There can be little doubt that ethical wildlife tourism can be beneficial to the conservation of some species. Providing necessary funding and education, tourism goes a long way to raising awareness of animal conservation issues. However, not all animal and wildlife tourism is ethical, and businesses that exploit wildlife for financial gain can lead to imaginable suffering for some animals. So how do you tell if you are supporting a good wildlife attraction or not?
Ethical Wildlife Tourism and Travel
Author: Diana Andersen, Animalinfo Publications
The rise of social media influencers has been a boom for unethical wildlife tourism operators. Posting a photograph of a close encounter with a tiger, elephant, or some other unfortunate animal to get a gazillion likes on your Instagram account is trivial in comparison to the suffering that these animals go through to provide you with your photo op.
Identifying Ethical Wildlife Tourism Activities
It isn’t that difficult to determine if a wildlife activity is ethical if you take the time to assess the attraction and apply some simple logic before handing over your money. Ask yourself a series of questions and answer them honestly.
1. Does the activity involve behaviour that is normal for the species?
It is not reasonable or safe for a tiger, an apex predator, to allow strangers to sit alongside them for endless photo opportunities. Even hand raised tigers are still powerful and unpredictable. Ensuring tourist safety involves heavy sedation that is damaging to their health. Avoid any attraction that includes close contact with large dangerous predators. Places that offer these opportunities may also abuse their animals and keep them in substandard conditions.
The same applies when handling exotic baby animals. Cuddling cubs and other baby animals for photo opportunities may be appealing to tourists, but it is not a practice that is beneficial to the animals’ development. It can also lead to problems for the animals when interacting with their species at a later date. Many ethical zoos breeding for conservation purposes experience difficulties with animals that are too humanised from excessive handling.
There are situations where ethical conservation displays use education animals. These tend to be organisations that are involved in wildlife rehabilitation. From time to time, these organisations will hand raise orphaned animals that can’t be released because they are unlikely to survive independently. They may also have sustained injuries that make it impossible for them to return to the wild.
These animals become ambassadors for their species, and the organisation is usually happy to explain the reason for the animal’s ambassadorial role. The number of animals used as ambassadors in this situation is generally minimal compared to the number of animals being cared for by reputable rescues and sanctuaries.
Judge, a critically endangered white-backed vulture that was injured acts as an ambassador for the vulture conservation efforts of the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust.
2. Are the animals required to perform tricks?
Attractions that make their animals perform tricks is another one to be avoided. In this day and age, there is no justification for exotic animals performing tricks for our amusement. Not to be compared with domestic dogs that take great pleasure in learning fun activities with their owner, many wild animals perform tricks under duress. There is no education or conservation value in an elephant walking a tightrope or a bear or monkey dancing. These animals are often trained using barbaric force methods, and again, the living conditions when not performing are frequently substandard.
3. Do they offer feeding as part of the attraction?
Assessing an attraction’s ethical nature gets less straightforward when it comes to feeding, and there are undoubtedly some grey areas.
Maintaining a healthy weight of captive exotic animals can be tricky, and providing unlimited food in the form of treats fed by tourists can lead to poor health and an unbalanced diet. Add to that, hunger on days where there are insufficient visitors to the attraction, and the whole process is fraught with problems.
Other issues include interfering with natural feeding habits resulting in altered behaviour patterns. It can lead to potentially dangerous encounters with habituated wildlife reliant on an unnatural food source. Illness resulting from pollution can also be a problem, particularly with waterbirds, where large amounts of bread can pollute waterways.
There are a few instances where feeding can be a good thing, but they are rare. An example is the feeding of vultures at ‘Vulture Restaurants’. This practice is one method adopted by conservation groups to help reverse the dramatic decline in vulture numbers. It provides a safe feeding zone for the birds and allows researchers and conservation groups to monitor the birds’ movements. Most importantly, it provides a venue for educating visitors on the importance of these much-maligned birds to the ecosystem, a good example of ethical wildlife tourism.
