephants as an alternative to full on riding treks with saddles, but if there are specific times for doing this ask who is given priority if the animal just has no interest in doing it that day? ABTAs animal welfare guidelines specifically distinguish interaction as being harmful ‘where the animal does not have the choice of terminating the interaction or moving away’. Is the animal allowed to do as it pleases, as it should be, or is the tourist experience and the money more important to the operator? The same is true of safaris and treks, does the operator stay at a distance and say it is up to the animal if they want to show up and be seen? Or do they specifically chase down the animals and get way too close just to give the tourist that perfect shot?

What Is Happening Behind The Scenes?

It is also important to keep in mind when asking all of these questions, what you see right in front of you or are told first hand may not reflect what is going on behind the scenes. This can be a difficult one to ask about and it is hard to know the truth, but it is still important to keep in mind.

How Are The Staff Treated?

This is an important but often overlooked part of interrogating wildlife facilities. Ask about the pay, healthcare and compensation packages for the staff involved in animal care. Staff who are happy, well looked after and have a financial incentive to care for animals and take care of their environment will do so. Those who don’t will turn to other industries such as logging or poaching. This is really one of the best ways to ensure tourism has a positive impact and keeps that relationship between animals, their habitats and local communities strong.

Where Does The Money Go?

This is probably one of the most important questions you can ask any facility, but especially if they claim to be a non profit, a charity or a sanctuary or something similar. Is the money purely going into profit for the operators or do they use it to care for and improve facilities for the animals? Does a portion of their profits go into conservation efforts for the species they look after? Any reputable company will be able to show proof of this very easily. If they can’t, or won’t, it’s not a good sign.

What Do They Mean When They Say Conservation?

Greenwashing is absolutely rife in the wildlife tourism industry and just because an operator claims to be a sanctuary, or claims to be helping conservation efforts, it doesn’t mean they are. So ask them exactly what they mean by that? Are they actively contributing to specific conservation efforts? If so what are they? Simply breeding and keeping wild animals is not conservation. Simply rescuing wildlife and keeping them is not conservation if it is not also actively protecting the wild population, but can play an important role on its own merits. This is an extremely deep and lengthy topic that cannot be covered in one post or one question, but getting an accurate picture of exactly what a facility does and what their long term mission statement is should give you a better idea of what they are all about.

Where Do They Get Their Animals From?

Again this is another very complicated question but an important one to ask. ABTA’s own animal welfare guidelines state that animals should not be collected from the wild. This on paper is very straightforward and is correct, but there are many rescue centres that purchase animals from industry or private collectors in order to ‘save’ them. This is a double edged sword because in many cases that is exactly what they do, but at the same time it also fuels an industry of kidnapping and selling animals from the wild. It is a very complicated issue but one that you should ask about and gauge the response carefully.

Gap year wildlife conservation white tiger

The best way you as a traveller can ensure you are only supporting responsible and ethical wildlife tourism operators is by doing as much research as you can and asking as many questions as you can. Even if asking these basic questions here leads to more questions, that can be a good thing too! If the answers you get aren’t satisfactory, or if they can’t answer them at all, then it is a pretty good indicator that perhaps it is better to report them and find somewhere else.

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.

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

The Horrible Truth About Animal Sanctuaries.

Why I Walked Across Mount Bromo’s Sea Of Sand.

Why Zoos Are An Important Part Of Responsible Wildlife Tourism.

Wildlife Tourism Without Wildlife Harm. Is It Possible?

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
4 comments on “What Questions To Ask Before You Visit A Wildlife Tour Operator.
  1. Natalie says:

    I love this! I want to make sure that the places I visit are responsible but it is sobhard to know what to look for and what to ask. Well done on the great work!

  2. Kim says:

    Some very sobering points here, I honestly never thought much about this. Not to this level.

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