How to Choose an Ethical Wildlife Experience

Lioness on the background of Mount Kenya
Anton Petrus / Getty Images

Love for wildlife often goes hand in hand with love for travel, but learning how to recognize the difference between an exploitative experience and an ethical one can sometimes be overwhelming. More times than not, the cruelest components of dishonest wildlife tourism occur behind closed doors—they can even be ingrained in the nature of the activity itself. Attractions like elephant riding and tiger cub petting, for example, have been linked to cruel systems that take animals from the wild for the sole purpose of tourism, or contribute to breeding facilities connected to the illegal wildlife trade.

It’s important to remember that wildlife tourism is an industry; companies that don’t prioritize sustainable and responsible practices will only continue to succeed as long as the markets for them exist. As more travelers become aware of wildlife exploitation and change their habits or expectations, the demand for corrupt practices will decrease. Sometimes, the best way to show our love and appreciation for animals is by giving them the space to live freely in their natural habitats.

That being said, there are plenty of responsible wildlife tour operators, activities, and experiences out there that provide positive impacts while diminishing deceitful ones. Start with research, trust your gut, and learn what to watch out for with this guide to ethical wildlife experiences.

What Makes a Wildlife Experience Ethical?

A good ethical wildlife experience or tour operator supports and contributes to biodiversity conservation while minimizing any disturbance of natural ecosystems. When doing your research, look at the organization’s main objective and recognize that a company can claim to highlight conservation even if it really doesn’t. Does the organization put animal welfare ahead of profits? Are they a registered nonprofit or at least working with an accredited one? Don’t be afraid to ask questions: a true ethical wildlife experience won’t have anything to hide.

There are a number of red flags to look out for in the world of wildlife tourism, and some of the most popular are activities that involve feeding animals in the wild. Feeding wildlife or getting too close can disrupt the natural balance of their environments or make animals more accustomed to humans, thus creating more opportunities for human-wildlife conflict.

Similarly, photo opportunities where the animal is restrained, touched, or held in captivity just to be used as a photo prop can encourage harmful behavior to animals or the environment (so much so that Instagram even has an alert system for them). You should also be mindful of what souvenirs are being offered. The World Wildlife Fund has an entire “Buyer Beware” guide with resources on how to avoid purchasing products that can have a negative impact on wildlife while traveling.

If you can’t find this information on the company’s website or social media page, a good place to start is by checking review boards. Pay attention to what the most negative reviews have to say and use common sense (if a safari company advertises a walk with a wild tiger in South Africa—where the species isn’t even native—that should give you a pretty good indication of its values).

Animal Sanctuaries

Sadly, not all animal sanctuaries are legitimate. As more travelers are beginning to catch on to the exploitative nature of wildlife breeding facilities and unregulated roadside zoos, many are now rebranding as “sanctuaries” or “rescues.” Look at how the animals are housed and whether or not their enclosures mimic their natural environments.

Most importantly, ask why the animals are inside the sanctuary. In an ideal world, wild animals would stay in the wild, but unfortunately, the realities of habitat loss and environmental or human conflict simply don’t allow for this. Are the animals there to support conservation or to attract paying customers? Does the place in question provide new homes for animals that come from inhumane conditions, rescue injured wild animals, or rehabilitate animals with the goal of releasing them back into the wild? There should be a legitimate reason why the animals are there in the first place.

Thankfully, there are some pretty incredible sanctuaries around the world that are truly dedicated to giving injured or abused wild animals a better life. Start by checking to see if the sanctuary is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries or if it’s connected to an authentic nonprofit organization or foundation before visiting.

Watching elephants from a safe distance in Namibia
Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

Tours and Safaris

Keep in mind that while safaris are one of the most exclusive experiences one can have within wildlife tourism, they often take place in some of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. Responsible safaris within conservancies bring economic opportunities to the local communities and can be instrumental in protecting endangered animals from poaching. Finding a company, accommodation, or guide that is integrated or involved with the local community is key to successful, long-term wildlife conservation in these places.

