Wildlife tourism: The good the bad and the ugly

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(Last updated on: 04/11/2020)

Wildlife tourism refers to any tourism that involves wildlife- from swimming with dolphins to volunteering at a turtle conservation centre. The wildlife tourism industry is diverse, taking many different shapes and forms. However, the wildlife tourism industry is also very controversial and has been subject to a lot of negative media coverage in recent years.

In this article I will teach you about what wildlife tourism is and I will introduce you to the different types of wildlife tourism that occur around the world. I will also explain to you why this is a very important industry and the many advantages of wildlife tourism. Lastly, I will outline some of the negative aspects that are associated with wildlife tourism and provide suggestions on how wildlife tourism can be responsible.

Wildlife tourism

What is wildlife tourism?

selective focus photography of brown deer on green grass field
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Put simply, wildlife tourism is tourism that involves wildlife. But the important question is, what is wildlife? And when does a wild animal stop being ‘wild’?

Most types of animal tourism involves the use of animals that are or were once living in the wild. Whether its a stray cat who was taken into a shelter, or a zoo-based rhinoceros that was rescued from poachers, unless bred in captivity, the majority of animals that we see in the tourism industry come from the wild.

As such, wildlife tourism, in its broadest sense, encounters all types of tourism that involves animals. Types of wildlife tourism can then be segregated into two categories: animals in captivity and animals in the wild.

Types of wildlife tourism

There are many different types of wildlife tourism.

The United Nations estimates that tourism involving wildlife accounts for around 7% of all tourism around the world. However, they exclude animals in captivity, so unreality this figure is likely much higher. From safaris in Tanzania to diving at then Great Barrier Reef, there are plenty of ways that tourists can watch and get up close and personal with wildlife.

Below, Have outlined the most commonly found types of wildlife tourism around the world, with examples.

Safaris

five zebra grazing on grass field
Photo by Hendrik Cornelissen on Pexels.com

A safari takes place in an animal’s natural habitat. Safari’s usually involve the use of a small safari vehicle and a ranger, who will drive tourists to areas where there are likely to be animals.

Safari is traditionally associated with Africa, but can also be found in other parts of the world.

Popular safari destinations: Tanzania; Kenya; South Africa

Zoos and aquariums

white and black killer whale on blue pool
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A zoo or an aquarium is a place where animals are kept captivity, usually in cages. Zoos are renowned for having small enclosures and for domesticating animals.

Some zoos and aquariums have important research projects and breeding programmes. Many will also take on rescue animals or marine life.

Popular zoos: San Diego Zoo; Singapore Zoo; Australia zoo, London Zoo

Popular aquariums: Georgia aquarium; Marine Life Park, Sentosa, Singapore; Dubai Mall Aquarium

Farms

white rabbit in brown wooden box
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Pexels.com

Many farms around the world have been commercialised to allow visitors in to see the animals. They may include feeding experiences and the opportunity to interact with the animals, such as stocking the rabbits or riding the horses.

Farms are usually small, independently owned businesses that are not famous around the world, but that are well known within the local area.

Animal rescue centres and sanctuaries

wood animal cute tree
Photo by Roxanne Minnish on Pexels.com

Animal rescue centres and sanctuaries are businesses who rescue animals and then care for them.

Oftentimes they will look like a zoo, and may be commercialised in a similar way. However, the funds made should be reinvested into the business, rather than for profitable gain.

Popular animal rescue centres and sanctuaries: Elephant Nature Park, Thailand; Lonely Pine Koala Sanctuary, Australia; Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica; The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya; Panda Research Centre,Chengdu, China

Birdwatching

flamingo spreading its wings
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Birdwatching, also referred to as birding, occurs in a bird’s natural habitat. It involves watching the birds, often from a distance with the use of binoculars.

It can also involve the use of a webcam, facilitating virtual tourism.

Popular birdwatching destinations: The Gambia; The Galapagos; The Pantanal, Brazil

Whale watching

whale s tail
Photo by Andrea Holien on Pexels.com

Whale watching usually occurs on tours, when tourists will be taken out to sea on a boat in search of whales. There will usually be a guide who will provide details about the whales and who is able to spot them easily through a trained eye.

Popular what watching destinations: Australia; Iceland; South Africa; Canada

Hunting and fishing

fishing landscape nature man
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hunting is the practice of pursuing and capturing or killing wild animals. Many animals are hunted for enjoyment throughout the world, from deer to pigeon to bears.

