Do you consider yourself to be an animal lover? Most people who frequent wildlife tourist attractions love animals. We want to see animals up close because we are fascinated by them. We admire them, or we think that they’re cute. However, many wildlife excursions, activities, and attractions cause more harm than good.
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Did you know that World Animal Protection believes that over 550,000 animals suffer every day from harmful tourist operations and attractions? Most people are completely unaware that these animals are mistreated or live in torturous situations.
One of the best ways we can bring an end to animal cruelty in tourism is to stop attending them. We can vote with our dollars. After all, these are businesses. If they cease to be profitable, their doors will close.
With the help of fellow travel bloggers, here’s a comprehensive list of the wildlife tourist attractions to avoid, and what you should do instead. Replacing cruel animal attractions with responsible ones is a positive step towards ending animal abuse around the globe.
Wildlife tourist attractions to avoid: Elephant Rides. If we were to ask people planning a trip to Thailand, “What is on your Thailand bucket list?” A large number of them would say “riding an elephant”.
This is why it’s wrong: Elephants are extremely family oriented beings who are highly emotional, and intelligent. In order for wild elephants to entertain tourists, they first must be taken away from their family-which is devastating in itself, and then tortured for days (phajaan) until their spirits break.
This is an ancient and barbaric practice. Their lives are spent in unnatural conditions, they are treated like things, and used until they are no longer valuable to their owners. Domesticated elephants do not necessarily have to go through the torturous crush like wild elephants do, but this is still no excuse to keep elephants captive and under human dominion.
What to do instead: Visit elephant sanctuaries. Elephants belong in the wild, and they deserve to be doing elephant things instead of catering to tourists. If you would like to see elephants responsibly, we recommend you visit smaller more intimate elephant sanctuaries where touching and being up close to these gentle giants is discouraged.
Boon Lots Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai is a wonderful place to visit, as is BEES in Chiang Mai. Please keep in mind that even the most innocent of things like taking selfies with elephants is still exploitation, as it is taking advantage of the fact that they were severely abused and broken so you can get close to them.
There are of course exceptions, but for the most part if you are the 100th visitor that day taking an elephant selfie, that elephant is still being used to serve you. Participating in irresponsible elephant tourism supports extreme cruelty to animals.
Margherita and Nick of The Crowded Planet traveled to South Australia especially to dive with great white sharks. However, not long before my trip, they found out that the practice of cage diving is probably harmful to sharks – most operators throw buckets of fish entrails and heads to attract the sharks close to the diving boats, a practice known as ‘chumming’.
Environmentalists argue that chumming disrupts the sharks’ natural behavior and feeding patterns, and might even be related to an increase in human attacks. I said ‘probably’ because evidence is still inconclusive, but as a responsible traveler I don’t want to risk damaging nature.
Luckily, there is one operator (Adventure Bay Charters) in South Australia that practices ethical shark diving, using music to attract sharks to the boat. The sharks are especially attracted to heavy metal beats, and they were lucky to spot three sharks during our dive!
Dolphins and Whales
It’s an inescapable truth that there is no way of keeping a cetacean (a dolphin or whale) in captivity without harming them. Those who are in the business of doing so, such as SeaWorld, will tell you otherwise. However, cetaceans are such complex animals physically, psychologically and socially, and it is physically impossible to recreate the conditions of the ocean in a marine park.
A captive dolphin or whale is likely to live to only half the expected age of a wild dolphin or whale, and in some parts of the world, depending on conditions, it is even less than this. Furthermore, the process of actually capturing a cetacean to keep them in captivity is a traumatic and bloody one, resulting in the deaths of entire pods simply so one or two young animals can be obtained. This process is detailed in documentaries such as The Cove and Blackfish.
While it is true that some marine parks rescue and rehabilitate injured animals, and that many cetaceans would not be able to fend for themselves in the wild after so many years of captivity, this does not mean they need to be kept in shallow pools, eating frozen fish and having limited access to their family members.
Activists have been pushing for a long time for cetaceans to be released into ocean pens, which are large expanses of water where the animals can still be monitored and cared for whilst being able to exhibit their natural behaviors. However, instead of pursuing this, marine parks have continued to keep the animals in small spaces. Why? So they can sell tickets. Do not be fooled; marine parks are businesses and dolphins and whales are their investments.
So how can you avoid contributing to their suffering? First and foremost, do not buy a ticket. Refuse to patron any marine park that has a dolphin or whale resident – no matter how much you may want to see them! In particular, do not take part in captive dolphin swims either. Instead, go and see these animals in their natural habitat.