Wildlife tours should be small, non-invasive, and responsibly managed, with the greatest priority being education and/or research. More importantly, the money you pay should go directly toward preserving the wild areas you’re visiting. The U.K.-based company Responsible Travel is a great resource for ethical safaris, responsible gorilla trekking, and other wildlife tours.

Zoos and Aquariums

Although zoos and aquariums were once used as a means for commercialized entertainment, the standards for management and the purposes behind them have shifted over the 21st century. Especially in the United States, many have begun to phase out certain species and instead focus on their conservation in the wild; some have become instrumental in saving other wildlife from extinction.

For this reason, many wildlife experts believe that zoos and aquariums should be judged on an individual basis. Sylvia Earle herself, one of the world’s most famous marine biologists and animal advocates, has credited aquariums for first igniting her love for the ocean. As she says, “It is hard to care about something you have never seen,” and not everyone is in a position to travel to wild areas, scuba dive under the sea, or join a safari.

If you do choose to visit a zoo or aquarium, make sure it is licensed with a second party, nonprofit accreditation signifying that the facility maintains the absolute highest standards of care for its animals and provides funding to wildlife conservation projects. In the U.S., that means the AZA Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

When in doubt, keep an eye out for the “five freedoms” of animal welfare under human care: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

Water Activities

Whether it's diving, snorkeling, or swimming in the ocean, it’s important to keep a respectful distance from marine animals while observing them. There’s a reason why tourists aren’t allowed to touch most marine animals or disturb coral reefs, as they can be fragile or negatively affected by foreign substances.

If the boat asks that you don’t bring any aerosol sunscreens or sunscreens that aren’t reef safe, that’s a good sign. If the operators encourage feeding wild animals or coaxing them to come closer, that’s a red flag.

Look for companies that are certified with the NOAA Dolphin SMART program, which designates marine wildlife tourism businesses that follow strict guidelines and non-invasive observation techniques. Some whale and dolphin conservation organizations offer guided tours for research or educational purposes with a certified expert on board.

The World Cetacean Alliance has a ton of regulations for responsible whale and dolphin watching that tourists can look out for. Boat captains should reduce speed and turn off sonar once they’re within 300 meters of a whale or dolphin, and never approach a whale closer than 100 meters or a dolphin closer than 50 meters. Dolphins are exceptionally smart and super playful, so they often come up to the boat on their own simply out of curiosity. At the same time, they should also be able to ignore the presence of visitors and swim away if they choose.

Whale watching from a distance
Jan-Otto / Getty Images

Voluntourism

“Voluntourism,” when travelers visit a specific destination or organization with the intention of doing volunteer work, can be a tricky enterprise to navigate. Some companies misrepresent their intentions, selling expensive feel-good packages to tourists that don’t necessarily have a positive impact.

Make sure that the company doesn’t take jobs away from the local communities, but rather, works alongside them; if the experience mainly consists of labor like building facilities or cleaning out enclosures, that’s a good sign. Before signing up, always ask the company for a breakdown of where your money is going exactly, how much of it is being used to benefit the wildlife directly, and how the organization has specifically made a difference in its field. You can also reach out to past volunteers to find out about their experiences.

Protected Areas

National parks, state parks, nature refuges, and other regulated protected areas provide some of the best habitats for wild, and often endangered, animals. Even better, most parks are managed separately depending on its unique ecosystems and needs. National seashores can set aside beach habitats for nesting seabirds, while a dark sky reserve can restrict artificial light pollution to protect nocturnal pollinators. Often, the money you pay for admissions goes directly towards the park.

Many parks require visitors to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from all wildlife and 100 yards from larger carnivores like bears or wolves. Every park is unique, however, so it’s helpful to review the park’s specific guidelines for wildlife viewing and food storage before heading out.

When you’re visiting a protected wild area, patience is key. You probably won’t see as many animals as you would in a zoo, but the reward of seeing an animal free in its natural environment may be worth it.

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