In an increasingly urbanized world, wildlife tourism is gaining more and more popularity, and many travellers choose to spend their holidays getting to know – even volunteering with, wild animals.
Unfortunately, in the vast majority of activities with animals, what we see are creatures torn away from their natural habitat and placed into an artificial one where they suffer and are forced to perform in ways which are unnatural for them.
Every year, travellers, volunteers and animal lovers unwittingly contribute to the cruel exploitation of those very same animals they so badly wanted to see and help.
While failing to support those centres and organizations that actually struggle to rescue endangered wildlife and promote responsible tourism activities.
How to Differentiate Responsible Animal Tourism from Exploitation Tourism
Many animal centres (even private individuals) run under misleading names such as shelters or orphanages, which claim to “rescue” animals or play a role in conservation, thus playing with the sensitivity of tourists.
However, many of them are nothing else than just another business where economic profit rules and where animals are forced to carry out unnatural behaviours. So, before buying the ticket, paying for a picture or deciding to volunteer in a rescue centre, travellers should make sure that the facility they have chosen puts animal welfare first.
Examples of Exploitation Tourism
In general, we can say that any facility that, while claiming to have animals’ best interest at heart, keeps animals chained, caged or in pools, or allows interactions with the public, photo-prop opportunities and organize shows with animals should be avoided.
- A big cats’ rescue centre would never allow its visitors to interact or pose with tigers or lions: this would be extremely dangerous for the tourists and would also probably mean that the animals may have been drugged to keep them calm and docile. This is why, while travelling around Asia people should avoid places like The Tiger Temple, The Tiger Kingdom (both located in Thailand) or the Xiongsen Bear and Tiger Mountain Village in China. And, remember that all these centres have been linked to the traffic of tiger parts for the Asian traditional medicine.
- In many popular tourist spots (such as the famous Quinta Avenida in Cancun, Mexico) tourists are offered the opportunity to take pictures with lion or tiger cubs while their owners claim these animals belong to a rescue centre and their money will be used to feed the orphan cubs.
- No rescue organization would ever allow wild animals’ cubs to be torn from their mothers, to pose with tourists and to remain chained to a table for most of the day, and the sad truth is that these animals will probably be dismissed and replaced as soon as they grow too big and strong.
- The same goes for “playing with” or “walking with” lion cubs’ activities in South Africa. Sadly, they are offered by breeding centres that make money out of tourists, generally before selling their animals to the canned hunt industry.
- Elephant “camps” and “orphanages” are extremely popular in Asia and especially in Thailand. But places like the Bali Elephant Camp in Indonesia, the Millennium Elephant Foundation in Sri Lanka, the Maetamang Rafting Elephant Camp or the Maesa Elephant Camp in Thailand shouldn’t deceive responsible travellers: painting, riding motorbikes, dancing, playing football and riding aren’t natural activities for these animals, that have generally been captured in the wild at a young age, “domesticated” with a cruel and sometimes deadly process named “breaking their spirit” and are now forced, day after day, to carry out activities that are extremely harmful and stressful to them while remaining chained for most of the time.
- Animals such as turtles and crocodiles are often converted into tourist attractions in very similar “farms” or “conservation centres”: at the Cayman Turtle Farm (Island Wildlife Encounter) in the Cayman Island and the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm & Zoo in Thailand animals are exposed to the public in small, dirty or crowded pools and are even forced to interact with the visitors or their keepers.
- Dolphins are probably the most popular animals among tourists, and companies like Dolphinaris (Mexico), SeaWorld (Unites States) and Zoomarine Algarve (Portugal) that allow people to interact and swim with them are not being responsible. The sad truth is that these intelligent mammals suffer greatly in captivity and this kind of interactions can be dangerous for both animals and visitors.
Examples of Responsible Animal Tourism
Travellers have plenty of alternatives to meet animals in a responsible way including:
- Elephant Nature Park, Burm and Emily’s elephant sanctuary or Boon Lott’s elephant Sanctuary (Thailand) are great places to see elephants roaming freely in a natural environment and carrying out their normal behaviours;
- Lilongwe Wildlife Centre (Malawi), MONA Foundation (Spain) and the Wildlife Friends Foundation (Thailand) are great options to get to know different species of big cats, primates and other animals while actually helping them.
- By volunteering with programs like the Barbados Sea Turtle Project (Barbados) people can have the chance to help recover the local marine turtle populations and by enrolling in one of the expeditions of Projecte Ninam (Spain) visitors can see and help to study local cetaceans’ populations.
- Animal watching (such as safaris and birdwatching activities) – if carried out in a responsible way and avoiding the harassment of wildlife – is also a great way to see animals in their natural environment while actually helping their conservation.