Sumatran tiger at Taronga Zoo

A guide to ethical wildlife encounters: how to avoid exploitative wildlife tourism & promote animal welfare as a traveller

As a passionate animal lover, wildlife encounters have always been a highlight of both weekends away and far-flung overseas trips. Recently, this has included amazing experiences like safari in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Sabi Sands Reserve, where lions and leopards lounged within metres of our gently humming Land Cruiser; snorkelling with graceful sea turtles at secluded beaches in Maui; and learning about Tasmanian Devil conservation or the rehabilitation of sick koalas in Australia. These experiences stand out as being both incredibly special for me as a traveller and positive for the animals involved— but I’m horrified to admit that even I haven’t always been on the ethical side of wildlife tourism.

This is a post I’ve wanted to write on my blog for such a long time, but the complexity and importance of the topic have always been extremely intimidating. Even if I could come up with a black-and-white answer to what constitutes an ethical wildlife encounter, it’s challenging as a traveller to make an informed decision about whether a specific tour or facility is truly humane when we don’t see the treatment of animals that goes on behind the scenes. This topic certainly hasn’t become any less complex, but I recently read an article in National Geographic whose haunting stories and photos of animal mistreatment in the tourism industry literally brought me to tears.

It would be easier to look away from stories like this (and I certainly wish that I had never seen pictures of chained tigers held in suffocatingly small cages), but that’s just not fair to the animals who are suffering— we as travellers need to confront the reality of wildlife cruelty and make a conscious effort to contribute to the solution, whether that means supporting ethical and humane wildlife organisations or just raising awareness about exploitative animal experiences that are never ok.

Beautiful wild elephant in Etosha National Park, Namibia

My experience with unethical wildlife tourism

In 2013, I visited an elephant sanctuary in Laos and rode an elephant into a waterfall for what was, at the time, a truly magical encounter with a beautiful animal. I did extensive research about elephant tourism in Southeast Asia and genuinely believed that, by not using a notoriously-painful wooden seat or riding the elephant over a great distance, I wasn’t contributing to mistreatment. The elephants seemed happy and healthy during my visit, so I pushed away any uneasy feelings and focused only on my positive experience.

Over the years, though, as dozens of articles were published about the appalling treatment of elephants by “sanctuaries” just like the one I visited, I was forced to acknowledge that, no matter the absence of a wooden seat, these were still wild elephants held captive purely for the pleasure of ignorant tourists like myself. And by virtue of giving money to this “sanctuary”, I was directly contributing to an entire industry that profits off the exploitation of animals. It was a truly disgusting realisation, but one that has opened my eyes to the fact that ignorance is simply not an excuse.

Captive elephants in Laos

Recognising exploitative wildlife experiences

One of the most crucial things that we can do as travellers is to recognise situations where animals are being exploited and refuse to support the organisations responsible. But with every animal experience claiming to be 100% humane and citing thousands of positive reviews online, it can be extremely challenging to know what actually constitutes mistreatment, especially if you aren’t an expert on animal development or behavioural psychology— which most of us aren’t! When staff assure you that the animals are happy and healthy, it’s all too easy to rationalise even questionable experiences: The mahouts say that a short ride doesn’t cause the elephant any discomfort, and they are the experts! This is a sanctuary, surely they have the animals’ best interests at heart!

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) developed a list of Five Freedoms that all captive animals should have; as travellers, we can use this list to assess whether a particular facility is truly providing a safe and healthy environment for their animals before we choose to visit ourselves or to share the experience with others on social media.

1. Freedom from hunger and thirst

by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigour. NatGeo shared a photo of an anteater in the Amazon on a diet of flavoured yogurt and a video of a gorilla licking water from a puddle just outside his cage; obviously, neither of these situations are in any way acceptable and these aren’t places we should be supporting!

2. Freedom from discomfort

by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area. We need to check that any animals in an enclosure have been given ample space to move around, including a secluded area away from tourists so they can have a break from constant interaction and noise. This especially applies to animals that have been tethered on a short chain or otherwise restricted to a tiny area— this is tantamount to torture and should be an immediate indication of abuse.

3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease

by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment. This can be harder to assess, as sick animals are often kept away from tourists; however, NatGeo shared a haunting photo of an emaciated elephant in Thailand with open facial wounds and a broken leg (I’ve included it in the section below, it’s almost unbearable to look at). If you see or hear of any signs of animal abuse like this on your travels, it is critical to share stories or photos online and on social media so that we can collectively refuse to support unethical organisations and demand better treatment of animals from the tourism sector.

4. Freedom to express normal behaviour

by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind. We need to remember that the normal behaviour of a tiger is not to sit peacefully while hordes of tourists hug her for a photo, and that these animals have either been drugged or horribly abused to achieve this result. If we are going to view a captive tiger, she should be free to roam around a large area and bite or scratch whatever she wishes (and it goes without saying that she shouldn’t be drugged or chained).

