If you are dreaming of or planning your gap year or backpacking trip at the moment, I’ll bet a great deal of you have harbored dreams of seeing some sort of exotic animal up close, maybe even interacting or volunteering with them, right?
Well, you aren’t alone.
Wildlife spotting and interaction is one of the most popular bucket list items on many travelers’ lists, and opportunities to see one of the ‘big 5’ up close or take a wildlife tour or safari are hugely popular. Swimming with sharks or dolphins, orangutan spotting, elephant trekking, gorilla trekking — the list is very long and the numbers of people lining up to take part is growing by the day, with many tourists expressing the wish to see some of nature’s most beautiful creatures ‘in their natural habitat’, a phrase rendered meaningless by the fact it often has so little thought behind it. Even more traditional forms of wildlife and animal tourism, ranging from zoos and aquariums to animal sanctuaries remain high on many tourists wish lists of places to visit.
Wildlife tourism has become an integral part of the gap year and tourism industries in recent years. Many industry organizations and providers use wildlife as a unique selling point by offering a wide variety of wildlife spotting and interaction packages and tours alongside the all important RTW ticket and insurance package. Look at any glossy gap year industry brochure and you will see pictures of cute animals alongside the ancient temples and exotic beaches, all designed to entice you in and get you to buy any given package.
The appeal is obvious, especially to animal lovers. Who wouldn’t want to see a gorilla in the jungles of Uganda, wild hippos or elephants in Ghana or spot an orangutan in Borneo? Who wouldn’t want to see a lion roar majestically just feet away from them or see penguins dance through the water in their large enclosures? Who wouldn’t want the chance to take up the romanticized opportunity to trek with elephants through a jungle?
I’m not immune from that appeal myself; as an avid animal lover, I have always wanted to see animals whenever I could since I started backpacking over a decade ago, and whenever I am traveling – even now – I always seek out opportunities to see or help animals of any kind whenever I can. I have always tried to support animal conservation and protection, but I think the big difference now as opposed to when I first started traveling is that I like to think my decisions are a little more informed now than they used to be on which animal attractions I support, and I try to make the best decisions I can to only support those organizations and attractions that help and protect animals and make efforts to secure their conservation.
I’m not perfect, and I’m ashamed to admit in the past I haven’t always made the best choices — not out of ill will or malice but largely out of a lack of knowledge at the time. Many parts of the wildlife tourism industry are very deceptive, portraying a benign facade of animal protection and conservation when their primary motive has been profit. I have visited places that at the time I thought were treating the animals right, only to later find out they weren’t conforming to best practices. I have been on elephant treks and safaris that I know know weren’t exactly beneficial to the animals involved. And yes, I am ashamed of that. One thing I can say however is that in all my years backpacking I like to think I have grown, learned and changed my practices so that now my decisions are far more informed than they used to be. Now I can support parts of the wildlife tourism industry that are getting it right, and do my part – however small – in helping and protecting the animals I love seeing.
The problem is a lot of the time wildlife tourism can do far more harm than good.
Wildlife tourism can be a huge force for good if done in the right way, and can play a large and important role in highlighting conservation issues and protecting animal rights. When done right, it can create a revenue stream for a local population giving them the personal incentive to ensure that an animal’s natural habitat is preserved and protected. When done right, wildlife tourism gives local tourist industries a personal investment and self interest in preserving and protecting animal rights. Wildlife tourism can help to stop activities such as poaching and illegal hunting by giving the powers that be a financial incentive to get off their backsides and do something about it, and it can help to highlight bad practices on the world stage through constant social media attention and give businesses an incentive to stick to international standards on animal welfare.
There are plenty of businesses and organizations within the wildlife tourism industry that are getting it right. Some zoos – far from being the hellish prisons with cramped enclosures some people mistakenly label all zoos as – actually adhere to the international code of ethics set out by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They make great strides in conservation efforts and breeding programs that are held to international standards. They educate the general public about conservation and animal welfare and at a base level they can give the general public an emotional and psychological connection to the animal welfare cause.
