People are captivated by wild animals and are willing to travel long distances and pay large sums of money to see and interact with them. Unfortunately, the desire for a close encounter can have devastating impacts on the animals we love.

Join the movement to protect wild animals and prevent further suffering by following this Guide to Cruelty-Free Wildlife Tourism.

Cruelty-Free Wildlife Tourism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“If you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with a wild animal, the chances are it’s a cruel venue.” 

– World Animal Protection

A recent study by World Animal Protection found that 75% of wildlife tourist attractions involve animal abuse. Despite this, millions of tourists visit wildlife attractions every year, unaware that they are supporting animal cruelty and, in some cases, pushing endangered species closer to extinction.

Wild Animals are NOT Entertainers

Wild animals used for entertainment purposes are often forcibly removed from their natural habitat and placed into a life of exploitation and abuse. Many are taken from their mothers, then beaten and trained to perform tricks, give rides, or sit passively for photos.

Sadly, it’s the larger and more intelligent animals that suffer the most.

Take, for example, elephants used in elephant rides. While they may appear to be well cared for, the reality is heartbreaking.

Young elephants are highly sought after because they are easier to trap, transport and train. While some are bred in captivity, others are caught in the wild. This is done by trapping young infant and adolescent elephants in pits from which they can’t escape, separating them from their families. After being transported to their destination, they undergo “the crush” – a terrible training process that involves painful restraints and cruel beatings with sharp spikes. In some cases, the elephants are deprived of sleep, food and water to assist in breaking their spirit and making them submissive to their handlers.

The suffering doesn’t end there. For the rest of their lives, these elephants are forced to transport tourists, spending any spare time physically restrained and isolated.

Worst Offenders

In addition to elephant rides, World Animal Protection considers the following to be the cruelest wildlife attractions:

  • Tiger selfies
  • Walking with lions
  • Bear parks
  • Handling sea turtles
  • Captive dolphins
  • Dancing monkeys
  • Touring civet coffee plantations
  • Snake charmers
  • Crocodile farms

(Click here to read the full report.)

Separating the Good from the Bad

The good news is that 25% of wildlife tourism has a positive impact. Thanks to growing concern from the public and animal welfare organizations, an increasing number of tourism companies are making animal welfare a priority. In addition to sharing unforgettable experiences, responsible tour operators can:

  • Help to protect local wildlife and preserve their natural habitat
  • Educate locals and tourists on the importance of protecting wild animals
  • Provide local communities with a vital source of income

The challenge? Separating the good from the bad.

Wildlife tourism is a massive business and generates billions of dollars in profit ever year. So, it’s no surprise tourism companies attract visitors by claiming that animal welfare is their top priority – when, in reality, this is just a sales tactic.

“Our dolphins are rescued and have no other place to go.”

“These elephants are well taken care of and have a close relationship with their handlers.”

“We rescued this abandoned tiger cub – the money you’ve spent to take a picture with it goes towards protecting other tigers.”

Who can you trust?

Because there is no globally accepted code of conduct governing wildlife tourism, every venue or tour operator can claim their animals are happy and taken care of. This has resulted in much of wildlife tourism falling into a large gray area. Until this changes, it’s ultimately up to us to end the cycle of animal cruelty by taking a stand for animal welfare.

Responsible Wildlife Tourism Companies: What to Look For

Protect animal welfare on your next trip. Before participating in a wildlife tour or volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary, make sure it meets the following criteria:

Responsible wildlife tour operators and sanctuaries NEVER:

  • Allow contact between wildlife and people – this includes riding, petting, holding, or washing a wild animal. The only exception is if an animal is being cared for or treated by a qualified veterinarian or other trained professional.
  • Interferes with wildlife or its habitat – like shouting or doing something to attract its attention, trampling vegetation, or littering.
  • Restrains wild animals with chains or leashes. 
  • Deprives a wild animal of basic needs or causes distress or suffering – sanctuaries, or any facility that houses wild animals, must provide adequate food, water, shelter, and care. Animals should have room to roam, play, and hide in an area mimicking its natural habitat.
  • Removes healthy animals from the wild, or makes profits from breeding or trading – ethical wildlife sanctuaries are non-profit organizations that rescue, rehabilitate and release wild animals. The limited funds they receive – usually from donations and tourist fees – support operating costs.
  • Use wild animals for entertainment purposes – for example, watching them perform tricks, using them as photographic props, or for any other unnatural or humanized activities.

