Wildlife Tourism – Making Ecotourism Work for Wildlife

Many tourism itineraries include opportunities to visit animal facilities or participate in wildlife experiences, which claim to provide a conservation benefit.

While there are undoubtedly abundant opportunities for tourists to make positive contributions to wildlife conservation through the activities in which they engage and the facilities they visit there are sadly all too many instances where animals are exploited solely for financial benefit. In many cases, tourists may not even be aware that their visits are contributing to this exploitation, rather than contributing to conservation and protection efforts. As travellers, it is our responsibility to be informed and to make the RIGHT choices.

What is it?

Wildlife tourism is “tourism undertaken to view and/or encounter wildlife. It can take place in a range of settings, from captive, semi-captive, to in the wild, and it encompasses a variety of interactions from passive observation to feeding and/or touching the species viewed” (Newsome et al., 2005).

A distinction is made between consumptive and non-consumptive wildlife tourism. More passive wildlife experiences, such as viewing, photographing, and feeding are typically referred to as non-consumptive. Wildlife encounters that involve capturing or killing animals, such as hunting and fishing, are generally considered to be consumptive. There is much debate over what is or isn’t non-consumptive tourism behaviour, and whether or not consumptive behaviour should even be categorised as wildlife tourism.

What you should know

Be aware of the potential pitfalls of some common wildlife tourism experiences:

Close encounters

Many animal facilities offer close contact with wild animals, giving tourists and visitors close-up photo, feeding, and even petting opportunities, often for an additional fee. Facilities frequently claim that this fee goes directly to the upkeep of the animal and/or the conservation of the species. Unfortunately, many of these ‘close encounters’ animals are kept in poor conditions, fed an inadequate diet, and are sedated to ensure their compliance. In some cases, animals are regularly physically abused to keep them compliant. Species for close encounter opportunities may have also been obtained illegally, breaking both national and international laws. In spite of the facilities’ claims, there is often no evidence that any of the profits or activities actually benefit species conservation.

For example:

  • The opportunity to play with cubs or walk with “tame” adult big cats, such as lions in Africa or pumas and jaguars in South America, is offered by various tour operators, alongside claims that the fees paid will benefit the species in the wild. The animals used, or the cubs born to them, are rarely if ever set free. The “big cat encounter” industry is just that – an industry, designed to make money for its owners and operators. It exploits animals for profit, and contributes little or nothing to the conservation of species.
  • Responsible facilities that hold wild animals will house them in enclosures designed to replicate their wild habitat, and will only allow visitors to view the animals from a safe distance in a way that does not disturb or stress the animals.
  • Feeding – although the practice of wildlife feeding may facilitate closer observation and tourist interactions, the negative impacts to the wildlife can be extreme. Supplementary wildlife feeding can cause alteration of natural behaviour patterns and populations. It can create dependency and habituation to human contact, which may cause aggression towards humans or other animals, and can also lead to health issues and disease.

Zoos and parks

Most zoos and animal parks claim to support conservation, either by raising money for conservation organisations or projects, running public education and awareness-raising activities, or more directly by contributing to so-called “ex-situ” conservation through zoo breeding programmes.

While many do undoubtedly contribute significantly in one way or another, the level to which they contribute varies widely. Responsible zoos and parks will be members of organisations such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), or in the UK the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA). These organisations require their members to support conservation initiatives to at least a minimum level.

Volunteering opportunities

With the vast number of wildlife volunteering opportunities now available in destinations all over the world, choosing one can be a daunting prospect. Some offer real opportunities to make a significant difference for wildlife and wildlife habitats – opportunities that often turn into life-changing experiences. Others are little more than moneymaking exercises.

Working directly with sick, injured or displaced wild animals requires experience and skills the average volunteer doesn’t have. Wild animals being prepared for release benefit from the most limited contact with people, both in terms of time and numbers, as possible. The more responsibly managed volunteer opportunities will limit the direct contact volunteers have with animals, and will often have volunteers working on habitat enhancement or data collection projects. Though this might not seem as exciting as working directly with animals, it can often make a much more valuable contribution to their conservation and success in the wild.

Rescue and rehabilitation centres

There are many wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres around the world, rescuing native wildlife from abuse or trade, or native and exotic wildlife from poor conditions in zoos or private collections. Many do wonderful work, giving wild animals the chance of rehabilitation and release into protected wild areas, or where that isn’t possible, a lifetime of compassionate care in sanctuaries. However, not all rescue centres are well run, and some are inadequately funded, keep animals in poor conditions, and make little effort to look after them properly or rehabilitate them so they can be released.

