Wildlife Tourism: Merging Travel with Nature Conservation

Estimated read time 13 min read

Encountering rare wildlife in close proximity is a truly unique and cherished aspect of traveling abroad. Nonetheless, certain forms of wildlife tourism can be detrimental to the animals involved. Activities such as animal rides, zoos, selfies, and shows can have negative consequences. To ensure the well-being of animals, it is crucial to observe them in their natural habitats, treating them with respect rather than as sources of entertainment. Drawing from our extensive travel experience, we’ve gained insights from both positive and negative encounters. Here, we share a guide to steer clear of tourist animal attractions that should be avoided and offer more ethical alternatives.

Wildlife Tourism Definition

Wildlife tourism refers to travel or excursions centered on observing and interacting with animals in their natural habitats or in specialized environments. It encompasses a broad range of experiences, from safaris in the African savannahs and bird-watching expeditions in tropical rainforests to visits to marine parks and aquariums. While this form of tourism offers unique and often once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to connect with the animal kingdom, it also carries with it the responsibility of ensuring that such interactions are sustainable and do not harm the animals or their habitats. Done right, wildlife tourism can serve as a tool for conservation and education, fostering a deeper appreciation for the world’s biodiversity.

Wildlife tourism examples span a diverse array of experiences across the globe. In the vast plains of Africa, safaris allow tourists to witness the majestic migration of wildebeests or the elusive behavior of big cats in their natural habitats. The dense rainforests of Costa Rica offer canopy tours where travelers can spot vibrant toucans, sloths, and myriad butterfly species. In Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, divers and snorkelers immerse themselves in an underwater world teeming with colorful corals, fishes, and occasionally, the gentle sea turtle. On the colder end of the spectrum, the Arctic provides cruises to observe polar bears, seals, and whales in their icy environments. Meanwhile, sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers, like the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, give visitors a chance to learn about and support conservation efforts firsthand. Wild life tourism offers travelers a unique opportunity to engage with nature and witness the beauty and diversity of our planet’s flora and fauna.

Ethical Animal Tourism: Alternatives

Delving deep into the nuances of animal tourism, one quickly realizes the intricate balance between human enjoyment and animal welfare. The landscape of this industry is filled with both shadows of exploitation and rays of responsible practices. As we venture into this realm, it’s paramount to be equipped with knowledge and discernment. By fostering an understanding of the ethical dimensions of animal tourism, we can better navigate the landscape, seeking out alternatives that celebrate and respect the intrinsic value of the creatures we so admire.

1. Zoos & Aquariums

Across the globe, a significant portion of animals showcased for tourism find their homes in zoos and aquariums. Proponents of these institutions emphasize their invaluable contributions to conservation endeavors, highlighting their commitment to the preservation and resurgence of threatened species. However, as with any complex issue, the landscape is not purely black or white. While there’s no denying the potential benefits of zoos and aquariums, it’s essential to critically assess the broader implications of these establishments on animal welfare, natural behaviors, and long-term sustainability. As we navigate the debate, let’s delve into the multifaceted considerations surrounding the support for zoos and aquariums:

  • Nature’s Design Versus Captivity: Every wild creature has evolved over eons to thrive in its natural environment. Take the dolphin, for example; these majestic beings are designed to plunge into oceanic depths and traverse vast marine territories. Contrastingly, the limited dimensions of aquarium tanks are a stark deviation from their expansive natural habitats, hindering their instinctual behaviors;
  • Alteration of Intrinsic Routines: Predators like lions and tigers possess innate patterns of activity, often being crepuscular — most active during dawn and dusk. However, the ceaseless stream of visitors and operational hours of zoos can disrupt these rhythms, potentially leading to stress and behavioral abnormalities;
  • Behind-the-Scenes of Animal Shows: The allure of animal performances can mask concerning truths. The processes used to train animals for these displays can be fraught with ethical issues. Harsh training techniques, premature separation of offspring from their mothers, and other unsavory practices might lurk behind the curtain of that dazzling show;
  • Psychological Implications of Enclosure: Some animals, especially those with advanced cognitive abilities like primates, grapple with significant psychological repercussions in captivity. A stark example can be found in the Tarsiers from the Philippines. These highly-sensitive creatures, when subjected to confinement, have exhibited alarming tendencies such as self-infliction. Such evidence underscores the imperative to reconsider the emotional and mental toll of captivity on these sentient beings.

Eco-Friendly Choices Beyond Zoos & Aquariums

Rather than touring a zoo, why not explore an ethical wildlife sanctuary? Ensure you’ve thoroughly vetted your choice, perhaps using resources such as the Global Federation of Wildlife Sanctuaries.