The BEST tour operators and sanctuaries:

Now that you know how to identify responsible wildlife tourism companies, the next step is to:

Spread the Word

As informed citizens, it’s up to us to spread awareness and encourage people to stop supporting businesses that harm animals. If people are aware of the negative implications, they are less likely to participate.

Report Animal Cruelty

If you suspect an animal is being abused or neglected – do something about it! Report it to local authorities or a local animal welfare organization. Overseas and not sure who to contact? A quick google search should do the trick.

10 Cruelty-Free Wildlife Encounters

In our Guide to Cruelty-Free Wildlife Tourism (hyperlink to previous post), we discussed the current state of the wildlife tourism industry, as well as the benefits of supporting responsible wildlife tourism companies and how to identify them. Taking this into consideration, we’ve done the research and compiled a list of unforgettable wildlife encounters hosted by responsible organizations – all of which are dedicated to protecting animal welfare and educating others on the importance of conservation.

Now go forth and travel with kindness!

Elephants:

  1. Watch families of wild African elephants in South Africa’s Kruger National Park

Nothing takes your breath away like seeing an elephant in the wild. Whether they’re strutting across the African savannah or hosing each other down at a waterhole – observing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is by far the best way to appreciate their size, intelligence, and heartwarming group dynamic. In addition to a healthy population of African elephants, the protected national park is home to lions, rhinos, leopards and buffalo.

More information: http://www.krugerpark.co.za

2. Volunteer with Asian elephants at the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS)

Work alongside scientists, conservationists and others dedicated to preserving Asian elephant populations (as well as leopards and sloth bears) as part of SLWCS’ unique and life-changing changing volunteer program. Located in Wasgamuwa National Park, volunteers work hand-in-hand with staff to carry out essential conservation work heavily focused on research and education.

More information: http://www.slwcs.org/get-involved-cgbm

Avoid: Elephant rides and performing elephants.

According to World Animal Protection, these attractions top the list as the cruelest forms of wildlife tourism. Young elephants are taken from their families to undergo a terribly cruel training process to break their spirit and make them submissive to their handlers. Known as “the crush”, it involves painful restraints, beatings with sharp spikes, and, in some cases, deprivation of sleep, food and water.

Photo credit: Rockingham Wild Adventures

3. Take a dip with wild dolphins in Rockingham, Western Australia. 

The warm waters of Western Australia offer some of the world’s best opportunities for memorable   encounters with wild dolphins. Since the 1960s, humans and dolphins have lived and played harmoniously in the protected bays of Rockingham and Shoalwater Island Marine Park, which is home to over 250 wild bottlenose dolphins. Thanks to Australia’s firm commitment to ethical wildlife tourism, this is one of the few places you can swim – or, rather float – in close proximity to large numbers of these incredible creatures in a responsible manner.

More information: www.rockinghamwildencounters.com.au

Avoid: Swimming with captive dolphins or watching dolphins perform at marine parks.

The life of a captive dolphin is an unhappy one. Dolphins are incredibly intelligent, cognitive and emotional animals. Because of their ever-present smiles it’s easy to anthropomorphize (project human emotions) on them. But, what we interpret as a happy expression can obscure the animal’s true situation – especially when they are captive.

Captive dolphins are usually born in the wild. They are caught via speed boat, separated from their pod and trapped in nets before being transported to their destination. Many die during this process. The ones that do survive live out the rest of their lives in confinement, devoid of the complex social structures and endless ocean habitat they’re accustomed to – all for human entertainment.