There are many places around the world where you can go whale watching, such as Tonga, Australia or North America, and you can see wild dolphins almost everywhere. You can even swim with wild dolphins, which is far more ethical than a captive swim, as the animals can choose whether or not they wish to interact with you.
If you’re headed to the Philippines for the amazing diving and marine life, one thing to consider is whether or not to swim with whale sharks in Cebu. This popular tourist activity may have a lot of positive effects for the surrounding community of Oslob, but there are still many concerns from local marine biologists and conservationists about the longevity of their activity.
Whale sharks are attracted to the area with low nutritional feed and encouraged to stay in the area, rather than migrating and searching out food on their own. They’re also unnaturally interacted with from overly enthusiastic tourists and receive injuries from boats. It’s true that creating a tourist activity out of the whale sharks has helped subsidize the needs of the fishermen to hunt them, but there are still many ethical concerns about how the activity is conducted.
Alternatively, there is an unbelievable experience just a few hours south of Oslob, Cebu at the sleepy and secluded Apo Island. Located off the coast of Dumaguete, this island is home to an abundance of sea turtles, thanks to the marine conservation efforts being made on the island. In the past, hunting from the local fisherman decimated the sea turtle populations, but now these very same fishermen have found a new livelihood in protecting the turtles.
Fishermen are now working as guides to help eager tourists swim with sea turtles on Apo Island, in an effort to raise money to protect them. Tourists aren’t allowed in the marine conservation area without a guide, and also can’t touch, feed or disrupt the turtles. It’s amazing to see these beautiful creatures so close and an experience well worth the trip.
In Romania, similarly to other European countries, you can still find some cases of misusing wild brown bears as a tourist attraction. Their owners expect them to attract families, schools, or entertain their customers.
Fortunately, there is a place in Romania, that helps to end the pain of captured bears in Romania and other countries. At the moment, there are 85 rescued bears, and two cubs who were found abandoned in the wild. The Libearty Bear Sanctuary rescued the bears from zoos, circuses, and private illegal owners who used them as pets or as an attraction in restaurants, cafes, or petrol stations.
The center focuses also on education of local children. They help schools to organise trips to the sanctuary, as well as to the zoos so kids can see the difference in the treatment of the animals.
If you’re a coffee connoisseur, maybe you’ve heard of the world’s most expensive cup of coffee – luwak coffee. This coffee is produced from the poop (yes, poop!) of a civet, a weasel-like animal native in many Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia where luwak coffee originated. The claim is that luwak coffee is harvested only from wild civets who have eaten and digested the highest quality coffee beans, and that it’s very rare for this reason.
In reality, many of these civets live their lives in cages, and their diet and lack of a proper amount of land to roam causes mental duress and illnesses. I found out about this coffee while doing a purportedly “eco” cycling tour in Bali and was upset to find out the conditions the civets were kept in. I had no idea that luwak coffee was even a thing until I went to this coffee plantation!
Unfortunately, many coffee plantations in Bali offer luwak coffee. For an ethical alternative, avoid luwak coffee – it’ll be better for your conscious and your wallet! Indonesia has no shortage of amazing coffee farms, so just ask around to make sure that any coffee plantation tours you visit do not include luwak coffee on their menu!
A few of any Koala’s genetic characteristics consist of being mostly nocturnal, sleeping 18-20 hours per day, and living asocially (they are not the friendliest of animals) in the wild. Koalas selected as “cuddlers” living inside zoos, sanctuaries and parks are being forced to live the opposite of their natural instincts by being marketed as fuzzy, cuddly photo opportunities.
Koalas are not designed to be photo props. They should not be picked off their perches several times a week to be forced into and out of the arms of humans looking for a bucket list selfie. The Australian government has enlisted guidelines, which claim to protect the animal from over-exploitation, but the laws are not enough.
The problem still exists – Koala cuddling/holding/petting goes against the animals’ inherent make-up. The imposed animal encounter is unnatural and completely unnecessary.
Instead of being part of the issue, challenge yourself to have a better & more responsible experience. Wild koala sightings are quite common & incredibly rewarding near the coastal regions of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. In fact, one of the best road trips in the world is the journey along the Great Ocean Road located in Victoria, Australia. We recently took this adventure and easily saw around thirty wild koalas. We were even rewarded with sightings of about ten mothers with joeys.
