Encountering wildlife in its natural habitat can be a thrilling and life-changing experience, and is one of the ways travel helps us connect with the world around us. But wildlife experiences that involve cruelty, unnecessary captivity or inappropriate interaction with humans should be a cause for concern, avoided and reported. Here’s why.
Seeing a leopard on safari, scuba diving with reef sharks, or spotting a bear in the distance in a national park are all positive wildlife experiences where the animals are observed and left alone. However, keeping animals captive for a tourist-based wildlife experience is cruelty. It causes animals to lose their wild instincts, to rely on humans for their survival and makes them vulnerable to hunters.
Wildlife should not be touched or handled for the same reason, and, under no circumstances, should you feed any animals you encounter.
“It is likely to disturb their natural diet and health,” explains Hamish Keith from EXO Travel, “and distorts their natural social behavior. Animals may die because of your touch, however
If an animal comes to you of its own
Other exceptions might include animal sanctuaries taking care of orphaned animals or those stolen from their parents, who can no longer survive in the wild and rely on humans for their survival. Examples include Jane Goodall’s Chimp Eden and Lemur Island in Madagascar.
Avoid any wildlife encounter that exploits an animal, or where there are signs of neglect or abuse. Removing animals, that belong in the wild from their natural habitat, to be used for performance and entertainment, including fighting, is unacceptable.
Avoid situations where an animal is being harassed, either by its handlers or visitors, where animals are kept in cages or enclosures that are too small for them or where performance or interaction is encouraged.
“The gold standard is an unforced encounter with wildlife in its natural environment,” advises Rough Guides editor Rebecca Hallet. “Avoid any operator who promises an interaction with the animal.”
Experiences, where you are able to come too close to wildlife, are a common problem, explains Wendy Redal from Natural Habitat Adventures. “I have observed Hawaiian endangered monk seals on a beach in Kauai, and was distressed to see a number of visitors stepping inside the boundary rope in order to get a better look.”
“But when wildlife tourism is done right,” she continues, “it holds the power to protect nature and crucial habitats, pays communities to protect rather than exploit natural resources, and helps support them economically and preserve their cultural heritage in the process.”
Often, local communities rely on experiences, like elephant rides, to earn money from travelers, explains Hallett, “simply boycotting the practice may perpetuate poverty, and cause the animals to be sold for use as beasts of burden, or killed. Instead, try to look for alternatives in the area, thereby showing locals that they can earn a stable income by offering ethical animal experiences.”
Heavy numbers of tourists can also leave communities struggling to manage the negative impacts of too many visitors in fragile ecosystems including litter, trail erosion, and noise.
Extraordinary wildlife destinations, like the Galapagos Islands, where many species approach humans because they are so unused to them, have introduced strict rules limiting visitor numbers and opportunities to interact with wildlife.
A bad wildlife experience may not always be easy to spot. Much of the cruelty is hidden from view and takes place once visitors have left. As with any aspect of responsible travel, do your research.
“It is our responsibility to make sure that animal-related tourism is done ethically,” says Joyce Wang from the Wildlife Conservation Network. “Don’t rely on the venue to tell you.”
Ask the tour operator about their commitment to animal welfare. Do they have a set of principles or guidelines, and how are they implemented in the travelers’ experience? Are they keeping within legal guidelines regarding the way animals in the wild should be treated; for example, safe distances between whale-watching boats and whales, and letting the whales follow the boats rather than the other way around?
Fran Kearney from World Animal Protection, says “As a rule, if you can ride, hug or have a selfie with a wild animal, you can be sure it is cruel.”
Intrepid Travel’s Responsible Travel Business Manager, Liz Manning advises using the Five Freedoms checklist. Does the animal have:
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
2. Freedom from discomfort
3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease
4. Freedom to express normal behavior
5. Freedom from fear and distress.
Most importantly, complain when you see animal cruelty and report it to the local authorities or a local animal welfare organization.
There are many ways to have a positive wildlife experience that is enjoyable for you and the animals. Seeing animals in their natural habitat is best; in a genuine wildlife reserve, sanctuary or national park. An exception might be China's famous panda research bases, as you are highly unlikely ever to see these rare and elusive creatures in the wild.
There are many places in the world where wildlife tourism has been vital in bolstering local economies, and in so doing, helped threatened species thrive. Examples include “India’s tiger territories,” explains Redal, “and Brazil's Pantanal, where jaguar-focused tourism is aiding sustainable forestry.”
Observing wildlife undisturbed by humans has to be one of the most amazing experiences, as the animals will behave in natural, non-threatening ways.
“A captive wild animal can never truly experience a life free from suffering and cruelty,” says Fran Kearney, of World Animal Protection, “no matter how well they are looked after in captivity. Only in their wild environment can all the animals’ needs be fully met. The best place to see wild animals on your holiday is in the wild – where they belong.”
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