For marine life enthusiasts, think about volunteering with organizations like the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Costa Rica. Their mission revolves around research, education, and the conservation of marine species for future generations. Participating in beach clean-ups is also an excellent way to contribute to cleaner and safer oceans for marine life.

If you’re looking to immerse yourself directly, consider snorkeling or obtaining your PADI diving certification. Top destinations for PADI certification include Thailand, Egypt, and Malta.

2. Wildlife Sanctuaries

While numerous wildlife sanctuaries champion the cause of animal welfare and conservation, it’s crucial to approach them with discernment. The allure of terms like ‘conservation’, ‘wildlife protection’, and promises of animals that ‘roam freely’ can sometimes mask underlying unethical practices. A classic example is sanctuaries promoting their mission to save elephants from poachers but simultaneously allowing tourists to ride these elegant beings.

The Dark Side of Tiger Selfies

The phenomenon of tiger selfies, particularly in Asia, has intrigued many travelers seeking intimate encounters with these splendid animals. However, the harsh truth is that a genuine wild tiger isn’t naturally placid around humans; often, they are drugged to ensure their passivity.

Thailand emerges as a prime destination for such wildlife experiences. Tragically, many tigers there face distressing conditions, from being forcibly separated from their mothers at birth to enduring confinement, chaining, and continuous sedation. Certain notorious sanctuaries, such as the Tiger Kingdom, have even been implicated in trading tiger parts. A Vox article delves deeper into this alarming industry.

Eco-Friendly Wildlife Experiences Beyond Sanctuaries

Finding wildlife sanctuaries that operate ethically can be a challenge. However, resources like the Global Federation of Sanctuaries can guide you. It’s crucial to ensure that your chosen sanctuary prioritizes conservation, has a solid reputation, and discourages direct interactions like photography or physical contact with the animals.

For a more authentic connection with nature, consider immersive experiences like a canoe expedition down the Amazon River. Such adventures offer opportunities to observe stunning wildlife in their natural habitats.

3. Animal-Based Tourist Attractions

Wildlife encounters are frequently marketed to tourists, encompassing activities like lion treks, crocodile feedings, or shark diving adventures. However, these interactions come with several concerns, including potential disturbances to ecosystems, fostering unhealthy human-animal dynamics, and exerting stress on both the wildlife and the environment.

  • Delving Deeper into Crocodile Attractions: While crocodile farms might seem like an exhilarating tourist hotspot, there’s more than meets the eye. These farms commercialize crocodiles, turning them into mere attractions for selfies, feeding sessions, and even audacious shows. Such interactions not only rob these ancient reptiles of their natural behavior but also underline a broader issue of animal commodification and maltreatment in the name of entertainment;
  • Unraveling the Complexities of Shark Diving: For the adrenaline junkie, diving with sharks might top the adventure list. However, beneath the surface, this activity is riddled with ecological and behavioral concerns. The act of ‘chumming’—where operators release fish remnants to lure sharks—has implications beyond the obvious. Beyond the immediate disruption to marine life, it risks reshaping the sharks’ behavioral patterns. While sharks are typically reserved creatures, associating humans with food sources may lead to increased hostility, a deviation from their natural disposition;
  • Unmasking the Facade of Lion Walks: Touristic locales like South Africa have popularized the idea of “lion walks,” an experience where visitors can walk alongside these majestic big cats. But the backstory is less enchanting. To ensure safe human-lion interactions, these creatures are often prematurely separated from their maternal figures, compelling them to undergo a forced acclimatization to humans. This process may see lions housed in less-than-ideal conditions and trained to exhibit behaviors eerily reminiscent of domestic cats, diluting their wild essence.

Responsible Approaches to Wildlife Sightseeing

For those eager to witness animals in their natural habitats, it’s crucial to adopt a considerate approach. Opt for tours known for their responsible practices, ensuring minimal disturbances to wildlife. For instance, embark on a safari in Sri Lanka, where experienced guides facilitate respectful observations of elephants, leopards, and other wildlife from a non-intrusive distance.

4. The Ethical Concerns of Animal Riding

Using animals as modes of transportation or entertainment raises serious ethical concerns, as it often exploits them for financial gain. When tourism dictates an animal’s workload, it becomes a commercial endeavor rather than a compassionate interaction.