Before doing research for my trip to the Philippines, I had no idea what a tarsier even was. I later realized that I probably didn’t know about them because they are sadly, an endangered species. A tarsier is one of the world’s smallest primates.
Due to habitat destruction, introduced specifics in their environment (like house cats), hunting and the pet trade, the population has been decreasing over the years. When visiting Bohol in the Philippines, this is one of the top things for tourists to see. What many tourists don’t know is that there are actually two places you can do it, and only one is actually humane.
The Tarsier Sanctuary, located in Corella, Bohol, is an institution dedicated to the preservation and scientific researches of the tarsier. This is where you can view the species in their natural environment. However, the place you want to avoid is the Loboc Tarsier Conservation Area located on route to another popular tourist destination, the Chocolate Hills. This particular attraction is by no means a sanctuary. Tarsiers are kept captive and in poor conditions.
Marine animals are very abundant in the Philippines because of her tropical climate as well as the geographical orientation. Many tourists love to visit the country just to have a deep exploration not just in land but also underwater. But some of these tourists just love to break a few rules. And seahorse fishing is one of these rules.
Seahorses and sea dragons are small marine animals that are believed to cure diseases in some Asian countries. They are also said to be an effective aphrodisiac, a term to foods or drinks that can stimulate sexual desires.
Since they have a high demand status in these countries, some people are joining the process of fishing them and selling to some companies. Even some tourists and small-time fishermen are joining forces because they can be quite expensive per piece ($1-2 USD). The government has rules, but the implementation is weak – even in the renowned seahorse sanctuaries in the Philippines like Bohol and Bacolod, people can still easily fish them.
The problem here lies in the threats of extinction of the species. Since some coral reefs are being destroyed as days go by, seahorses loose their homes and die. Another factor would be the survival rate of children to adulthood which is only less than 0.5%. If humans tend to fish them unconditionally, then these seahorses and sea dragons will be extinct in a few years.
The right thing to do is to spread awareness. When visiting these renowned sanctuaries, just watch them and take your selfies if you can. “Never to touch, never to fish, that is the seahorse law!”
Snake charming is far from it’s folk-art origins. Today, the practice is more of a hokey tourist attraction than ancient tradition.
In Indian markets, you might find a cobra being lulled by a charmer playing the pungi. Behind the scenes, often cruel measures are taken to subdue the snake. They are snatched from the wild and have their fangs or venom glands removed to protect the charmer – some even go as far as to sew the snake’s mouths shut.
So what’s an ethical traveler to do? Don’t stop for photos or join the crowd of onlookers. The best way that you can stop the cruelty is by saving your tourism dollars for projects that rehabilitate abused animals.
When tourists begin researching a trip to South Africa, they are likely bombarded with a plethora of images of people taking selfies with lion cubs. They’re undeniably cute and the thought of changing your profile picture to a snapshot of you smooching a lion cub’s little face is just too alluring! So, tourists flock to cub petting facilities where they hand over a hefty sum to snap the perfect selfie.
As the cubs grow into lions they are exponentially less profitable, so the parks continue to breed cubs to keep a steady flow of uneducated tourists visiting their “sanctuaries”. Inevitably the parks fill up with adult lions that are no longer able to interact with humans, but also can’t be released into any other environment. Many of these lions are then sold to canned hunting farms to be murdered.
If you have ever considered visiting one of these parks, please take the time to research the truth & spread awareness about this horrific industry. Across the board, the only responsible way to partake in animal tourism is to observe them in their natural habitats.
Tiger attractions are undoubtedly cruel. Places like Tiger Kingdom and the now closed Tiger Temple act as though they are participating in conservation efforts. In reality, Tiger Kingdom runs a breeding program and the tigers will never be released into the wild. Most of these tigers will live their entire lives in cages, and will be hit with a bamboo stick if they’re misbehaving.
Tigers are sedated and treated like props for selfies. Tourists pose with these sedated tigers for photo opportunities. Tiger Kingdom holds these wild animals captive for profit, making money off the misery of these majestic creatures.
Instead of going to tiger tourist traps, you can volunteer with stray street dogs in Chiang Mai. Elephant sanctuaries, like Elephant Nature Park and Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand are great ways to interact with rescued animals.
You’ve likely seen photos online of tourists hugging sloths. After all, they’re always smiling and they look so cuddly. Who wouldn’t want to hug a sloth?