4. Splash around with wild sea lions at Baird Bay, South Australia.

Baird Bay on the coast of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula is home to a colony of endangered Australian sea lions. After falling head over heels with these handsome, intelligent creatures, a select few have worked tirelessly to protect them and share the joy of interacting with them.  Since the early 1990s, these friendly and inquisitive sea lions – which aren’t fed or enticed in any way – have stolen the hearts of many. Though, it’s no surprise. Who can resist those round, soulful eyes, and playful underwater acrobatics?

More information: www.bairdbay.com/generalinfo.htm

Avoid: Swimming with captive sea lions or watching them perform at marine parks.

Like dolphins and whales, sea lions are intelligent mammals that can be tamed and taught to perform tricks. Captive sea lions are confined in small, isolated areas. If they’re lucky, they will have a companion or two – a far cry from the large social structures of wild sea lions. Like dolphins and whales, captive sea lions often suffer physical and psychological illnesses due to confinement. These range from skin rashes and sunburns to psychological stress and shock.

Primates:

5. Lend a hand to rescued orangutans at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) Samboja Lestari Eco-Lodge

Borneo is one of two places where the critically endangered orangutan still survives – making any encounter with this fascinating mammal a privilege.

Located in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, BOSF rescues, rehabilitates and releases (when possible) orangutans who have lost their habitat, been orphaned in the wild or kept illegally as pets. Since it was founded in 1991, BOSF has rescued 2,200 orangutans.

Volunteers are fully immersed in orangutan conservation, with activities ranging from gathering, preparing and delivering food for the furry residents to cleaning enclosures, construction and collecting behavioral data – all of which is used to help ensure their release into the wild.

More information: www.thegreatprojects.com/projects/samboja-lestari-orangutan-volunteer-project

6. Meet your close relatives (gorillas) in Bwindi, Uganda.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is composed of mist-covered hillsides sheltered by ancient and biologically diverse rainforest that houses a staggering number of rare and wonderful plant and animal species – most notably, the charming mountain gorilla. The park is home to around 340 of the world’s 800 mountain gorillas.

As you can imagine, reaching the gorillas requires a fair bit of effort. After hours of trekking, visitors are limited to one hour with the rare primates – but it’s well worth it. After encountering the gorillas himself, BBC Wildlife columnist Mark Carwardine described the experience as “one of the most emotional, humbling and exhilarating hours of my life.”

More information: http://www.nathab.com/africa/custom-uganda-gorillas-safari/dates-fees/

Avoid: Any entertainment involving performing primates.

Many species of primates are exploited for entertainment purposes. Typically taken from their mothers as infants, young primates undergo painful training to make them perform tricks or exhibit human-like behaviors. When they’re not entertaining, they are usually confined in tiny cages or kept on restrictive chains or leashes. These chains can become embedded in their sensitive skin and cause painful infections.

7. Snorkel with sea turtles.

Unlike the other experiences on this list, an organized tour isn’t required to observe sea turtles in the wild – all you need is snorkel equipment and the right location. Although all seven species of sea turtles are endangered, two species – the green and hawksbill sea turtle – are abundant in certain areas, including:

  • Gilli Meno Island, Indonesia
  • Hawaii, USA
  • Ecuador, Galapagos
  • Cook Islands, New Zealand
  • Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
  • Turneffe Atoll, Belize
  • Sipidan Island, Malaysian Borneo
  • Ko Phra Thong, Thailand

Sea turtles are protected in the majority – if not all – of these locations. And, chances are you’ll encounter a plethora of other wonderful sea creatures like tropical fish, crabs, corals, sharks, whales, and rays.

Avoid: Turtle farms or any venue that encourages handling or touching sea turtles, or sells them for profit.

Human contact can be detrimental to sea turtles – particularly newly hatched young. It can weaken their immune system making them susceptible to disease. It can also cause them to panic, which triggers erratic movement that can cause injuries including fractures, bleeding and bruising – it also increases the likelihood of being dropped. Unlike wild sea turtles, captive or farmed sea turtles are much more susceptible to stress, disease and cannibalism.

