Responsible and respectful: The big issues affecting ethical wildlife tourism

Is ethical wildlife tourism truly possible? What are the big issues that we need to be aware of at home and on holiday? How can we behave in a responsible and respectful way towards our animal kin when we’re travelling?

These are all important questions.

What is wildlife tourism?

In the purest sense of the definition, wildlife tourism describes the activity of humans going to observe or photograph other animals in their natural habitat, usually after paying a third party to facilitate the experience.

In reality, though, wildlife tourism is a catchall term for any activity that involves other animals where humans pay for the interaction, or the focus of the interaction is how the human experiences it. This covers a broad spectrum of activities and experiences, most of which are detrimental to the wellbeing of the individual animals involved.

Pretty much every country in the world offers “wildlife” or “animal tourism” in some form or another. It can include seeing captive animals in zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries or wildlife parks, as well as interactions such as riding on the back of a donkey, camel or elephant; horse-drawn carriage rides; posing for pictures with an individual animal at close quarters (e.g., lions or tigers); bottle feeding a baby animal; watching a bullfight; swimming with sharks, and many more.

What are the ethical issues with wildlife tourism?

In order to create opportunities for humans to interact with their animal kin, many wildlife tourist attractions knowingly exploit the animals involved, taking them from their natural environments and keeping them in poor conditions and/or denying them the opportunity to interact with their environment or own species exactly as they would without human intervention. This can cause a great deal of stress and discomfort.

Indeed, nearly every animal used by the tourism industry has their own tale of being captured at a young age or living their whole lives in captivity, often with terrible deprivation. It’s common for our animal kin to be beaten, chained, deprived of food, or forced to endure harsh weather conditions for the sake of “entertaining” tourists.

Wildlife tourism can contribute to habitat destruction, especially if tourists are allowed to enter sensitive ecosystems without proper guidelines or restrictions.

One example of this can be found off the shores of the Cebu province in the Philippines. This is a popular destination for tourists wanting to experience whale shark watching. A paper published in 2020 highlighted that whale sharks in this region exhibited a far higher number of injuries than whale sharks found in areas where feeding them is prohibited. This is because whale sharks in Cebu know that locals in motor-driven boats will hand-feed them, causing them to approach and get hit by the boats’ propellors.

Researchers also discovered that the constant supply of fresh krill being tossed into the sea as food has changed the whale sharks’ migratory and foraging behaviour. These whale sharks spend more time near the water’s surface, exposing them to higher temperatures, seriously compromising their health and the potential future of the species.

Risks to wellbeing and safety

Another problem with wildlife tourism is that humans seeking to get up close and personal with other animals compromise the safety and wellbeing of everyone involved, especially the individual animal.

Frightened animals forced into unnatural interactions with another species can become stressed and disorientated, and their instinct is to protect themselves or run (fight or flight). This can result in individuals being killed because they’ve harmed a human or, more commonly, to be drugged and starved to ensure their compliance.

The cruellest attractions in the world

There’s little doubt that many attractions centred on wildlife tourism are among the cruellest in the world. And now we all carry cameras and live our lives in front of the lens, there seems to be an increasing drive – for some people, at least – to capture an Instagram-perfect picture of animal species who would otherwise live separate from humans.

In 2016, World Animal Protection exposed the lifetime of suffering endured by tigers kept in captivity so that tourists can have a photo taken with them. These tigers are drugged to make them safe to approach and kept in small concrete cages; females are overbred to meet demand from tourists to interact with baby tigers (and, in some cases, to provide stock for the illegal trade in tiger parts) and the babies are separated from their mothers far too early.

The tigers in World Animal Protection’s report were found to be in poor physical and mental condition, with many displaying severe behavioural problems.

Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Thailand (which closed its doors permanently in 2021) hid behind a veneer of respectability as it was run by Buddhist monks. Tourists flocked to the attraction, believing monks would never condone the suffering of their fellow animals.

When Thai park rangers raided the zoo in 2016, there was a public outcry when over 1,600 tiger parts were removed from the premises, unearthing connections to the illegal trade in tiger parts. Officials seized 147 living tigers from the zoo; within weeks, 86 of them had died from “stress-related causes”.

Sadly, Sriracha’s closure didn’t mark an end to the suffering of the animals it exhibited as tourist attractions. It’s been reported that over 5,000 individuals, including tigers, crocodiles, horses and deer, were moved to an unspecified property owned by the Sriracha Tiger Zoo Co. Ltd. No one seems to know their fate.

Tourists fund cruelty

What the Sriracha Tiger Zoo example illustrates is that tourists often fund the abuse of their fellow animals, as well as illegal practices such as poaching and trafficking.

A quick look at TripAdvisor shows over 1,200 reviews about the Sriracha attraction. Less than a quarter are negative. It’s clear that many people are either unaware of the cruelty behind their holiday memories or unwilling to examine their conscience too closely when pursuing their perfect selfie.