Hunting can be both legal and illegal depending on where it takes place and what is being hunted.

Likewise, fishing is a popular activity around the globe. Some people fish for enjoyment and return the fish to the water once caught and others eat or sell the fish.

Popular hunting animals: Deer; pigeon; rabbit; bears

Diving

photo of a person snorkeling
Photo by Miles Hardacre on Pexels.com

Diving is a popular form of wildlife tourism, enabling tourists to experience life beneath the sea.

Many people will undertake PADI courses or similar to enable them to dive deeper and swim further.

Popular dive sites: the Great Barrier Reef, Australia; The Red Sea,Egypt; Blue Hole,Belize, Gili Islands, Bali

Wildlife encounters

Many people are keen to get up close and personal with wildlife.

Back in the 2000’s everyone was doing it. If you had a photo of you and a baby tiger as your Facebook profile picture you were one of the cool kids. Upload that same photo today and you will likely experience a barrage of abuse from your nature-loving friends and connections.

Some types of wildlife encounters are great. Take volunteer work, for example. There are many conservation projects around the world that are desperate for volunteer tourists to help run their operations.

However, most animals encounters are not so good. Animals are often drugged or abused to keep them calm around the tourists. They are kept in inhumane conditions and treated unethically- I mean, would you want to walk up and down the road all day long with people on your back?!

Here are some the most common wildlife encounters around the world:

Swimming with dolphins

Wildlife tourism

You can swim with dolphins in the wild in a handful of places around the world.

It is more common, however, to swim with dolphins that are in enclosures. These animals are taken out of their natural habitats and asked to perform trips and entertain tourists.

Popular places to swim with dolphins: USA, Mexico, Bahamas, Portugal.

Playing with lions and tigers

Wildlife tourism

There are plenty of places that allow you to have an up close and personal experience with lions and tigers.

Naturally, these are dangerous animals, so that instantly raises alarm bells to me. Oftentimes these animals are drugged and abused to ensure that they ‘perform’ for the tourist.

Popular places to play with lions and tigers: Thailand, India, South Africa

Cuddling a panda

Wildlife tourism
Photo courtesy of Sichuan Travel Guide.

Cuddling a panda is a thing of the past unless you are a volunteer tourist (and still many would argue even this is unethical). The last commercial activity which enabled you to cuddle and have your photograph taken with a panda stopped operations in 2018.

However, there are still plenty of opportunities to visit the famous giant pandas, most of which are in China.

Popular places to visit pandas: China

Elephant riding

Wildlife tourism
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Elephant riding is most commonly found in Asia. Elephants are used to carry tourists around as a leisure activity. There have been many ethical debates about this, which has resulted in a reduction of elephant rides taken around the world.

Now, many elephant organisations are trying to appeal to tourists who take a more ethical approach by transforming their organisation into an ‘elephant sanctuary’. Whilst these are sometimes genuine, with ethical practices, some are not so- they simply disguise their unethical approaches by giving themselves the title ‘sanctuary’.

Popular elephant riding destinations: Thailand, Cambodia, India

Cat cafes

Wildlife tourism
Photo courtesy of the Lincolnite.

A cat cafe is a venue that houses a variety of cats, whilst also serving basic food and beverages. People pay an entrance fee or hourly rate to sit with the cats. You can play with the cats and stroke them. Cat cafes are most commonly found in Asia and are particularly popular in Japan, although you can also find them in other parts of the world.

Some cat cafes claim to be rescue centres or sanctuaries, but most operate on a for-profit business. Some do not allow young children in, for fear off them scaring or hurting the animals. Others have no such rules. A cafe is obviously not a natural place for a cat to live, and some argue that the concept in unethical.

Popular destinations with cat cafes: Japan, Thailand,

Shark cage diving

Wildlife tourism
Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

Shark cage diving is essentially underwater diving or snorkelling whilst inside a cage. A process called chumming ( baiting the sharks with minced fish) is used to lure the sharks towards the cage.

Shark cage diving can be dangerous both for the person inside the cage and for the shark. The methods are also questionable. Encouraging the sharks to behave in a way that they wouldn’t usually will lead to lasting behavioural changes, which will inevitably have a knock on effect on other marine life and the wider ecosystem.