Bears:

8. Spot wild polar bears in Churchill, Canada

Polar bears both symbolize and put a loveable face to the daunting issue of climate change. Recognized as the ‘polar bear capital of the world’ Churchill is one of the only locations these magnificent arctic icons can be seen in the wild. The curious bears are known to come right up to the specially designed tundra vehicles for a better look. October and November are the best times to catch a glimpse of the bears as they head out onto the ice to hunt seals. Don’t be surprised if you spot other unique flora and fauna including beluga whales, chubby harp seals and arctic foxes.

More information: www.everythingchurchill.com

9. Lend a helping hand at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre 

The BSBCC is one of only two sun bear conservation facilities in the world. Sun bears, the smallest and one of the rarest species of bear, have become increasingly threatened due to deforestation, illegal hunting for bear parts, and the poaching of cubs to sell as pets.

Established in 2014, the organization houses rescued bears in large natural habitats, facilitating their rehabilitation and eventual release back into the wild. Volunteers play an important role in this process. In addition to working closely with researchers and biologists to learn about sun bear behavior and conservation, volunteers assist in activities like enrichment programs, feeding, cleaning, and maintaining enclosures. Education is also a major component – volunteers can expect to leave this experience with a whole new understanding and appreciation for these unique animals.

More information: www.bsbcc.org.my/volunteer.html

Avoid: Visiting captive bears in bear parks.

Bear parks contain one or more “pits” holding a number of bears. They are severely overcrowded and devoid of enrichment or stimulation – like trees, rocks, grass or anything else that resembles a bear’s natural habitat. As bears are typically solitary in the wild, the stressful environment and crowding often leads to disease, fighting, and serious injuries that go untreated. Some of these parks train bears to participate in circus-like attractions, where they’re forced to dress up and perform tricks such as riding a bike.

10. Volunteer with rescued tigers and lions at Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa

Many previously captive wild animals can be successfully reintroduced into their native habitats. Unfortunately, most attempts to ‘re-wild’ big cats have failed. When raised by humans, cubs do not learn how to hunt or fear humans. Set free, they are unable to feed, defend themselves or socialize with others. And, they are attracted to people – which can be fatal for both parties.

The Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa was established to provide a home for big cats rescued from zoos, circuses or private captivity. The cats live in large areas closely resembling their natural habitat, with plenty of room to roam, play and rest. The organization depends on volunteers to help with many critical aspects of the animals’ welfare and maintenance of the sanctuary. For those willing to lend a helping hand – expect an experience that is as rewarding as it is challenging. Volunteers work five days a week and assist in activities ranging from monitoring and observing behavior to feeding, cleaning, looking after visitors, and patrolling sanctuary borders.

More information: www.lionsrock.org/get-active/volunteer/

Avoid: Taking selfies with tiger or lion cubs, or the participating in the recently introduced “walking with lions” tours.

Tiger cubs are separated from their mothers at a young age so they can be used as photo props for tourists. While many venues claim their tiger cubs are rescued, this is rarely – if ever – the truth. When the cubs aren’t being poked and prodded, they are kept chained in small cages.

The story is similar for lion cubs. They are taken from their mothers at a young age and used as photo props. Once they’re too large to pick up, juvenile lions – that are still young enough to control – graduate to “walking with lions” tours, where groups of tourists are joined by a number of captive and somewhat tame lions.

The sad story only continues as these large cats – unable to be released – are destined for a life in captivity. The best-case scenario is that they will end up in a sanctuary like Lionsrock.

For more information on cruelty-free wildlife tourism, check out these resources:

World Animal Protection’s Checking out of Cruelty report

World Animal Sanctuary Protection’s list of ethical sanctuaries


About the author: Lauren Burn from the Turnt Turnip (follow her on Instagram @the.turnt.turnip)

The Turnt Turnip is a blog dedicated to conservation and reducing humanity’s carbon footprint. It shares delicious vegetarian recipes and entertaining insights on living a sustainable lifestyle.