Animal tourism – telling the good from the bad (Part 1)

Philip Mansbridge, CEO, Care for the Wild, talks about responsible animal tourism. Care for the Wild runs the website where tourists can get information on animal “attractions", customs and issues for every country in the world.

For many, seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is the experience of a lifetime. Just looking at some of the photos on the PlanetWildlife website makes me want to pack my bags and hit the road in search of another one of nature’s living wonders.

Even if you’re not heading out on safari or going on a wildlife adventure, you will most likely come into contact with animals in some way on your next holiday. It could be an “exotic” experience like trekking on an elephant in Thailand or taking a camel across the desert in Morocco, or as simple as seeing the monkeys at the local zoo in a city or bird watching in a national park.

When people are presented with an “animal attraction,” they are now asking themselves the question: “Is this okay?” Certainly in many countries, we’re becoming very aware of potential cruelty or animal welfare issues on many fronts, but how does the consumer tell the “good” animal attraction apart from the “bad”?

It’s not always easy, but there are a few basic rules we at RIGHT-tourism have come up with:

Marine Parks – seeing wildlife up close is a wonder. Are you in a sanctuary, or a glorified zoo?

Culture or cruelty?

It’s quite easy, and sometimes tempting, when you’re on holiday to let local culture blind you to animal welfare issues. This could mean tasting a local delicacy in a restaurant made from animals that wouldn’t normally be considered as “meat” in other societies. In some cases, the animals might be endangered, or may have suffered due to the methods used to catch, farm, transport or slaughter them. In some cases the animals are deliberately tortured before slaughter in order to enhance the taste of the product. Always ask what a product contains, so you can make a judgement as to whether the animal involved is endangered or has suffered.

Culture can also mean going to a local festival or sport, which involves animal cruelty. Bullfighting is an obvious example. Would you go to see a bull tormented and stabbed to death for a cheering audience in your neighbourhood? Wrapping it up in silk and calling it local culture doesn’t change the fact that it is cruel. What about Pamplona? That’s just running with the bulls, surely? Well not exactly, they are running the bulls to the bullring, where they will be killed. Tourists are contributing to keeping these “traditions” alive.


Take a second to think.

Many of us have seen animals do all sorts of unnatural behaviours: bears dancing, dolphins doing flips and monkeys doing tricks. What about Elephants giving rides in Thailand and Cambodia, or tigers frolicking at the Tiger Temple? When deciding whether these attractions are ethical, the questions we need to ask are these: Is this part of their natural behaviour? If not, how did the owner get it to do that?


Birds of a feather.

This one’s not about birds, but about tourists. The joys of seeing a lion on safari or a dolphin from a boat are immense, but how much fun is it for the animals if they are constantly surrounded and harassed by dozens of tourists in Land Rovers or boats. A study of Stingray Canyon in the Cayman Islands showed that the animals that were constantly in contact with humans had weaker immune systems than those that lived naturally. The study links the findings of the stingray case to other animals in similar situations. Select tour operators who respect the animals and aim not to disturb them or their habitats.

Stay tuned for more tips on telling the good from the bad in wildlife tourism.