The problem of wildlife tourism and how to travel responsibly


Wildlife tourism has been roughly estimated to contribute to 20 to 40% of all world tourism. Unfortunately, most animal tourist attractions “Have significant negative impacts on animal welfare and conservation”, as the tourism industry uses and exploit animals in an assortment of ways and places, from entertainment to transportation and being “wanted in the wild” to “exhibited in captivity”. “The common denominator of all these activities is that they relate to animals as objects rather than subjects – animals are more often manipulated than recognized as intentional agents or full actors. In this article, animal welfare and its importance in tourism will be discussed, as well as suggestions for making ethical choices in animal tourism.

Animal welfare in tourism

Source: VITOO THONGJANG / shutterstock

The welfare or welfare of a captive animal is generally assessed in accordance with the “Five freedoms” known as being free from thirst and hunger; absence of discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and free from fear and distress. However, without strict welfare standards and globally recognized and enforced legislation, animal welfare and protection in tourism is lacking, as tourists are required to create the acceptable standard of animal welfare that ‘they will support financially.

Tourists also lack the opportunity to make informed and ethical choices about their impact on animal wellbeing, because many seek authenticity but are sold a “staged authenticity” created for their wildlife tourism experience to the detriment of animal welfare. Because of this “staged authenticity”, tourists are not fully exposed or aware of the animal welfare issues they support through their participation. Animals used in tourism are often stolen from the wild, physically and psychologically abused, and forced to live in a state of constant fear and suffering.

In Thailand, tourists were sold “Staged authenticity” of a ‘Thai and Buddhist experience’ when they entered Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno or ‘Tiger Temple’ to pose for photos with tigers that have been subdued ‘through drugs and physical force. ‘ Despite the poor animal welfare observed, many tourists considered it to be a genuine animal tourist attraction worth seeing. In June 2016, Authorities investigated the temple for animal abuse and illegal wildlife trafficking, uncovering such cases when they found the frozen remains of 40 baby tigers. ‘Despite the closure from this temple, similar attractions, such as’ Tiger Kingdom ‘, remain popular.’

The welfare of wild gibbons also suffers as they are exploited for wildlife tourism. To capture the baby gibbon, the parents are kill and then the baby gibbon falls from the canopy, however, the survival of the baby gibbon from the fall is not guaranteed, resulting in the death of several gibbons for the potential capture of a baby gibbon. He is warned that if tourists continue to financially support poachers through animal attractions, the gibbons will disappear.

Elephants are also victims cruel practices in the wildlife tourism industry. Through early separation from their mother, isolation and violent beatings, baby elephants learn to be submissive and therefore easier to handle. A witness, Soraida Sarwala, the founder of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation, observed young elephants having hot irons placed on their hips to make them move as if they were dancing, to which she also observed tourists on the train to have fun. Illegal capture and trafficking of baby elephants is also not uncommon, as they are extremely popular with tourists. Likewise, as with the capture of wild baby gibbons, many elephants are usually killed while capturing a baby elephant.

Suggestions for ethical wildlife tourism

tourism animal baby elephant captured

Source: ParichatPhotographer / shutterstock

TO improve animal welfare in tourism, there is a need for society to grow in “awareness and empathy for animal suffering”, reject and prohibit animal attractions by using cruel practices that cause “pain, discomfort and suffering” and establish attractions without animals. An exciting example of this includes the creation of realistic robotic dolphins to mimic the experience of the popular tourist attraction of swimming with dolphins kept in captivity. As we understand better that dolphins held in captivity suffer both mentally and physically, this new innovation is a step in the right direction to protect animals by prioritizing their welfare over human entertainment.

In order to further improve animal welfare in tourism, World Animal Protection has produced the following backgrounder checklist for travelers, recalling that “culture is no excuse for cruelty”, encouraging tourists to research attractions for welfare concerns before visiting, in addition to documenting and reporting any animal abuse to local authorities.

The checklist also calls on tourists to be careful while shopping to avoid financially supporting animal cruelty. Situations in which animals are forced to exhibit unnatural behaviors, kept in pens or handled by humans should always be avoided. This includes feeding, riding or taking pictures with animals.

In addition to avoiding direct animal tourism activities, travelers should make conscious decisions when shopping for souvenirs and trying exotic local cuisine to avoid tax support for illegal wildlife trade and other cruel practices. For example, shark fin soup is considered a Chinese delicacy, but the practice of shark fin is particularly brutal, inhumane, and one of the greatest threats sharks face.

To learn more about how to make ethical choices when it comes to wildlife tourism, be sure to check out this Dos and Don’ts guide and this list of 10 humane ways to interact with wildlife!

Respect animals and the rules

In addition, to go further enforce animal rights, tourist attractions should only allow viewing of animals in the wild, rather than in captivity, while emphasizing education and preservation rather than entertainment. Ecotourism offers tourists the opportunity to see animals in the wild, ideally without causing disturbance or distress, making it absolutely essential to respect the rules and the animals on these adventures.

This is clearly evident when comparing two tourist attractions in Costa Rica which are both popular places to watch sea turtle nesting. In Tortuguero, the Conservation of sea turtles promotes animal welfare and protection locally and internationally through advocacy, research, conservation, policy initiatives and education. In addition, they provide important habitat information for tens of thousands of eco-tourists who hope to see sea turtles nesting on the shores. Those long-term conservation efforts have been shown to be beneficial, as increased nesting behaviors on the beaches of Tortuguero have been observed for decades. However, on the other side of the country, tourists to the Ostional Wildlife Refuge have shown a complete disrespect for the rules, sea turtles and conservation efforts. Instead of following protocols to observe the nesting sea turtles undisturbed, tourists have invaded shores, blocked paths, flashed camera lights, handled animals, and even placed children on them. Tourists have caused such distress to sea turtles that many have retreated into the ocean without nesting, undeniably having a negative impact on the already extremely vulnerable population. The clear contrast in animal welfare at these two popular tourist attractions shows the importance of respecting the rules and the animals for ecotourism to be safe and efficient.

Other ways to respectfully observe the animals would be to visit or volunteer at a credible sanctuary! For more information, see the Association of Animal Sanctuaries (ASA) and the World Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

It has been well documented that animals forced to entertain tourists suffer horrific abuse and it is completely unacceptable that these practices continue. As the world adjusted to new standards and routines during the COVID-19 pandemic, and with travel is expected to increase in the coming months, it is more important than ever to change our perception of animal tourism, to protect animals by prioritizing their well-being over human entertainment, to put an end to cruel practices and to impose ethical animal tourism .

What can you do?

Remember to do your research before you travel! Be aware of what you are supporting financially. Your purchase could directly support animal cruelty. Avoid direct contact with animals. Instead, choose to see them in their natural habitat without disturbing them. Obey the rules and respect the animals! Always report cruelty to animals to the proper authorities. Plus, sign the following petitions to help improve animal welfare!

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