5. Freedom from fear and distress

… by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering. Even if riding an elephant seems harmless enough, elephants endure fear-based training and physical abuse in order to be “broken” to the point that humans can ride on their backs. We have to consider the fear and distress that an animal may have endured prior to our visit, even if they seem well-treated at the time.

Visiting leopards at Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Are captive animal encounters ever ok?

Reading about all the ways in which captive animals can be mistreated and abused, it’s clear that the safest way to ensure you aren’t contributing to animal cruelty is to completely avoid captive encounters with wildlife. Some people would even argue that, no matter the humane conditions or the apparent well-being of the animals, zoos and sanctuaries are inherently cruel. I don’t share this belief, at least not entirely, because I think the opportunity provided by these facilities to view and learn about animals first-hand is vital to raising awareness about imperilled or endangered species, and can even be an important catalyst for widespread conservation efforts. However, it’s still necessary to critically appraise the conservation work being done by “sanctuaries” and zoos and other tourist attractions before we blindly accept these organisations as ethical or responsible.

One of the biggest red flags: you should not be touching, holding, or otherwise physically interacting with the animals. If the point of the facility is to educate the public about wildlife or to rehabilitate animals for release, these animals should be kept wild, and that means minimising human interaction. As with the horrific Tiger Temple example above, animals have often been drugged, physically restrained, or otherwise abused in order to ensure compliance for photos. In many cases, tigers are de-clawed or even have their teeth removed to prevent potential injury to tourists— is your tiger selfie so important that a cat should literally have all of her teeth pulled out? NO.

Sweet little koala at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie

What can we do to stop animal exploitation?

* Raise awareness about animal exploitation

The first step to ending animal cruelty is actually really simple— it all comes down to awareness and education. Most travellers want to do the right thing when it comes to animal tourism. I know I never would have ridden an elephant if I knew about the awful conditions in which these animals were being held or understood the unforgivable manner in which they were being trained! Unfortunately, ignorance does not amount to bliss in this situation, especially not for the animals who are being abused.

The concept of awareness is what encouraged me to finally write this article, because I genuinely believe that if we can share these stories, organisations that profit from the exploitation of animals will begin to lose business and will eventually be forced to close or to drastically reform in response to public demand. So share this article, the wonderful piece of investigative journalism from National Geographic that inspired it, and then share your own good and bad experiences with animal tourism so that other travellers can make informed decisions about wildlife encounters.

Horrific elephant abuse in Thailand

National Geographic is encouraging people to share this haunting photo of an abused elephant in Thailand with #NatGeoWildlifeTourism. You can download the photo here to share.

* Consider a wild alternative

A great way to break the cycle of animal abuse and exploitation is by seeing wildlife in, well, THE WILD. We still need to consider the well-being of animals when we encounter them in the wild, such as respecting their space by not driving or swimming or standing too close and not disrupting their normal behaviour by feeding or touching them, but it’s generally easier to know when you’re behaving ethically in these situations if you just exercise a little common sense and basic decency— when you people-watch at a cafe, do you poke interesting men with a stick or try to chase after them with your camera? Hopefully not.

Here are some of my favourite responsible animal encounters in the wild to inspire your own ethical wildlife experiences:

Giving this beautiful sea turtle some personal space

* Do your own research

Before you visit any facility or participate in any activity that involves animals, do your own research to make sure that the activity is humane and that the company operates ethically and in the best interest of the animals. Google the activity to see what wildlife activists have to stay, and read the 1-star reviews on TripAdvisor to see if there have been any reports of animal abuse at the facility. If in doubt, contact a company directly to ask further questions, or simply do not go.

Even if you’re planning to see animals in the wild, you can still do research to ensure that you aren’t behaving in a way that compromises their well-being. Choose a safari or dive company with a strong ethical foundation and be wary of any experience with wild animals that “guarantees” a sighting (the only way to guarantee anything with animals is to interfere, which might include feeding and baiting or corralling the wildlife, i.e. no longer a natural experience!) And obviously, it’s always important to respect the animals, seeing as we are in their home— some animals are intimidated by eye contact, frightened by loud noises, or even physically harmed by camera flash. Doing adequate research can help minimise your impact on wildlife and is absolutely essential, even if you never set foot in a zoo.

Visiting cheetahs at Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

* Support ethical animal tourism

Beyond just boycotting exploitative organisations and irresponsible animal tourism practices, we as travellers also have the power to create a demand for ethical wildlife tourism. By supporting organisations and facilities that are promoting animal welfare alongside amazing travel experiences, we ensure that these awesome businesses thrive and also show other businesses that we are willing to spend money to see animals that are happy and healthy.

Supporting these organisations should also be social! When you have a wildlife experience that leaves you glowing, promote that business on social media or on your blog, or even just tell people about it (you know, face-to-face?). Maybe if people realised they could see wild elephants within a few metres of their tent in Africa or at true sanctuaries in Asia, they wouldn’t feel the need to sign up for an elephant ride in the first place.

Elephant approaching our car as we self-drove through Addo in South Africa

Have you witnessed any animal mistreatment during your own travels, or do you have any ethical wildlife experiences to recommend? Please share in the comments below!