In reality, it’s incredibly stressful and dangerous to hug a sloth. Sloths have an abnormally fast heart rate. Touching them can actually kill them. Travelers bring foreign microbes that can give sloths a fatal disease.
Many roadside scammers will make up a story and ask if you’d like to hug their sloth for a small fee. They might say that it’s their pet or a friend’s pet. The sloth has actually been knocked out of a tree, exploited for quick money, and left to fend for itself. It will eventually die from lack of nutrition.
Even when you think you’re doing good by visiting a sanctuary, you’re contributing to harming sloths. The Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica was recently exposed for abusive practices. Most of the sloths were not rescued, but stolen from the forest to be held in captivity and bred for profit. The sloths are crammed into tight cages, constantly fighting one another. They are not provided with adequate care.
Our friends at Mytanfeet show us where to find the best places to view sloths in Costa Rica. These include the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Manuel Antonio National Park, and Corcovado National Park. Whatever you do – do not hold, touch, or hug a sloth under any circumstances.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Pig Beach in the Bahamas. It’s an island of pigs where the pigs like to swim in the ocean. You can swim around with the pigs, and there’s even baby pigs! Sounds adorable, right?
Sadly, it isn’t so great for the pigs. It isn’t natural for pigs to live in the Caribbean. Farmers tried to start a pig farm on Exuma island and ended up abandoning that idea when it didn’t work…and left the pigs behind. Pigs are extremely prone to getting sunburned, and their skin is not protected in any way.
There are numerous problems with domesticated pigs running wild on an island. Pigs rely on people to take care of them, and these ones aren’t being cared for properly at all. Tourists go there and feed the pigs food scraps. The pigs aren’t spayed or neutered, and they keep having litters of piglets. To keep the numbers low, the older pigs are killed for food.
Recently, a number of the pigs were found dead. With no supervision, tourists could have fed the pigs something poisonous. There have been past reports of pigs being fed beer, or people riding the pigs around. This is no life for a pig.
Tour companies are profiting from excursions to visit Pig Beach, and only more pig islands will continue to crop up. Do not go to Pig Beach. If you’re in Bahamas, participate in snorkeling, diving, or other water sports.
If you’d like to visit with pigs, please visit a farm animal sanctuary. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York. Another one we’d love to visit is the Happily Ever Esther Sanctuary (home of the famous pig, Esther the Wonder Pig). There are numerous farm sanctuaries out there with rescued pigs that welcome visitors and volunteers.
Volunteering to Help Animals
by Nora of Animal Experience International
When helping hurts… animals. Animals are being stolen from the wild and put into ‘sanctuaries’ where they will never be released. Volunteers are lied to, told that the animals have to stay in centres to be protected and happy. Animals are living their entire lives in cages without enrichment and volunteers are going; thinking they are helping, thinking they are doing right by these animals.
First, if a program is free, that is not a great start. You cost money. You eat food, you drink water, you use electricity, the volunteering tasks you do also have materials that cost money. Who is paying for that? If you aren’t, you have to ask why? And who is paying? How are they getting the money?
Second, if you are able to have hands on medical experience with animals and you don’t have training, you have to ask: why? There are veterinarians all over the world, hundreds graduate from Kenyan universities alone. So if you are volunteering medically without experience or education- who’s job are you taking?
Third, why are the animals there? There better be a good reason because: the world is hard for animals’ isn’t good enough. Wild animals belong in the wild, full stop. Ask to see release records, ask to know about release policies. Ask about enrichment for animals who live in enclosures.
Fourth, trust your gut. It’s unfortunately not good enough to just trust people anymore. We have to be smart and we have to be vocal. When you see a great placement, write reviews, post pictures and tell you friends. When you see a bad place that is hurting animals: don’t stay silent.
There are MANY placements out there. Placement that will charge you money, not allow you to have hands on medical experience with animals, will have animals in enclosures so large you may not see them, will have good reviews for letting volunteers cuddle baby tigers and will have bad reviews because they wouldn’t let volunteers ride elephants. Be smart. Be vocal. Be on the right side of ethics and history.
I hope that this article provides some clarification about which animal attractions, tours, and excursions to never, ever visit. And I hope that you’ve also discovered some great ones to support.
After all, as lovers of animals and our planet, we shouldn’t subject anything to harm so someone can profit. It really isn’t worth getting that selfie or hug.
In most cases when visiting wildlife tourist attractions, think about the animals. Do you think that the animals have been exploited in any way? Is it natural for the animals live in this habitat? Why are they there?