Wildlife Tourism: The Good, The Bad, The Grey Area

After weeks of debating, I finally watched Tiger King. I figured, why not since I have all this free time? But by the second episode, you could tell the docuseries would focus on all the crazy characters rather than the complex issue of wildlife tourism.

In a way, the docuseries motivated me to do more research on responsible wildlife tourism. And not only that, but it became a very helpful reflection exercise on my previous choices and whether I was being a responsible wildlife tourist.

The Bad: Animal Petting

Say no to the tiger selfie

As you can see in some clips in Tiger King, a big cat can be playful one minute and turn aggressive the next. So, in order for tourists to approach and safely take selfies, the owners would often declaw and/or drug the animal.

No cub petting
If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t be petting lion cubs

I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve made the mistake of doing this previously when I visited the Johannesburg Lion & Safari Park. You can only interact with cubs when they are 2-3 months old. Older than that, they are too dangerous for close interactions. That means that the parks are constantly breeding them for petting activities. This causes overcrowding, leading to many young adult lions being euthanized or sometimes used for trophy hunting.

Don’t ride elephants

These are animals kept in captivity their entire life and forced to do tricks like lifting tourists up with their trunks and having tourists ride them. The paragraph below in an article from National Geographic says it all.

When a baby is about two years old, they say, mahouts (elephant caretaker) tie its mother to a tree and slowly drag the baby away. Once separated, the baby is confined. Using a bullhook on its ear, they teach the baby to move: left, right, turn, stop. To teach an elephant to sit, Salangam says, “we tie up the front legs. One mahout will use a bullhook at the back. The other will pull a rope on the front legs.” He adds: “To train the elephant, you need to use the bullhook so the elephant will know.”

From Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism by Natasha Daly

Rule of thumb: say no to any close interactions with wild animals. They are not like domesticated animals; they are not meant to be pet or touched. Basically, don’t touch anything wild (same rule also applies to coral reefs).

The Good: Keeping Your Distance

Safari drives

The best way to be a wildlife tourist is just to keep your distance. Safari drives are an amazing way to observe animals in their natural habitat. Maintain your distance according to the park’s guideline. For example, during my trip to Kruger National Park, I could only observe elephants from far away. Approaching might cause them to get aggressive and territorial.

Elephants munching on mopani leaves in Kruger National Park

One of my favourite safari drive is only an hour from Ottawa, at the Omega Park. Animals there have enough space to roam freely and your interaction is only limited to deer and other small herbivores. Wolves, moose, bears and bisons have large territory and are only seen if they come close to the fences.

Sanctuaries and animal rehabilitation centres

They are another excellent option for wildlife tourism. You can tell they differ from attraction parks in that they only allow you to observe but no interactions like petting or feeding.

One of my favourite sanctuary visit was Fauna Digna in Cancun. Alberto and his family have turned their home and backyard into a sanctuary for small animals, mostly birds. Many of them have broken their wings being swept by the wind into highrise hotels; others are birds not native to the Yucatan Peninsula but were kept as pets and then discarded when the owners tired of them.

Alberto and his family release the injured ones into the wild once they fully recover. Unfortunately, the ones that grew up as pets and didn’t develop survival instincts will have to stay permanently.

Rule of thumb: respect their space. Wild animals shouldn’t get accustomed to humans, especially if you’re entering their territory.

The Grey Area

Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of grey area in wildlife tourism and whether to choose these activities will depend on your own choices. Here are the things you should know:

You can’t tell what’s behind the scenes

Take activities related to elephants in Thailand, for example. Let’s say you choose the ones where the elephants are in good hands. Well, the issue here is that often, both the responsible business and the unethical one belong to the same owner.

Am I being a responsible wildlife tourist if I’m buying an ethical service but from unethical owners?

Conservation vs. financial sustainability

Another example would be shark cage diving in South Africa, or swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines. Encounters with these animals aren’t easy to come by, so tour operators would often feed to attract them. This issue would cause the animals to become dependent on human feeding and some have even stopped migrating because of this. This will have a negative impact on the conservation of this endangered species, but not feeding would end the business for many fishermen in the area.

If we were to boycott these activities, what would the fishermen do to provide for their families?

This is a great podcast explaining the dilemma between conservation and economic benefits. Here is the transcript of this episode.
Education vs. animals in captivity

Another grey area for me is zoos and aquariums. The first problem is that many of these endangered species are surviving because they are in captivity, away from poachers and other effects of climate change.

The second problem is that these attractions are an accessible way for people to learn about conservation. For example, at the Oceanographic in Valencia, you can see the animal in person and learn about the species’ behaviour and what’s threatening their existence in the wild. But on the flip side, they are in captivity and might not have the space they need to roam freely.

How can we make people learn and care about protecting something if they can’t see or relate to it?


In an ideal world, we all want activities that don’t disturb wildlife while still allowing us to observe and learn about it. But in order for us to get there sustainably, both from the environmental and the economic perspectives, we need to change our behaviour. By demanding more ethical practices, businesses will change their model to adapt and survive.

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