Ethical Wildlife Tourism: Vulture Restaurant, A Dining Experience with a Difference
White-backed and hooded vultures feeding at the vulture restaurant experience at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.
In Nairobi, the Daphne Sheldrick Giraffe Centre is another example. The organisation rescues and relocates endangered Rothschild giraffes and provides educational information to visitors to their facility. The centre does excellent conservation work, and food given to tourists is part of the giraffes’ staple diet. Providing a close encounter with the giraffes helps to solicit support for the work that they do.
Feeding giraffe at the Daphne Sheldrick Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.
4. Should ethical tourism involve baby animals?
Tourism operators will tell you that everyone loves baby animals. However, reputable zoos that breed for conservation purposes do so infrequently. For these organisations, breeding is about adding to the captive gene pool. The genetic background of species is monitored by studbook keepers that ensure that individual animals are not over-represented in future pairings.
In reputable zoos accredited by AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), handling of baby animals is avoided, including by zoo staff. It prevents animals from becoming too humanised. If animals are to be released in future or become part of a captive breeding program, being too familiar with people is a disadvantage.
One of the reasons for restricting breeding is that it can often be difficult to place animals excess to their collection into reputable zoos. If an attraction has unlimited baby animals, you need to consider where these animals are ending up after they are no longer cute and bringing tourist dollars into their business. Are they going to the pet trade, into medical research, or into the canned hunt industry, which involves shooting caged animals by trophy hunters?
Again, an exception to the rule is legitimate animal rescues like the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, an organisation that rescues orphan elephants and rhinos. Raising and reintegrating the calves into wild herds is a process that takes years and is very costly. The orphanage allows visitors to witness the orphans’ daily feeds and their group play in a communal mud wallow. A presenter explains the plight of the elephants and the reasons that the orphans are at the facility. The presentation is both educational and raises funds through adoption sponsorship.
Orphaned Elephants at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi.
5. Does the activity interfere with the animal’s natural behaviour?
Having been on a wildlife safari myself, I can say that this is probably one of the hardest areas to assess. The safari industry brings a tremendous amount of money into areas that support wildlife. Adding value to wild animals through tourism is vital in combating poaching and habitat loss. Making tourists care about the plight of wildlife is a lot easier once they have experienced exotic wildlife’s magic on the scale that the safari industry provides. However, too much tourist activity can also be damaging to wildlife.
It is mesmerising to see big cats hunting, but the sight of many safari vehicles loaded with tourists following along is also a little disturbing. The element of surprise necessary for a successful hunt seems impossible for the cats to achieve with their entourage. Thankfully, many safari areas are imposing some restrictions on the number of vehicles around big cats at any one time, as well as restricting off-road access. As tourists, we need to respect these rules and guidelines for the animals’ long-term benefit.
Many conservancies also participate in valuable research by tracking the movements of big cats using radio collars. They also participate in programs that protect elephants, rhino and other endangered species. Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, for instance, is involved with rhino conservation and is currently the home of the last two northern white rhino cows. These activities rely on the tourist dollar for funding, so it becomes a balancing act between what is good for the country, the animals and the visitor.
Another way to observing wildlife with minimal interference is by visiting a wildlife hide. Many hides in wildlife tourism areas offer the opportunity to get close to wildlife without interrupting their normal behaviour. They often provide photographic opportunities that you would not get from a vehicle.
Further reading… Siduli Hide, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Cheetah and watching Wildebeest on the Masai Mara, Kenya seen from a safari vehicle.
Supporting Ethical Wildlife Tourism Activities and Destinations
The threats facing wildlife are substantial, and any activities that help raise awareness and conservation funds are worthy of support but not at any cost to the animals involved. Before considering an attraction, be mindful, logical and assess whether it ticks the ethical boxes or not. Being selective in the activities and attractions that your tourist dollar supports is the best way to put attractions that exploit wildlife out of business, favouring those that genuinely benefit wildlife and contribute to wild animal rescue, rehabilitation and conservation.
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