We Need to Change Our Expectations Around Wildlife Tourism

“I pledge to never take part in activities that will cause harm to animals.”

Wildlife tourism is among the most misunderstood sectors of the Travel & Tourism industry, but awareness is changing among operators and travellers alike. Travellers must increase their understanding of the wildlife tourism industry — which activities jeopardise animal welfare — and commit to avoiding exploitative and harmful animal experiences.

One of the key challenges facing responsponsible animal tourism is education about understanding exactly which activities contribute to conservation, and which fall on the other side of the spectrum. A major wildlife tourism study from University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit found that at questionable wildlife experiences, typically 80% of “attending tourists did not recognise and/or respond to negative welfare impacts.”

That statistic is troubling because it represents an overwhelming number of the 1.2 billion tourists annually vacationing around the world. “Whilst tourism can be a means for positive interactions between tourists and animals, where such attractions are not carefully managed or do not exhibit best practice there is the potential that such attractions can jeopardise animal welfare or the customer experience.” [ABTA]

Let’s understand a bit more about the scope of the wildlife tourism industry, and what travellers can do to make conscious and deliberate spending choices that protect and conserve the world’s wildlife.

Activities Causing Harm to Animals

As travellers raise their expectations about how animals are treated around the world, a number of types of animal experiences have come under fire. Activities like cuddling tigers, riding elephants, and orca whale shows have gained national conservation. But there are a range of tourist attractions that also fall under the umbrella of activities causing harm to animals. Let’s look at a few examples and see how you can apply the best practices within one activity to a broad range of animal tourism best practices.

The conversation around riding elephants has reached a fever-pitch in recent years, and the industry seems to coalesce around the central idea that you should not ride elephants on vacation. Elephant riding is unsustainable and has a negative welfare impact on the animals. What’s more, both elephants and mahouts, the elephant handlers, are subjected to cruel expectations and working conditions. In a scathing look at elephant tourism, Vice News found the industry almost purely profit driven, with little regard for the health and welfare of the animals. Elephants are expensive; according to The Atlantic, they “need to eat 250 kilos per day and cost owners approximately $1,000 per month to house and feed.” This constant expense has led to an industry that supports an ‘anything that sells’ elephant tourism model — animals are forced to work sick, work in extreme heat, and perform for endless hours each day. On every level, riding elephants has a negative impact on the animals and the local society. So what’s a responsible traveller to do?

While all elephants deserve to live in the wild, that is no longer a viable solution. Calls to ban all captive elephants in places like Thailand don’t take into account the reality that there is no longer enough land — nor adequate protection from poachers — to safely reintroduce wild elephants into most of Southeast Asia. Instead, across Africa and Asia tourists can visit elephant sanctuaries, which do not allow elephant rides or shows. These sanctuaries provide a low-stress environment for the elephants, while still allowing visitors to view the animals up close. These alternative interactions score well on both conservation, and animal welfare studies.

And just as with the elephants, responsible travellers should apply these same standards to any interactions with big cats like lions, tigers, and cheetahs. Many wildlife tourism attractions related to the big cats are nothing more than breeding centres providing opportunities for tourists take selfies cuddling the cute cubs. And if that were the worst of it, perhaps the industry would have remained under the radar for longer, but as a National Geographic investigation discovered in 2016, some locations — like the Tiger Temple in Bangkok — bred tigers not only for tourism, but to supply the illegal tiger trade. And the implications of selling endangered animals on the black market are dire. “The underworld sales of captive tigers and their body parts stokes demand — meaning that more tigers are killed in the forests and jungles of India, Sumatra, Thailand, and elsewhere across their range.” [National Geographic]

The negative animal experiences are not limited to big game either. A National Geographic piece notes that “Swim-with-the-dolphin interactions, elephant rides, shark cage diving, and crocodile, sea turtle, and bear bile farms get the highest number of visitors each year (more than 500,000 visitors), and they all have negative impacts on animal welfare.” Poorly designed attractions “cause animals psychological and physical trauma that can shorten their lives. They also result in more animals being taken from the wild for tourism.” Popular experiences run the gamut, and travellers must be conscious of their choices on the road.

4 Animal Tourism Best Practices for Travellers

Consumer actions and travel behaviour does make a difference in addressing the issue. Awareness is rising around the world and major travel companies have begun to remove unethical wildlife experiences from tour itineraries and booking engines.

TripAdvisor announced in October 2016 that it would remove from its website all opportunities for travellers to directly book animal tourism experiences through its platform. And in November 2015, SeaWorld responded to consumer protests and announced it would phase out its controversial killer whale show. And in an another win for animal welfare advocates, elephants at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed their last show in May 2016 — all of the circus’ elephants have now retired to a 50-acre conservation centre in Florida.

It’s clear: Your actions and tourism behavior make a difference. Here are four guidelines for choosing wildlife experiences on your next vacation.

  1. Avoid exploitation. Steer clear of wildlife centres breeding endangered animals and locations supplying endangered and non-endangered animals for tourism purposes. These tourism experiences often offer guests animal performances, animal rides, or photo opportunities. Anything claiming to be involved in conservation will provide ample data on its role in protecting the wildlife, otherwise question the organisation’s true intentions.
  2. Support conservation. Look for sanctuaries, rehabilitation centres, and centres breeding endangered animals for conservation. If you’re keen on up close interactions, visit wildlife attractions using animals that cannot be reintroduced into the wild. Often, these sanctuaries rely on tourism dollars to cover the cost of daily, responsible care of rescued and rehabilitated wild animals.
  3. Buy souvenirs with care. Do not purchase souvenirs made from animal parts, like crocodile leather, turtle shells, or ivory as this stokes demand.
  4. Watch what you eat. Opt out of eating any exotic animal meats, and do not support restaurants offering these types of meat. Like with the souvenirs, sampling exotic meats only stokes demand for endangered and exotic animals.

If you see tour operators, attractions, or organisations violating the rights of animals or jeopardising an animal’s welfare, submit that information via the online form for the Travellers’ Animal Alert, which is an organisation committed to investigating neglect and cruelty to animals within the Travel & Tourism industry. Only through conscious actions, and by spreading the word with others, can we create an industry guided by principles that protect the world’s most vulnerable species.


This post is part of a series about the various pledges that are part of the Is It Too Much To Ask campaign. You can view the campaign microsite here.

For an overview: Do you want to be on the endangered species list?