All Wildlife Tours are Not Made the Same: 4 Red Flags to Ensure You Don’t Harm Local Wildlife

More than 8,000 captive-bred lions are currently kept in 250 intensive breeding facilities to cater to tourists. The breeding industry allows tourist attractions, like exhibitions and shows to have lion cubs year-round for visitors to cuddle and take selfies with. Having captive-bred lion cubs on your tour is one of the red flags that you should look out for next time you travel in search of local wildlife experiences. 

Social media and wildlife tourism have played an essential role in showing the need to protect and care for endangered animals, but an unintended result is that tourists have flooded to view these species, often hoping to get up close and personal. Endangered animals now offer the appeal to be rare props in photoshoots or presented as entertainment for a chance to see these animals in real life. Among the 34 billion images posted by 700 million people on Instagram, wild animals are in tens of thousands of selfies. 

This attention brings a new threat to wildlife. Photos capture a moment of joy for tourists but many are unaware of or oblivious to the animals’ stress and suffering that occurs in that same snapshot. The rising concern for protecting endangered species is creating an industry that can be unethical and exploitative to serve tourists’ increasing demand for hands-on experiences. 

Pseudo sanctuaries and other unofficial zoos exist to meet the desire for exotic animal interaction but the animals are generally kept in poor conditions, deprived of adequate water, food, and veterinary care. Even some volunteer opportunities are thinly-veiled breaches in conservation ethics that allow you to care for captive-bred endangered species.

Remember: there would be no market for captive wildlife tourism if it weren’t for the demand, so refrain from exclusively blaming operators. Visitors have an equal responsibility to ensure they are not supporting exploitative practices. After all, wildlife tourism can be extremely beneficial for animals and ecosystems, when done correctly.

While many visitors and operators are well-intentioned and genuinely want to protect these animals, not all tourism – even sustainable and eco-tourism – is good for endangered species. Luckily, there are easy ways to tell if your experience actually benefits wildlife, so you don’t have to avoid wildlife tourism altogether. 

Here are some red flags that you can look out for on your next wildlife tourism adventure so you don’t contribute to dangerous practices. 

1. Are animals chained?

As you arrive are the animals brought out from somewhere or tied up after you’ve finished looking at them? Chains don’t exist in the wild, so there shouldn’t be any restrictions to animals’  movement. Unless you’re at a rehabilitation centre and the animals are being handled by a vet, the wildlife should not be chained or caged. 

To assess how facilities should treat captive animals, you can refer to the “five freedoms”—internationally recognized standards of care that defend all living creatures’ rights to humane treatment. But also trust your gut if the operator is a little too quick to tell you “I unchain them at night.” That’s a red flag!

If you are looking for a guaranteed responsible wildlife experience try volunteering in Kruger National Park where you can monitor and protect some of the world’s most incredible species. In two weeks, not only will you see the African Big 5 but you can work to protect them too!

2. Are you interacting with the animals?

Each year, up to 4 million tourists visit places where they can ride elephants, swim with dolphins, and take selfies with tigers and orangutans. For many wildlife enthusiasts, seeing a tiger or an elephant with their own eyes can feel like a dream come true. To have these beautiful creatures within arm’s reach might seem irresistible. 

The dark truth is that for a wild animal like an elephant to be calm enough to carry you or tigers to stay still enough for selfies, they require training that is often cruel and harmful. Supporting businesses that approve hands-on interaction with endangered species increases wildlife trafficking and animal cruelty. So if your tour guide is encouraging you to hold, touch, or ride an animal, that’s a red flag!

But you can still enjoy a fulfilling wildlife experience from a distance and help protect species at the same time. At Sani Lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon, you can see the largest caiman species in the world, as well as monkeys and hundreds of species of birds! Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and Sani Reserve is protected by Indigenous people. So it’s the perfect place to see wildlife without harming endangered species.

3. Are animals performing for you? 

A good benchmark for deciding if a place genuinely protects wildlife is asking yourself: Have I ever seen an animal do this in a documentary before? If the answer is no, then the animals are most likely being exploited and it’s a red flag! Performing bears or artistic elephants are not born, they are made. 

Captors break the spirit of these phenomenal animals with a fear-based process using bullhooks and short chains to train them. Their skillful tricks and precise brushstrokes are not natural and reveal how human dominance damaged them.

If you want to see wild animals, it is best to see them in the wild, where animals are free to display their natural behaviours. Our bear tours in Romania never guarantee a bear sighting because the bears are wild. We don’t know where they are because they roam enormous areas, but we have a good idea of where to find them, so we can almost always find one when we are looking. But we keep a safe distance and go in small groups so they don’t feel stressed. We promise it’s much more satisfying to see an animal spontaneously on a peaceful forest trek than in a cage where they cannot roam freely.

4. Are animals in their natural environment?

No matter how happy a dolphin seems to be doing tricks, there is no way a 6-foot pool can replace the ocean. Often the enclosures that animals are kept in when not performing are nowhere near the size of their natural habitat. 

Once again ask yourself: is this enough space for the animals to carry out their natural behaviours? Animals kept in small spaces without physical enrichment become depressed, psychologically disturbed and frustrated: a condition called Zoochosis. Wild animals are not entertainers and the film Blackfish shows what happens when we start to push nature to its limit. 

You can help raise awareness

At the end of the day no matter how many ethical wildlife experiences you have, speaking up about how sustainable tourism protects endangered species – rather than exploiting them – can influence your friends and family more than any infographic. 

You can do this by sharing your experiences on social media and in-person with friends and family, both the good and the bad. Explain the harm that comes with cuddling baby sloths and acknowledge the value of seeing animals in their natural habitat. Instagram has begun to raise awareness with a feature whereby Users who click or search one of the dozens of hashtags, such as #slothselfie and #tigercubselfie, now get a pop-up warning that says “You are searching for a hashtag that may be associated with posts that encourage harmful behaviour to animals or the environment.”

Even if you aren’t a biologist, the world needs more wildlife ambassadors, and that can be you. To learn more about how you can contribute to sustainable practices when you travel again check out this article!

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