There are a wide range of conservation camps, animal sanctuaries, tour groups and safaris that all work within international standards for animal welfare and conservation, and utilize tourist support only in so far as it actually benefits the true conservation efforts of the animals involved.
When these industries are supported by tourists, they can provide an essential link in the wildlife tourism triangle of animal welfare, tourist and industry and become a mutually beneficial link in the chain that can help promote and achieve wildlife protection.
Unfortunately this isn’t always the case and the problem is a lot of the time wildlife tourism can do far more harm than good.
For every good organization, business or tour group out there, there are many more who don’t have the animals interests at heart. A combination of greed, opportunism, apathy and a huge lack of education and understanding from the general public can lead to animals actually being harmed and exploited by the wildlife tourism industry and the very tourists who have come to see them.
Some animal abuse is blatantly obvious, bullfighting in Spain or the Pamplona bull run are both visibly cruel and abusive to the animals involved, but there are a huge range of activities and organizations that exploit animals which are not so immediately apparent and tourists – often unwittingly – support these practices by turning up in droves and paying a lot of money to see or use them. Put quite simply, many tourist activities that abuse, harm or exploit animals only continue because tourists choose to support them.
The now infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand is a prime example of this. Despite years of documented proof of abuse and campaigns for it to be shut down by various animal rights charities and NGOs, it still hides behind a benign facade of conservation and protection. Thanks in part to a complete lack of education or understanding of the issues involved on the part of the tourists and travelers who visit, the temple is one of the most popular tourist draws in Thailand and brings in substantial tourist revenue not only to the temple itself but to the myriad of tour operators, guesthouses and other businesses that support it. No matter that the tigers are clearly abused and exploited, at least the visitors get a nice little Facebook profile picture of them cuddling a cub or sitting next to a full grown tiger.
This unfortunately isn’t the only example. All over the world tourists sit at so called conservation camps cheering and clapping as various wild animals perform for their pleasure. They frequent zoos that are run for profit and commercial gain with poor conditions and little or no efforts made toward international conservation. They pose for photos with cute little animals made to perform for their pleasure or utilize animal transport that doesn’t always care for the animals in the way that they should be. They swim with dolphins who are often either forced to perform numerous times daily or in the wild chased down by hordes of motor boats full of fee paying tourists completely unaware of the long term damage they could be doing to the very animals they have come to see. The examples to choose from are unfortunately pretty extensive.
Care for the Wild International has set up a campaign to educate the general public and ensure that wildlife tourism industry complies with international standards for the protection and treatment of the animals. The RIGHT tourism campaign highlights those parts of the industry that are getting it right by getting them to sign up to their RIGHT tourism pledge on animal welfare, as well as naming and shaming those parts of the wildlife tourism industry that are blatantly exploiting and abusing animals. The campaign aims to ensure that wildlife tourism actually benefits conservation efforts and helps to ensure the animals involved are treated correctly.
It isn’t just about the wildlife tourism industry though. Tourists, backpackers and travelers themselves play a huge part in ensuring that activities that exploit or abuse animals are stamped out, and the RIGHT tourism campaign has set out a list of dos and don’ts for being an animal friendly tourist.
The RIGHT tourism campaign aims to make tourists ask themselves if what they are doing is good for the animals involved, or are they actually doing more harm than good. It aims to make the general public think twice about their actions and make them realize that perhaps sitting on top of a brow beaten tiger for a photo opportunity or chasing down an animal in its ‘natural environment’ for a glimpse of them isn’t exactly the best thing for the animals involved. If the general public are aware of the facts about the treatment of animals for the wildlife tourism industry, then they can make fully informed and ethical choices about which businesses and organizations to support.
You have a choice to shun cruel practices and support positive ones.
By applying just a little thought and knowledge to our actions on our travels and by making informed decisions about which parts of the wildlife industry we support, then every single one of us can ensure than through our actions tourism can actually benefit animal welfare and conservation around the world instead of harming it.
If backpackers, independent travelers and tourists alike all choose to shun any business or attraction that contributes to the poor care or abuse of animals, and instead choose to support those attractions which help, protect and conserve animals and their habitats, then we can all make a real difference. Only then we can argue that wildlife tourism is a good idea.