Popular shark cage diving destinations: South Africa, Florida

Gorilla trekking

Wildlife tourism
Photo courtesy of Rwanda Gorilla.

Gorilla trekking occurs in remote areas on the African continent. The concept is quite simple- tourists go hiking in search of gorillas.

Gorilla trekking is a unique experience, and tours are pricey. Tourists generally keep their distance and there have been few negative impacts reported.

However, there is always potential for abuse. Careful regulation and monitoring needs to remain in place to ensure that the gorillas are not tempted into certain areas with food or disturbed by the presence of trekkers.

Popular gorilla trekking destinations: Rwanda, Uganda

Monkey forests

Wildlife tourism
Photo courtesy of Business Insider.

A monkey forest is a wooded area where monkeys live. This could be the monkeys’ natural habitat, but more likely they have been placed there intentionally.

Visitors will usually pay an entrance fee. They are then free to roam around the forested area and interact with the monkeys. Some monkey forest areas are relatively natural, whereas others may have monkey shows or circuses.

It can be dangerous to visit a monkey forest. As a result of human interaction and loss of natural habitat and feeding grounds monkey often become vicious. It is common for them to bite tourists, which then requires the person to visit a hospital for a rabies jab.

Ostrich riding

Wildlife tourism
Photo courtesy of Bold Travel.

Ostrich riding occurs mostly on ostrich farms and was a popular tourist activity until fairly recently. In 2017, ostrich riding was banned in South Africa, which is where it most commonly occurred.

Ostrich riding as a form of wildlife tourism was/is unethical. This is because the weight of the tourist can seriously hurt the ostrich. It is also not good to make the ostrich spend its day running up and down with people on its back.

Popular places to ride an ostrich: South Africa

Benefits of wildlife tourism

Wildlife tourism can be a great thing. There are many positive impacts of wildlife tourism including; conservation, research, breeding programmes and economic benefits.

Conservation

For many wildlife tourism businesses, conservation is their top priority. In fact, most places where the focus is conservation would rather not have any tourists come to visit at all, however it is the tourists that pay the bills and allow their business to operate.

Wildlife tourism businesses can be fantastic for conservation and can raise a lot of money. These types of businesses are usually charities or trusts. They do not make a profit and their intentions are wholesome.

sea turtle swimming under blue clear water
Photo by Daniel Torobekov on Pexels.com

Research

Wildlife tourism also facilitates important research. Research can help us to further understand the animals and therefore to better cater for them, both in the wild and in captivity.

Breeding porogrammes

Many wildlife tourism projects have successful breeding programmes. From Siberian tigers and pandas in China to koalas in Australia to lions in Botswana, there are successful breeding programmes underway around the world.

Many of these programmes would not be able to operate without the money raised from tourists.

Economic benefits

There are many positive economic impacts of wildlife tourism.

Wildlife tourism brings tourists to a given area, and they bring money with them! They spend money on hotels, on food and on transport.

This money can then be reinvested into the economy and spent on areas such as healthcare and education.

Job creation

Another economic advantage of wildlife tourism that is worth mentioning is job creation. Whatever type of wildlife business it is, it will require staff. This helps to boost employment figures in the area as well as helping the boost the overall economic prospects resulting from wildlife tourism.

Disadvantages of wildlife tourism

Sadly, there are also many disadvantages of wildlife tourism. Whilst there is great potential for wildlife tourism to do good, many businesses are poorly managed and demonstrate unethical practices. This most commonly includes; the mistreatment of animals, introduction of disease, dangerous behaviour, changes in the animal’s behaviour and reduced breeding success.

Mistreatment of the animals

Mistreatment of animals is common, especially in developing countries.

Fortunately, there is a lot more awareness of this nowadays than there once was. Recent years have seen many laws and regulations introduced in the name of animal welfare all over the world. This has helped to reduce the mistreatment of animals in the wildlife tourism business.

Nevertheless, mistreatment does still occur and it is pretty common. There are still circuses that use animals and attractions that make animals perform tricks for tourists. From elephant camps in Thailand to monkeys dressed as babies in Morocco, there are many examples of mistreatment around the world.

brown elephant with chain
Photo by Stephan Streuders on Pexels.com

Introduction of disease

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that all understand animals can pass disease onto humans. And this also works the other way around.

When tourists are allowed to have close interaction with animals there is a risk of them passing on illnesses that the animals do not have immunity to. A common cold might not be a big deal for a human, but it could kill a lion cub, for example.

