The Bigger Picture of Wildlife Tourism: When Is It Ethical?

Wildlife Tourism: When Is It Ethical?

Let’s address the elephant in the room.

What a way to live: to belong in the wild, but be caged your entire life.

This is what I think of every time I step into a zoo or a tourist attraction where you can pet creatures for a fee. Don’t get me wrong. Of course, as children, most of us thought of zoos as wonderlands. I myself saw them as small pockets of the wild conveniently located in neighbourhoods and cities. I’m not going to deny it. I loved heading to zoos and farms as a kid. In fact, I was up for any trip that involved animals.

After all, what visitors see is a seemingly healthy critter put to work or kept on display. In exchange, humans provide it with shelter, care, and food. We hastily assume it’s a win-win situation beneficial to both parties. It gives this misplaced (if not false) notion of mutualism. But what we often don’t see as eager “animal lovers” is what goes on after operating hours — and what it took to get the animal in that enclosure.

What don’t we see?

Late last year, the organisation World Animal Protection published a piece titled “Investigating the gritty truth behind the Amazon’s wildlife selfie trade.” The article aimed to reveal the “shocking suffering these animals endure” so that tourists can enjoy wildlife attractions.

In a small riverside village found between the border of Colombia and Peru, locals present visitors with a “wild” photo op. For around US$15, you can take photos with animals caught from the Amazon rainforest.

An ocelot was seen with patches of fur missing. According to his “owner,” these bald patches are the result of an allergic reaction to insect repellant, which tourists apply in copious amounts before handling the wildcat.

Can you image then what perfume, lotion, and sunscreen do to creatures that aren’t usually exposed to such chemicals? How many times have you touched a wild animal that was tamed for handling without thinking of the chemicals slathered on your skin?

If that’s not bad enough, the story also showed an undercover video that captured how sloths are normally caught for those #slothselfies. First, the tree was cut down while the helpless sloth was still attached to it. They let the animal (and the tree) fall to the ground without considering injuries upon impact. I guess scratches and broken bones are acceptable. Posing for photos isn’t too strenuous anyway, right? To top it all off, the sloth was placed haphazardly inside a sack and then whisked off to a market where it was sold for US$13.

There are other horror stories of exotic performances and animal rides. These creatures often resist handling. How do you think they’re forced to wear clothes? Why do you think, in some instances, elephants and large felines cower at the site of their trainers? These creatures weren’t born tame and yet here we are, able to ride on their backs and take photos of them while they oddly lay still.

And the sad reality is, for as long as these practices sell, people will hold these creatures captive. In a world where money (literally) moves mountains for development, the lives of these animals are seen as a small price to pay for entertainment and financial gain.

When is it okay?

But it is important to note that there is such a thing called responsible wildlife tourism. In an interview with National Geographic, scientist, conservation expert, and animal rights advocate Dr. Michael Hutchins notes, “Done well, wildlife tourism can provide a strong economic incentive for wildlife conservation by being a major long-term source of jobs and income for local people.” He adds that “[in] developing countries, such as those in East and Southern Africa, wildlife tourism is the primary reason that significant wildlife populations still exist.”

So the question is: When is wildlife tourism okay? Although asking this might actually lead to more questions than answers, here are a few things you should consider:

1. What’s their purpose?

Many wildlife sanctuaries declare that they’re in it to save a certain species. They say they’re in it for the sake of animal and environmental conservation. That definitely sounds like a cause worth supporting. But how do you know if they’re telling the truth? The only way is to do your research.  Read up about a wildlife park or a zoo before your visit. Ask questions. Don’t be a sitting duck.  We’re not telling you to be an animal rights activist, but if you can suggest ways of helping the facility become more responsible, why not? The very least you could do, though, is to not support activities that keep animals in cages for capital gain and nothing else.

2. Is there anything odd about the animal’s behaviour?

Most of these animals belong in the wild. And this is why they act wild. The only reason why they show humanised behaviour is because they were trained to perform. And that says a lot about animal welfare.

No, animals were not meant to lay still or pose for photographs. They don’t understand commands from handlers. Most of them WILL bite or scratch if you touch them. Animals don’t wear clothes we don’t even have to tell you that.  And they certainly do not perform tricks at will.  Have you seen animals ride a bike in the wild? No? I thought so.

Also read: 8 Reasons Why Bali Safari & Marine Park Should Be In Your Bali Itinerary

3. Are the animals just there for display?

Have you ever been to a restaurant or entertainment hub that has a live exotic animal on display? They’re just there day in and day out behind glass or inside a cage. If the wild animal is plainly used as decoration or is simply an added attraction, then there’s something questionable about the setup. The same could be said when animals are just used as props for photographs.

4. Do the animals look healthy?

This is one of the easiest things you can tell while observing animals. Do they look bloated? Are they having difficulty breathing? A local zoo in Manila, Philippines has been receiving flak for housing animals that look like they haven’t been cared for properly in a long time. One look at their elephant enclosure and you can tell that it’s too small for the zoo’s gentle giant. Many citizens have noticed the facility’s sad state, but it seems like nothing is being done to improve it.

Also read: How Singapore’s Wildlife Parks Are Changing The Way We Think About Zoos

5. Does the facility abide by certain animal welfare rules?

There are many animal welfare organisations with a set of rules recognised by communities all over the globe. For example, when it comes to animal tourism, the Association of British Travel Agents or ABTA follows the five freedoms. Originally developed by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council for domestic farm animals, the five freedoms now also apply to animals in tourism. The five freedoms include  good feeding, good housing, good health, appropriate behaviour, and protection from fear and distress.

There you go, the basic questions you need to ask before considering a tour that involves creatures great and small. Remember, if you support the right tour operators, you might actually be helping fund rescue operations and breeding programs. Keep in mind, too, that if you’re visiting animals in their wild habitat, don’t introduce interaction that might alter their natural behaviour.

Also read: These 600 New Babies Make Another Reason to Visit Singapore Wildlife Parks

About Author

Alyosha Robillos
Alyosha Robillos

In Russia, Alyosha is a boy's name popularized by literary greats Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—but this particular Alyosha is neither Russian nor a boy. She is a writer from the Philippines who loves exploring the world as much as she likes staying at home. Her life's mission is to pet every friendly critter there is. When she isn't busy doing that, she sniffs out stories and scribbles away on the backs of old receipts. She is an advocate of many things: culture and heritage, the environment, skincare and snacking, to name a few. She will work for lifetime supplies of french fries and coffee. Or yogurt. Or cheese, preferably Brie.

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