Wild animal encounters can be incredible and fulfilling experiences for travellers, but the welfare of animals at tourist attractions has come under the spotlight in recent times.
Over the last few years, major travel operators such as STA Travel, TripAdvisor and Tui have increasingly distanced themselves from unethical wildlife attractions, raising questions about what is ethical and what is not.
To help you choose an ethical experience, we’ve put together some general advice to follow before you book, including some expert advice from World Animal Protection.
If you can touch an animal as part of an experience, alarm bells should immediately start to ring, warns Alyx Elliott, Head of Campaigns at World Animal Protection.
Alyx says: “As a general rule of thumb, any experience that involves hugging, touching, or physical interaction with wildlife should be avoided. For a wild animal to become this tame and subdued, something unnatural has happened to it.
“The sad thing is that often the people who visit these types of unethical animal attractions are those that genuinely love wildlife. Unfortunately, they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes and the cruel methods that go into ‘training’ wild animals like elephants, tigers and so on.”
TripAdvisor recently launched a “no touching of wild animals” policy, where ticket sales promoting such experiences were removed from its website, in order to distance itself from unethical practices. The website is also in the process of creating a learning portal to help educate people in this area, but this is not likely to go live until 2017 at the earliest.
Would a wild tiger sit patiently next to you while you pose for a profile picture? If you’re brave enough to try, let us know!
What you need to consider is “what has happened to this animal to make it so docile and tame?” The reality is, you probably won’t like the answer. At attractions such as Thailand’s recently-closed Tiger Temple, for example, cubs were separated from their mothers at an early age in order to make them used to human contact.
The same goes for riding elephants – although these huge animals look like they could easily carry humans, an elephant’s back isn’t actually that strong and certainly isn’t designed to haul around the ‘howdahs’ (seats) upon which elephant riders sit.
What’s more, the practices that go into “training” these elephants are usually very cruel and often involve isolation, excessive mistreatment and beatings to break the animal’s wild spirit.
STA Travel, Responsible Travel, Tui and G Adventures are all examples of companies which no longer promote elephant trekking or riding. Thomas Cook also stopped selling tickets to a number of wildlife attractions after a report commissioned by the group found that 16 of the 25 attractions audited did not meet welfare standard set out by Abta.
What comes first: profit or wildlife welfare? If entertainment and selling tickets is the motive of the experience you’re looking at, you might want to reconsider. Rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries, on the other hand, are likely to have the opposite aim, where the monetary incentive is to help support the animals they protect – assuming they are legit.
Of course, it’s not always a case of black and white, which is why you should investigate an experience properly before you visit it or volunteer there.
“As the lines can be blurred, it’s hard to say if a sanctuary or rehab centre is ethical or not. Once again, we recommend avoiding anything that involves touching the animal. As well as this, look out for centres where the ultimate goal is the animals’ release back into the wild and where no breeding is taking place,” Alyx explains.
Just because a reputable operator is selling a product, that doesn’t mean that the conditions on the ground are up to scratch.
“It’s up to travel operators providing these experiences to make sure customers know exactly what they are paying for. This means that operators need to know the conditions and the ethical practices of the experience,” says Alyx.
Alyx highlights Intrepid, who have worked with World Animal Protection, as particularly good at this, while STA Travel has recently stopped offering trips that involve elephant rides or visits to SeaWorld in Orlando and San Diego.
If you are interested in arranging a wildlife experience with a tour operator, ask for as much detail as possible about how the animals are kept and cared for before you book.
Another thing you can do is check if a wildlife experience is registered as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) or has a close working relationship with NGOs.
As an NGO, any money received should be used to support the animals. However, you will still need to check the transparency of the organisation so that you can be sure of where your money will go.
If the company isn’t a registered NGO itself, they may still work with some in the local area, which is also a good sign.
Be it orangutans in Borneo, jaguars in Costa Rica or elephants in Thailand, there are hundreds of opportunities for travellers to volunteer in rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries.
However, it’s vital that you manage your expectations. It’s unlikely to be all bottle-feeding baby orangutans; the care and management of the animals should be undertaken by trained professionals. It is more likely you’ll be cleaning out cages or helping to fix enclosures – admittedly less glamorous pursuits, but important work that needs to be done.
Transparency is key, too. Ask to see a breakdown of where your money is going so you know it is being used to benefit the wildlife directly.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best wildlife experiences occur in an animal’s natural habitat. Here, animals are left to their own devices and tourists need to have a lot more patience. The reward, however, is the real thing.
Safaris are the most common way of doing this, but again, many of the things mentioned above apply when choosing the right one for you and ensuring that it is ethical. As there are many different types of safari, it’s best to organise yours through a respected specialist.
A good starting point for choosing a safari is to look out for an operator with experience – preferably based in the country you’re looking to visit – which is also involved in sustainable tourism. Basically, check that they are supporting the local area and giving something back.