Many of the people who work in animal tourism are not trained in this field and could unintentionally introduce disease either to humans or to the animals that they are working with.

Wild animals can be dangerous

Animals are unpredictable and can be dangerous. Elephants can easily trample people, sharks can bite and monkeys can give a person rabies.

Changes in animal behaviour

Using animals in a tourism setting can have serious implications for its welfare and wellbeing.

How would you respond if you were locked in a cage and only let out to perform tricks? I bet your behaviour would change!

These behavioural changes can be unpredictable and dangerous, for both the tourist and the animal.

Reduced breeding success

When animals are taken away from their usual habitat and exposed to tourists they may have trouble breeding.

For businesses that claim to be conservation centres, this can actually have the opposite effect. Instead of protecting the species it can exemplify and exhasberate its extinction.

Responsible wildlife tourism

two person riding kayak
Photo by Asad Photo Maldives on Pexels.com

The moral of the story here is this- wildlife tourism can be great, but it needs great management. When wildlife tourism is bad, it is very bad.

Wildlife tourism businesses need to operate under sustainable tourism practices. In recent years we have seen many wildlife tourism organisations change their practices. This is perhaps most common in Thailand, where many elephant riding companies have become sanctuaries.

But it’s not just down to the business, it’s down to us tourists too! Here are some of the things that can do to ensure responsible wildlife tourism.

Do your research before you go

This is sometimes easier said than done, because there isn’t always a great deal of information available about every wildlife tourism attraction. Nonetheless, you should always try to research the place that you are considering visiting before you do so.

There are many wildlife conscious people around in today’s world, and if it is a major attraction that you are thinking about going to then there will be reviews on Trip Advisor and other review sites. And if there is mistreatment of the animals then you will most likely find information about it here.

If the reviews are bad then I urge you not to go. Yes, you might get to have a cuddle with a lion cub, that’s cute. But think about the picture picture here.

Don’t get too close

Getting too close to animals can have a number of negative impacts. It can scare the animals, it can cause changes to their behaviour, it can cause them to stop breeding or relocate town area that is less safe. It can also be dangerous.

Be sensible and keep your distance from animals.

Sanctuaries and rescue centres are better than zoos

If you really want an animal experience, you should choose to visit a sanctuary or research centre rather than a zoo. From the outside, the differences might not be that obvious, but from the inside the differences are big.

The treatment of the animals should be better, to start with. Plus sanctuaries have underlying motives that are not about making money. They are there to protect, rehabilitate and conserve the species, not to exploit it. For these types of organisations, allowing visitors is a means of making enough money to support the conservation project, not a way to get rich as the expensive of a poor animal(s).

Beware, however. Some places label themselves as sanctuaries, when there is in reality little conservation involved. It is simply cover up for their less altruistic intentions. This is why doing your research is important- don’t just read what you see on the tin!

Don’t mess with nature

Let nature be nature. Don’t put clothes on animals, don’t feed them and don’t interfere with them.

All of these things lead to instant and progressive changes in animal behaviours. The wildlife that you are seeing today won’t be the same in 10 or 20 or 30 years if you keep messing with it.

Animal souvenirs

Be mindful of souvenirs that you are buying. Sometimes souvenirs are made with ivy or animal fur, for example. This has inevitably involved the death of an animal. So be careful when you go shopping and think before you buy.

Eat carefully

There’re also a number of destinations that use wildlife in their food and drink.

In Vietnam, for example, many backpackers think it is funny to drink snakes blood or drinks theatre made bu drowning live snakes in them. There is nothing funny our cool about killing a snake. End of.

In countries such as China and Japan, it is common to see (often endangered) shark on the menu un restaurants. And in Iceland you can eat whale or puffin. I’m not a vegetarian, but I draw the line on eating endangered animals, and you should too.

Raise awareness about wildlife tourism

The most important thing you can do is raise awareness.

If you visit wildlife attraction that you think is doing a great job, write a review on Trip Advisor, tell your friends. Every little helps to support their cause.

Likewise, if you see an attraction that is operating unethically, then you should definitely speak out. This is especially important with smaller, lesser known attractions. If nobody tells you, then you don’t know, right?

Wildlife tourism: Further reading

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article about wildlife tourism and that you have learnt something new today! If you want to learn a bit more, then I recommend the following:

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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