How to make sure the wildlife tourism you participate in is ethical
Disclaimer: This article contains images that some readers may find offensive.
Animal tourism is becoming an increasingly popular form of travel, especially for those who hope to discover animals in their unique surroundings.
However, not all businesses and practices have the best interests of animals at heart, as we have already discussed regarding elephant rides at Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia and the dolphin entertainment industry. .
To their credit, a majority of travelers and tourists are totally unaware of the unethical – and often cruel – undersides of the wildlife tourism industry, where companies are far more concerned with profit than animal welfare.
In reality, animals should never exist in captivity for entertainment or monetary gain.
It is that simple.
Unless it is for conservation or rehabilitation, animals should be able to live their lives freely and free from harm.
It can be difficult for travelers to know for sure whether the wildlife tours and activities they participate in are ethical, even if they have the best of intentions.
We have researched and contacted various animal welfare organizations and ethical travel agencies to give them some insight into what to look for to decipher the ethics of wildlife tourism.
The five freedoms of animal welfare
Animal welfare involves both the mental and physical health of any given creature.
To gain a deeper understanding and build a conscious and empathetic policy, many ethical organizations and travelers look to these core values for guidance.
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
Do animals have access to food suited to their natural diet and to drinking water?
Many animals kept in captivity to entertain tourists are forced to spend long hours with limited access to food and drinking water.
Thus, they develop health problems such as fatigue, anxiety and dehydration.
2. Absence of discomfort
Do animals have a shelter that contains an appropriate resting area?
Animals should be provided with adequate space to be able to stand up and lie down comfortably.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case, and the majority of animals used for entertainment are harnessed by ropes and chains and kept in unsuitable, uncomfortable and unnatural living conditions.
3. Absence of pain, injury or illness
Do the animals appear distressed, in pain, or injured?
A large percentage of animals held in captivity for tourist entertainment do not have access to proper veterinary care.
Due to the abnormal conditions in which they are held, such as being shackled, undergoing inhumane training practices, or living in uncomfortable enclosures, they often suffer from poor nutrition and injury.
In extreme cases, some animals even have their teeth pulled, claws removed, or jaws closed to make them safer and easier to handle.
4. Freedom to express normal behavior
Are animals able to display the same behaviors as they would in nature? Do they exist in social groups?
Animals held in captivity are often kept in unsuitable cages that are far from comparable to their original environment.
As a result of these repressed conditions, they often become irritated and annoyed that they cannot behave as they naturally would and should.
5. Be free from fear and distress
Are there any visible signs that the animals are afraid? Are they pacing their pen, biting the bars of their cage, or showing other signs of poor mental health?
One of the most heartbreaking facts about animals in the wildlife tourism industry is that they most often live in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and psychological trauma.
As a rule, it is inflicted on them by inhumane training methods, narrow confined spaces and unacceptable living conditions.
If these five fundamental freedoms are not respected, it is a clear signal to travelers that the wildlife they encounter is suffering and that the activity in which they are involved is cruel and unethical.
A picture is really worth a thousand words
Researching the wildlife tourist destination beforehand is essential in determining whether animals are being treated fairly or not.
A majority of companies and tours will post images of various animal attractions to generate interest and entice tourists to participate in their specific activity.
As a general rule, if an animal has visible injuries or is depicted doing tricks, posing for selfies, or making memories, it is not being handled ethically, as the animals have likely been trained to inhuman manner to perform these tasks.
Touching, holding and interacting with wild animals is prohibited
In some parts of the world, animals are taken from the wild – often from their mothers at a young age – by humans in an attempt to charge tourists to have their photos taken or to interact with them.
It is not a practice that requires additional support.
While it may seem like an enjoyable and even educational activity – with some companies operating under the guile of conservation – interacting with animals at this level is unnatural and only puts additional stress on them.
This policy also extends to practices such as riding elephants and swimming with dolphins.
Travelers have little to no way of knowing how these animals are treated behind the scenes.
They could potentially be drugged to make them more complacent, fed a diet that is totally contrary to their subjective standard, and kept in totally brutal living conditions.
World Animal Protection best explained it when they noted, “If you can ride, hug, or take a selfie with the wild animal, chances are it’s a cruel place.” Do not go.
Say no to all animal shows
Animals involved in live entertainment practices are typically removed from the wild, raised in inhospitable conditions, and undergo deep and extensive physical and psychological conditioning to make them docile enough to perform.
The endorsement and support of sites like these only further contributes to the unethical streak of ongoing animal cruelty that already exists in the industry.
If the site sells parts or products made from wild animals, do not engage
Many travel destinations will host markets that sell trinkets and souvenirs. In addition to key chains, clothing, and other stereotypical items, some may try to sell you products made from animals, including insects encased in glass, ivory, and horns.
Selling and buying these items is not only unethical, but also illegal.
The animals from which these products are harvested generally suffer great suffering.
Foods and medicines are no different. Products such as shark fin soup or bear bile bolster the agenda and popularize the illegal wildlife trade.
Trust us. It’s not worth having a story to tell when you get home.
Sanctuaries are not always safe
The main driving force of any wildlife sanctuary should be working in the best interests of the animals to promote their general well-being.
World Animal Protection provides tourists with an excellent set of guidelines to help recognize whether or not a wildlife preserve is genuine.
First, an authentic sanctuary should not proceed to breed animals unless it intends to return them to the wild.
Nor should a sanctuary participate in or support the trade in animals or their parts.
A true sanctuary does not force animals to perform acts deemed unnatural, such as tricks, shows or rides. Additionally, a sanctuary should not allow individuals to interact directly with animals, but rather allow animals to behave as they would in the wild.
In addition, an authentic sanctuary would never approve the captivity of wild animals as pets or as entertainment.
And finally, a sanctuary should never, under any circumstances, bring in more animals than is ethically capable of providing and caring for.
To be part of the solution rather than contributing more to the problem, travelers need to educate themselves and consider whether the wildlife tourism activities they engage in are ethical.
We must take it upon ourselves to promote the safety and freedom of the world’s wildlife by practicing morality, empathy and education to end these cruel and inhumane practices.
When in doubt, trust your instincts. If something is wrong, it probably isn’t.
In the grand scheme of things, a photo with a sedated tiger or riding on the back of an exhausted elephant just isn’t worth it when it costs so much.