• John Hasse

Ending Animal Abuse in the Growing Global Wildlife Tourism Industry

Global wildlife tourism is by no means new, but it has exploded over the last several years, as once-exotic animal encounters have been turned into Instagram-driven bucket-list photo ops. Images that one would have seen in only in guidebooks a few years ago are now shared instantly with thousands across the world. From selfie-taking backpackers petting Bengal tigers, to tour-bus groups swimming with Amazonian dolphins, to millennial social media “influencers” high-fiving circus bears in Russia, wildlife tourism has gone viral, as more and more travelers are touting up-close experiences with animals. In fact, nearly two times as many trips are being taken abroad as 15 years ago, a jump driven in large part by the growing numbers of Chinese travelers, who spend more on international travel than any other nationality. But what is the cost of this increased interest and one-upmanship created?

While social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram provide a great deal of visibility for these amazing animals, they don’t show what happens beyond the view of the camera lens. The majority of people who are exhilarated from getting up close and personal with wild animals are oftentimes unaware of the terrible conditions in which many of these animals live. In fact, many actually believe the animals they are paying to interact with are having fun.

Among the most ill-treated of these on-display wildlife are elephants, the national animal of Thailand. It is estimated that the country has roughly 3,800 captive elephants, many of which perform a variety of acts including playing the harmonica, throwing darts, painting portraits and of course providing daily rides for visitors. From the time they are only 4 years old all the way into their late 50s, these elephants, which are among the smartest creatures on earth, are forced to partake in one of the many animal attraction events located throughout heavily-trodden tourist routes. Spending much of their life either performing or chained to a post in a dark stall, these amazing animals are lucky if they get even a few years of retirement.

Changing the trajectory of the wildlife tourism industry is no easy task, but it is possible. By supporting responsible and ecologically sensitive businesses, which adhere to the UN sustainability goals regarding the proper treatment of animals, we can create a new way for travelers to interact with amazing, often-endangered animals across the world. Read on for 4 ways in which you can become part of the global wildlife tourism solution:

1. Visit Sanctuaries, Not Entertainment Acts

Finding facilities with the ultimate goal to care for, rehabilitate and release animals back into their natural habitat is ideal. Unlike circuses, zoos or traveling oceanariums where animals are either performing or interacting with tourists (giving rides, posing with them), sanctuaries attempt to mimic the wild as much as possible, allowing the animals inhabiting them to behave more naturally and live more comfortably. Well-informed guides, rather than prod-bearing task masters, take groups of visitors around to view the animals living there as well as educate travelers on the problems of captive animals used for entertainment. When researching potential facilities, be sure to look for ones where animals have: an appropriate environment, including ample space, a comfortable resting area, a secluded place away from crowds as well as access to clean water and food at all times. (NB: A facility with a high rating on TripAdvisor may not be a humane one.)

2. Forget the Selfies and Keep it Wild

If you’re interested in interacting with wild animals, it’s best to set the proper expectations. Reduce the demand for illegal wildlife acts and performances by seeking experiences that offer observation of animals engaging in natural behaviors in natural environments rather than experiences with large crowds that can cause animals distress, especially for those that have experienced fear-based training, separation from their mothers at birth, or other trauma. Instead of looking for that perfect photo opportunity, be mindful that you are with a creature that is not used to interacting with human beings. Oftentimes, preparing food, cleaning their living quarters or simply collecting observational data to pass along to future visitors is how you can best care for these amazing animals.

3. Support Animal Friendly Tour Operators

Many travel companies have boldly moved away from the dirty profits associated with cruel wildlife tourism entertainment and each day more and more are following their lead. In fact, many companies have committed to finding ways to provide wildlife-friendly experiences for their customers, be it educational or fun. Please be sure to do your research on which companies are currently visiting animal-friendly wildlife facilities and avoid companies that are not.

4. Spread the Word

Organizations like National Geographic, World Animal Protection and the World Wildlife Fund are among those at the forefront of the movement to change the global wildlife tourism industry. Speaking up on behalf of the animals threatened by poachers and trainers can have a huge impact on shifting the dialogue within this burgeoning sector of the travel industry. Similarly, working to push governments to protect threatened animal populations by increasing law enforcement, imposing strict deterrents, reducing demand for endangered species products and entertainment as well as honoring international commitments to protect animal welfare are of the utmost importance if long-lasting change is to come.

Individual actions add up to make a collective difference. Through our combined efforts, travelers can signal the global wildlife tourism market that we support ethical wildlife encounters. By deciding we want humane treatment of animals across the world, the global wildlife tourism industry will change for the better.

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