Finding your dream wildlife experience is easy but knowing if it’s ethical or not can be much more difficult. On World Tourism Day, Wild Welfare is asking you to choose your holiday options very carefully.
Before you pack your bags, board a plane and depart your home country for distant and exotic lands, firstly ask yourself whether abroad is really the place to go? If it’s wildlife experiences you’re after, you may be astounded at what you can see on your doorstep. Check out the local wildlife scene and cut down on carbon emissions whilst you do it.
If, however, you do decide to get on a plane for your trip, look into carbon offsetting schemes. These allow you to invest in environmental projects that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions which will offset the carbon footprint made by taking a flight. Wild Welfare supports Plant Your Future which ensures protection for rain forests in Peru through the support of local communities and sustainable agriculture.
Secondly, no matter where you decide to go, if your experience involves animals, ask yourself whether there is any benefit for the animal in question. Sadly, there is a dark side to animal tourism that is difficult to avoid. We’ve put together our top tips to help you make an informed choice.
The best way to assess if an exotic and exciting wildlife experience is truly ethical is to consider the following…
- Can you cuddle it? Many experiences offer the chance to cuddle all sorts of animal species but they are usually taken unnecessarily from their mothers and hand reared purposefully for that experience. Big cat cuddles are hugely popular but once they are beyond the “cuddly” stage and become too dangerous, they are then used for canned hunting. Don’t cuddle wild animals.
- Can you ride it? Riding elephants forces them to carry loads over the weakest point of their spine, causing it to flatten over time. They can be overworked to the point of collapse with even their basic welfare needs not being met. Riding any animal, or utilising an animal being forced to carry heavy loads for long distances often results in long working days for these animals, with limited breaks from the noise and tourists. Consider donkey’s used to carry tourists luggage or pull heavy carts filled with too many people. Don’t ride animals.
- Can you get a selfie with it? A selfie with an animal might appear harmless, but that individual has no choice in the matter, and might be wheeled out hour-after-hour, day-after-day, which is stressful and harmful to their health and welfare. Don’t take selfies with photo prop animals and do not get too close to wildlife for a selfie.
- Is the animal an unnatural colour? White lions and tigers may look beautiful but they are purposefully bred by humans to produce the colour, usually resulting in health problems due to the high degree of relatedness between mating partners. Don’t support places with unnaturally coloured animals if they are claiming they are an endangered species.
- Can you feed it? Wild animals should not be fed. They become accustomed to the handouts and therefore expectant. Aggression can then occur when they do not receive food from humans. Do not feed wild animals.
- How close can you get? If a tour offers a ‘close encounter’, this might mean harassment of the wildlife in question. It might not sound as exciting but observing wildlife from a respectful distance through a good pair of binoculars is much safer, and you’ll be rewarded with natural behaviours to observe.
- Was is once alive? Buying a souvenir shell or keepsake animal part could be fuelling illegal wildlife trade. Make sure all souvenirs that you purchase are ethically produced.
- Does the tourism company have an accreditation scheme? Reputable and ethical wildlife viewing companies will follow certain rules set down by schemes aimed at ensuring ethical practices are adhered to at all times. As an example, whale watching in the UK follows the WiSe scheme.
YOU hold the power to make choices that speak volumes. What you choose to experience and avoid can send a clear message to tourism companies. This has already been happening for several years with companies such as TripAdvisor introducing policies that involve refusal to sell tickets to certain venues whose ethical practices may be questionable. You too can be part of the movement demanding nothing but ethical and sustainable tourism in every part of the world.
That choice can have further reaching impacts than you ever imagined. If a local ranger is paid to show you wildlife, that person is more likely to want to protect it, thus ensuring the guardianship of that entire habitat, funded by your spectacular experience.
If you really want to experience animals at close quarters on your trip then consider volunteering for an organisation that needs your help with daily animal care. This does not involve animal cuddling but rather mucking out, enrichment invention and feed preparation. Two good examples of this are run by Free the Bears in Cambodia and MONA Chimpanzee sanctuary in Spain.
Be cautious with choosing facilities and do your research. Don’t fall for the first facility you find with the word “sanctuary” stamped across its doors. Make sure its policies are ethical and its decisions are made with animal welfare as the core fundamental in everything it does. Contact the organisation and ask questions to learn about the animals and what you’ll be doing. If they refuse to answer questions or only give vague answers, it might be best avoided.
If you really want close contact, try a work stay with domesticated animals. They may not be as exotic, but that doesn’t make them any less fun. Work stays like this will save you heaps of money and really immerse you into the local culture whilst getting your animal fix.
Overall, you need to balance what you want out of an experience with animal welfare. Don’t fall for the first charity that claims to help conservation. Be prepared to report animal welfare concerns that you see too. Make sure you gather as much information as possible, ideally taking photos as well. Apps such as Wildlife Witness help tourists easily report wildlife trade concerns.
Do your research, speak to others who have been there and expect to be an animal keeper rather than a cuddler, an observer rather than an interactor, and overall, a tourist that makes ethical choices.
Image © Wild Welfare.