  • Camel Expeditions: In countries such as Morocco and Egypt, camels have historically served as transportation. However, today’s tourists might mount these creatures for a fleeting photo opportunity at the Pyramids or a short trek up a sand dune – activities that could easily be undertaken on foot;
  • Donkey Treks: Popular destinations, like Santorini in Greece, frequently showcase donkeys ferrying tourists uphill. These animals are often tethered in scorching conditions, deprived of water, and physically coerced to quicken their pace. Inadequate care, coupled with ill-fitting saddles, can result in painful sores;
  • City Horse Carriages: The idyllic image of horse-drawn carriage rides during city excursions belies the reality. These horses face long working hours, bearing significant loads, and are exposed to harmful urban pollutants. Once their service ends, many are tragically sent to slaughterhouses;
  • Horseback Adventures: If contemplating horseback riding, it’s essential to scrutinize the animals’ physical condition and observe the guides’ behavior towards them. Any signs of maltreatment, like excessive whipping, should be noted with concern;
  • Elephant Rides in Asia: In parts of Asia, elephant rides are a sought-after attraction. It’s crucial to recognize that these majestic beings are wild and potentially hazardous. Contrary to the popular belief of them being serene and human-friendly, they undergo a brutal “taming” process. This involves separating infants from their mothers, restraining them, and enforcing human dominance through harsh means, such as using heated prods.

Ethical Alternatives to Animal Riding

Instead of engaging in activities where animals are ridden for mere pleasure, consider walking alongside them or observing them from afar. When animals are used as a mode of transportation, alternatives like walking or using public transit are more humane choices. Supporting such practices with our wallets only perpetuates the industry. If you wish to appreciate these animals, embark on a responsible safari or visit a credible donkey sanctuary. Being informed and spreading awareness about the implications of animal rides is key to bringing about change.

Rethinking Common Wildlife Tourism Practices

Wildlife tourism, a booming sector of the travel industry, offers individuals the chance to get up close with nature’s most fascinating creatures. However, many of these interactions come at a significant cost to the animals involved. Tourist attractions, driven by the demand for unique and intimate encounters, regularly exploit animals for entertainment purposes. This could range from structured events like dolphin performances to more casual, yet still harmful, activities such as taking selfies with an elephant.

To ensure these animals remain docile and cooperative for human entertainment, many handlers and facilities resort to dominance-based techniques. These may encompass keeping the animals in confined and unnatural spaces, forcibly separating them from their families or social groups, or using physical force. As wildlife enthusiasts and responsible tourists, it’s crucial to research and support only those ventures that prioritize the animals’ welfare and promote their natural behaviors and habitats.

Ecosystem Disruption in Wildlife Tourism

While wildlife tourism aims to offer travelers unparalleled experiences with nature, its unintended consequences often ripple through entire ecosystems, affecting a multitude of species. Beyond the apparent and immediate harm to individual animals, these interactions can trigger far-reaching disturbances in environmental harmony. Such disruptions can arise from practices like feeding wildlife diets that deviate from their natural consumption patterns, clearing vast tracts of forests to create tourist-centric enclosures, or inundating serene natural habitats with large groups of tourists.

To illustrate, consider an experience in Langkawi, a popular tourist destination. Here, some tour guides, in an attempt to enhance the tourist experience, encourage visitors to feed eagles chicken skin. While this might seem like a harmless, fleeting interaction, it introduces an unnatural element into the eagles’ diet. Over time, such alterations can lead to imbalances in the local food chain, ultimately cascading into broader ecological disruptions. As the demand for wildlife tourism grows, it becomes paramount for both providers and tourists to understand and mitigate its potential adverse impacts on the environment.

Promoting Responsible Wildlife Tourism

The vast tapestry of wildlife that adorns our planet stands as a testament to nature’s brilliance, underscoring the urgency of preserving these treasures for future generations. While the allure of interacting with wildlife draws many tourists, it’s pivotal to channel this interest into sustainable and responsible avenues. Ethical wildlife tourism transcends mere observation. It encompasses sanctuaries dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of animals, such as the commendable efforts at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Beyond that, there are proactive marine conservation projects that actively seek volunteer assistance to shield critical nesting grounds.

A sobering statistic from World Animal Protection reveals that a staggering 550,000 wild animals are held in captivity, often under dire conditions, all in the name of tourist amusement.

An Important Takeaway: Amplifying the narrative around the adverse effects of heedless wildlife tourism can make a palpable difference. You can contribute by sharing enlightening documentaries, endorsing relevant petitions, or diving into hands-on conservation activities, like initiatives focused on reforestation.


Wildlife tourism, intrinsically, is a bridge connecting human beings with the diverse tapestry of animal life that shares our world. This form of tourism opens doors to witness, marvel at, and occasionally interact with animals, be it in the untouched wild or in managed settings. While it undeniably deepens our connection and admiration for the wonders of the animal realm, it comes with an inherent responsibility. Pursuing wildlife tourism with an ethical compass not only prioritizes the well-being and dignity of these creatures but also champions the preservation of their native environments. By committing to responsible practices, we’re not just ensuring the survival of myriad species, but we’re also enhancing the ecological equilibrium and fostering a globally engaged and environmentally conscious society.

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