Just this week (13th March 2023), we learned that Kiska, “the world’s loneliest whale”, had died, age 46, from a bacterial infection. Kiska lived in MarineLand, a marine “amusement” park in Canada, and spent 43 years in captivity. In 2021, her story went viral when tourists filmed her banging her head against her tank wall in distress.

Although Canada banned whales, dolphins and porpoises from being bred or held in captivity in 2019, individuals like Kiska were forced to remain. She was still on display to the public in January 2023 when heartbreaking photos taken by a drone showed her stark isolation (she had lived alone since 2011). Despite public outcry, tourists continue to visit such “attractions”.

What is ethical wildlife tourism?

So, how can we behave better towards our animal kin in our role as tourists? What is ethical wildlife tourism? Is it really possible to include other animals in our holiday experiences and remain ethical?

Ethical wildlife tourism is focused on enabling humans to engage with other animals in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the animals’ welfare, and where the animals are able to behave naturally. Attractions such as wildlife sanctuaries are considered ethical if the animals in their care have a habitat, feeding patterns and social interactions with their own kind that reflect what they would experience if they were free living.

However, many, including us, would say that if a fellow animal is captive in any way or if they have been habituated to the presence of humans to the extent that they no longer behave naturally around them (as is often the case with animals seen on safari), then the activity can never truly be described as ethical.

Can there be positive outcomes to wildlife tourism?

As with most issues, the ethics of animal tourism aren’t clean-cut. Some forms of wildlife tourism can have benefits for other animals.

Ethical wildlife tourism can benefit our fellow animals through protection and compassionate conservation. Conscientious tourists can bring in much-needed funds to protect, maintain or increase populations of free-living animals, strengthen efforts against poachers and illegal trafficking, protect habitats and raise awareness.

Funds from tourists can also help to boost and empower local communities, creating a knock-on effect for humans and other animals alike.

How can we become ethical tourists?

A simple rule of thumb would be: if the wildlife experience is detrimental to the individual animals involved, it is unethical; if the wildlife experience has no effect or a positive effect on the individual animals involved, it is ethical.

The following assumes that the wildlife attractions under consideration do not involve animals kept in captivity for any reason other than those that directly benefit the individual animals involved (not their species, e.g. with some traditional conservation efforts).

Do your research and don’t take claims at face value

The first step to being an ethical tourist is to research a wildlife attraction or experience extensively before you consider visiting.

  • What can you expect to happen when you visit the attraction?
  • How transparent is the attraction about its protection and/or conservation efforts or its welfare practices?
  • How are funds used to further conservation and protection efforts?
  • Are funds used for traditional conservation efforts, which don’t necessarily view other animals as individuals or compassionate conservation which considers sees each individual animal, regardless of species, as mattering?

While it can be sensible to look at reviews from other tourists, you need to approach them with a critical eye. Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) states that 80% of people who leave a review on TripAdvisor have been unaware of cruelty as an issue within the animal tourism industry. Look at videos and pictures on review sites – these might tell you what words don’t.

World Animal Protection warns, “If you can ride, hug, or take a selfie with a wild animal, chances are the venue is cruel. Don’t go!” We’d go further than this and say that if any animal is expected to behave in a way that isn’t natural to them or causes them any kind of stress (even too many people observing them from a distance), then the experience isn’t ethical and should be avoided.

Be prepared to contact the attraction before you visit to grill them about their approach and activities. How transparent are they?

Choose responsible operators

It’s crucial to understand what organisations are doing with the money they raise from wildlife tourism. Are they using it to engage with the local community and reduce poaching? Are they investing in protecting habitats? What is their animal welfare policy?

If you’re organising a holiday through a tour operator or travel agent, ask them about their policies regarding wildlife tourism. How do they check attractions/organisations for ethical behaviour?

Respect every animal as an individual

After doing your research, if you do decide to take part in a tour that brings you close to free-living animals, follow the instructions of the guides. This might include keeping your distance, not leaving food for the animals, being as quiet as possible, and not using flash photography.

Ideally, our animal kin should have a neutral experience of being near humans.

Think before you buy

There are some clear things to avoid when it comes to shopping on holiday. Souvenirs derived from the slaughter of other animals are to be avoided at all costs.

Record and report

If you become aware of unethical wildlife attractions while you’re travelling, try to record what you see on your phone or make a written record of what you saw and where you saw it. You should report the situation to the local authorities. You might also want to leave a review calling out unethical practices, and make sure you share your experiences with your personal networks.

As Thoroughly Travel says in their guide to ethical wildlife tourism, the question – when choosing an activity on holiday – isn’t “can we do it?”, but “should we do it?”

Ultimately, the best thing we can do as tourists is to look for amazing experiences that don’t include detrimentally impacting our animal kin. The cruelty within this industry continues because there’s a demand for it. We, as tourists, have the ability to remove that demand.


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