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How to Enjoy Authentic and Ethical Animal Tourism: the responsible traveler

rhinos protected by poachers in a conservation area

When we were planning our first safari in 2014, I found many tour groups offering a “Walk With Lions” experience in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The brochures stated that these were young lions, likely orphans, and that the organization would reintroduce them to the wild when they matured. This sounded great! But the more I read the more I began to wonder. How safe is this for the lions or the humans? And how do they teach lions habituated to being with people to avoid human encounters once released?? Researching beyond the brochures, I discovered that most of these animals would end up in zoos or, tragically, be the victims of canned hunts. If I acted on my desire to walk with lions, I would ultimately condemn the animals to a heartbreaking end. This was clearly not ethical animal tourism.

If you’re an animal lover like me, you probably thrill to the idea of getting close to a ‘wild’ animal. When an animal approaches us without fear or distrust, we experience a sense of great peace, a one-ness with nature. This is what wildlife lovers are craving when they book an animal experience. They sign up for the experience with the best of intentions, wanting a fulfilling experience for themselves and expecting their tourist money goes to the betterment of the animals and their environment. They want to be ethical tourists.

What is ethical wildlife tourism?

Definition of Wildlife Tourism: Wildlife tourism is defined as observing and interacting with wildlife in their native habitat. I’d extend that definition to include observing and interacting with wildlife anywhere, not just in their habitat but also at zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and anywhere people display animals for tourists.

Wildlife tourism that is ethical benefits the local community, the tourist, and the species, without doing harm to the animals. Ethical wildlife tourism is one of the hallmarks of sustainable travel.

What Makes a Wildlife Activity Ethical?

Responsible animal tourism prioritizes the welfare of the animals. In an ethical captive animal activity, the animals live in a humane, enriching environments. In an ethical wilderness animal experience, the tourist activity does not stress or disrupt the animals.

These are the simplified goals of ethical wildlife tourism. To promote these goals and ensure standards of ethical treatment, many countries and animal facilities commit to the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare.

Five Freedoms and Five Domains of Animal Welfare

In 1964 Ruth Harrison published Animal Machines, an investigative study on the welfare of farm animals. The public uproar over the book led to the British government accepting a standard on quality of life for domestic animals – the Five Freedoms. In 1994 these freedoms were further defined as the Five Domains – Nutrition, Environment, Health, Behavior, and Mental State.

  1. Nutrition: Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Environment: Freedom from discomfort
  3. Health: Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
  4. Behavior: Freedom to express natural behavior
  5. Mental State: Freedom from fear and distress

The Five Freedoms and Domains are the gold standard for animal welfare, including for captive animals in wildlife tourism, e.g. zoo animals. Though many countries have adopted these standards and enforce them, the ethical tourist can’t assume that the attraction they plan to visit follows these guidelines.


How to Find an Ethical Animal Experience to Enjoy

Before departing on your trip research the wildlife activities you’d like to enjoy:

Finally, the best place to enjoy wild animals is in their own habitat. In wilderness they will have the Five Freedoms, as long as tourists enjoy them in an responsible way. Animal sightings are not guaranteed, but visitors can rest assured that they have not had a negative on the wildlife of the area.

Safaris in Africa

Visiting a wildlife reserve or national park in Africa gives you the opportunity to observe animals responsibly. Whether you are doing a self-drive or a guided safari, make sure that your visit is following the guidelines of ethical animal welfare.

Don’t crowd the animals. Coming too close to an animal can disrupt its natural behavior. A cheetah stalking prey will often abandon its hunt if a crowd of vehicles draws near. Or, as in the case of one of our guides who drove up to a lioness and her kill, crowding causes stress on the animal and can provoke a potentially dangerous situation for you.

Before taking a night game drive, ensure that your guide is using a red light filter on the spotlights. Bright light will momentarily blind the animals, disrupting the hunter and/or its prey.

Follow common sense guidelines -Don’t get out of the vehicle or make loud noises to get the animal’s attention. Don’t support any safari lodge that uses bait to draw the animals to camp.

Parks and wildlife reserves

National parks and wildlife reserves around the world offer great options for ethical animal tourism. Some countries, like Costa Rica, have made changes to balance the needs of their wildlife with the desires of the tourists. In Costa Rica they have restricted access to some of the most popular parks to allow the wildlife time and space to live natural lives.

The U.S National Park Service has guidelines to wildlife observation and safety that are applicable to all wildlife tourism:

Give animals room

The best way to stay safe when watching wildlife is to give animals room to move. Many parks require you to stay a minimum distance of 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like bears and wolves. (Check with your park: for example, Olympic National Park requires a minimum distance of 50 yards.) Parks provide a unique opportunity to view animals’ natural behavior in the wild. In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close. If you’re close enough for a selfie, you’re definitely too close. Use binoculars or a zoom lens and move back if wildlife approach you. Let wildlife be wild and observe from a distance.

Do not disturb

Even when you’re farther away, leaving wildlife alone can help your viewing experience—plus it’s the law. It’s illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten, or intentionally disturb wildlife. Remember that wildlife in parks are wild and can be unpredictable when they’re disturbed or surprised. Stay on trails to help keep human presence in predictable areas. If dogs are allowed, keep them on-leash (most parks have a 6-foot leash policy) pick up fecal matter and ensure they are vaccinated, and do not use bird calls or wildlife calls and attractants.

Store your food and stash your trash.