Hunting

Hunting, particularly trophy hunting for “big game,” is often cited as being important to conservation. People pay a lot of money to shoot big game, such as lions, rhinoceros, elephants and bears. Hunt operators will claim that the proceeds from trophy hunts are used for local conservation and community development projects by giving the animals “value” to local people and incentivising their protection. It is also often claimed that the hunting itself helps to keep populations of animals at sustainable levels, and that only certain animals, such as old males, are targeted in order not to affect breeding.

Whether or not hunting benefits conservation is hotly debated. However, corruption is rife in many countries where big game hunting takes place, and there is a great deal of evidence that in many cases, very little, if any, of the proceeds of hunting operations find their way back to local communities for development or conservation projects; instead they line the pockets of a few tour operators or officials. Often most of the proceeds are taken out of the country in which the animals live.

Trophy hunting is also badly managed in many instances, and is damaging the conservation of many species. Quotas are often set arbitrarily, with little reference to scientific data on population levels. Permits are often abused, forged or simply not applied for. Many hunting opportunities involve animals that are bred or captured specifically for the purpose of being hunted. The capture of animals and the fencing off of land for these “canned hunts” can be very damaging to wild populations. You can read more on Canned Hunting on our issue page here, and on Game Hunting here.

Many conservationists feel that while it is important to give local people incentives to protect wildlife, the wildlife is worth far more alive than dead, as the benefits of ecotourism greatly outweigh any income that can be generated by destructive hunting.

What you can do

It is important to be aware of the potential impacts, both negative and positive, that tourism may have on wildlife so that you may make educated decisions when planning your travel.

Potential negative impacts of tourism on wildlife:

  • Repeated disruption of feeding, breeding, socialising and hunting habits
  • Transmission of diseases
  • Direct injury or death of individual animals
  • Habituation to human contact (begging for food, vulnerable to hunting, danger to people)
  • Artificial feeding and lures (food, water, salt licks) causing diet and behavioural changes
  • Boat collisions (e.g. dolphins, whales, dugongs),
  • Careless/callous handling of habituated wildlife
  • Impacts of pollution and litter

Potential positive impacts of tourism on wildlife:

  • Protection of wildlife species and habitats
  • Economic incentive for wildlife/habitat conservation
  • Financial and practical contributions for wildlife projects; visitor donations, government charges/levies, user fees (National Parks)
  • Employment of local people in wildlife tourism
  • Environmental education about wildlife
  • Publicising the plight of endangered/threatened wildlife species

Responsible Wildlife Tourism Experiences Should:

  • Offer an interpretive (educational) program that highlights the importance of wildlife in terms of conservation and ecosystem function
  • Provide as natural an experience as possible
  • Avoid hand feeding or handling of wildlife
  • Contribute to the conservation of the local area and its wildlife via research, donations, habitat restoration etc.

When considering visiting a facility which holds wild animals, think about the following:

  • What kinds of animals does the facility hold? Are they endangered? If so, can the facility guarantee the animals have been obtained legally, and not taken illegally from the wild?
  • Does the facility offer any information or educational opportunities concerning the conservation status of the species it holds? Most facilities or organisations involved with conservation will provide lots of information on the projects they support.
  • Does the facility allow close contact with wild animals, for example public handling sessions or close-up photographic opportunities? Responsible organisations will not normally allow such activities.
  • Does the facility make animals perform unnatural “tricks” or stunts? Responsible organisations will not do this, instead encouraging visitors to view animals in something approaching their natural environment.
  • Does the facility claim to support conservation programmes? Is there any evidence to suggest that it actually does so? If it claims to support a particular conservation organisation or project, look on that project’s website and see if the facility is acknowledged. You should also be able to check exactly what the facility does to help, and how much it donates.
  • Is the facility a member of a recognised organisation that monitors its activities and make sure it is supporting conservation, such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria, or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries? If it is, it may be more likely to be a genuine supporter of conservation.

Thinking about volunteering?

  • Learn everything you can about the project.
  • Learn how the fees you pay will be used.
  • Where possible, arrange your trip directly with the project to ensure that all of your money goes to them.
  • If you book through an agency, ask how much of your money actually goes to the project – agents often take large fees out of your contribution. Use a non-profit agency if possible.

Have something to report?

If you think a facility or operator may be falsely claiming conservation credentials, write to them or your tour agent or operator to complain. If the facility is a member of an umbrella organisation, write to the organisation expressing your concerns. You can also contact the local tourist board in the country you are visiting, or the embassy or consulate for that country on your return home.

Tip:

Remember, in the vast majority of cases, you contribute far more to conservation by visiting a responsibly managed National Park and paying park fees to experience animals in their natural habitat, than you do visiting animals in captivity. The knowledge and enjoyment you will get will also be far greater.

Where is this applicable?

The issue of making ecotourism work for wildlife is a worldwide issue.