Feeding wildlife in parks can make them come looking for more. To an animal, anything that smells like food is treated like food. Access to trash, and even crumbs left on picnic tables can attract them. Once they have learned that people are a source of food, wildlife can become aggressive toward people. This puts you at risk of injury and the wildlife at risk of being removed and humanely killed by wildlife managers. Don’t be responsible for the death of wildlife! Keep a clean picnic area or campsite, and store your food and dispose of garbage in the proper containers.


Find ethical captive animal attractions

As travelers on holiday we may come across captive animal facilities (zoos, etc.) we hadn’t had the opportunity to research. Before participating, try to ascertain whether the program is following the guidelines of the Five Freedoms. (Alternatively, if you notice issues with the welfare of the animals after you’ve already entered the facility be sure to post a negative review to help the next traveler!)

Does the animal look like it’s receiving good nutrition? Does it seem healthy and free from stress? Is it behaving in a way you’d expect in nature?

Check out the enclosure too. Is it similar to the animal’s natural habitat? Does it allow the animal to get privacy if it wants it?

And lastly, consider who is benefiting from the program. Non-profit, educational facilities are more likely to be prioritizing the welfare of the animals.


Are zoos ethical?

There is a lot of opinions on zoos. Some are clearly unethical with animals housed in cages without basic needs. But there are many zoos that follow the Five Freedoms and do important work on animal conservation. For example, there are more than 50 zoos working with the International Rhino Foundation to save the species from extinction.

In my opinion, well run, responsible zoos provide an essential service in educating people to the value of wildlife. Most people will never be able to see a rhino in Africa, but having seen a rhino in a ethical zoo, they may support rhino conservation with monetary donations and by sharing what they’ve learned with others. In the words of Sir David Attenborough – “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced


Examples of ethical animal tourism

Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Nairobi

Sheldrick Family Wildlife Trust

Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her husband Tsavo Game Warden David first hand-reared an orphan elephant in the early 1950s. They were the first to attempt to save a milk-dependent calf and their work pioneered elephant conservation in Africa.

The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust continues this work today and has remarkable success in reintroducing elephants to live wild lives. The trust is renowned for its work with elephants but also operates anti-poaching patrols and has provides veterinary services to any variety of injured animal in the park.

Tourists can visit the elephant orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya and learn about their work. Additionally the trust has recently opened safari camps in Kenya where travelers can stay and observe the older orphans. Learn more about the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Whale Watching With an Accredited Tour Operator

There’s nothing like watching enormous whales, dolphins, and sea birds on a beautiful day. Fortunately, in the U.S. the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed guidelines for people to enjoy marine animals in an ethical and responsible way.

Here in New England, whale watching is a top tourist attraction. The Cape of Maine is a prime feeding area for whales so sightings are almost guaranteed. Learn more about whale watching in New England.


Image by MonikaP from Pixabay

Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda and Uganda

When Dian Fossey was studying mountain gorillas in the 1960s there were fewer than 250 animals left in the wild. Her work inspired the creation of parks in both Rwanda and Uganda with the goal of establishing ethical wildlife tourism.

The parks, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda, are now the prime gorilla trekking sites in the world. The programs are expensive, tightly run, and limited in number, so that the gorillas can live their lives mostly undisturbed. Funds from the programs has brought prosperity to these area with money for schools, clinics, etc. Most importantly, there are now over 1000 mountain gorillas living in the parks.


Un-Ethical Wildlife Tourism

Image by Marzban Hathiram from Pixabay

Unfortunately, examples of unethical wildlife tourism are rampant. The World Animal Protection organization estimates that over 110 million people visit unethical tourist attractions every year. Most of these people are completely unaware of the harm done to the animals they traveled to experience. Most are animal lovers who would be shocked to know that the tigers they’ve posed with have been drugged, that the elephants are chained at night, or the dolphins sickened by human contact.

Many of the programs greenwash by using labels like ‘sanctuary’ or ‘welfare’ in their name. It takes effort to determine whether an animal interaction is ethical or exploitive. We all have made these mistakes. Sometimes it’s spontaneous, as when I posed with a baby monkey who’d likely been poached from his mother, and sometimes it’s beyond our control, as when a safari guide drove much too close to a lion and its prey.

Activities to Avoid

Research well before participating in a wildlife activity involving:

holding, feeding, riding, crowding, or posing with the animals.

Holding or touching- Wild animals have a natural and healthy fear of humans. Those that allow humans to hold them are either trained, medicated, or, at best, likely to get into trouble in the future approaching humans.

Feeding a wild animal acclimates the animal to associating humans with food. They will approach people (and their homes) looking for food, often with tragic results.

Riding an animal. Most people know that they shouldn’t ride elephants but avoid riding a donkey or similar pack animal at tourist destinations. It may seem innocuous but often these animals are abused and are forced to carry more than is safe for them.

Crowding any animals is dangerous, but many tourists make the mistake of closing in for a picture. Tourists have been killed when they approached bison in the National Parks. Bring a zoom lens if you want that close-up picture.

Selfies with wild animals- Social media is full of animal selfies but be aware that if the animal isn’t baited then you are most likely dealing with a young animal poached from its mother, a medicated animal, and/or an animal spending most of its life in a cage.


It’s not always easy to determine how the animal is fed, housed, or cared for. And we’ve all inadvertently participated in an animal experience we later realized was inhumane. When this happens, we, as consumers, can put pressure on the program by reviewing it and identifying the issues on a travel site like TripAdvisor, or reporting it to a local authority. If enough of us do this, the unethical attraction will either correct the problems or close. (for guidance on reporting: Where to Get Help if You Witness a Crime Against a Wild Animal)

Read More About Ethical Wildlife Tourism

National Geographic – Suffering Unseen: the dark truth behind wildlife tourism
World Animal Protection – Elephants. Not Commodities
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