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The Gap Year Blog

The dark sides of Wildlife Tourism

6 Jun 2019 12:15 PM

Photo Credits: Pixabay | rkrandhir, clarencealford and taraneha

Edited with Permission by Frontier

Getting in touch with wildlife is often the highlight of every holiday or volunteering programme. But wildlife watching mostly focuses on iconic and endangered species such as whales, tigers, sloths, polar or panda bears. Swimming with manta rays or riding on elephants – Our desire to get close to animals so strong and fuelled by social media images that, when we see a tiger cub being fed with a flask by a tourist, we don’t question where its mother is.

People love animals and are genuinely interested and want to learn about them. Yet, what most people ignore or do not want to see is that wildlife tourism relies on wild animals being caught, bred or trained into submission. Wild animals are not called “wild” for no reason. Feeding, touching or any behaviour altering measurement should not be taken place other than for conservation purposes.

The very asset that underpins wildlife tourism is that the animals and nature are under severe threat because of over-exploitation, habitat loss, pollution, climate change, infrastructure, hunting or illegal trade. Some people argue that endangered animals should be kept away in fenced areas to as reserves to prevent the species from extinction. That, however, is preservation and not conservation and only treats the symptoms not the cause.

Conservation is about saving animals which involves maintaining habitats, rising awareness and changing mindsets.

Wildlife tourism is a fast-growing industry. It is not always about animal conservation though but about profit. All the undoubtedly amazing holiday selfies with cute or endangered animals that are posted on Instagram and other social media sites daily prove so.

Millions of Thailand tourists for example want pictures with the animals riding them, washing them or patting their giant trunks. In order to achieve that those elephants live in captivity with three meter chains around their swollen ankles and their spirit broken with a whip when they were youngsters to make them submissive.

A recent investigation by Natasha Daly and Kirsten Luce in The National Geographic uncovers under which circumstances animals have to live in popular wildlife tourism spots all over the world. The team of a journalist and a photographer travelled around the world and viewed the wildlife travel hot spots hyped through social media.

Crocodile farms, zoos, monkey schools, elephant adventure trails or beach photo shootings, dolphin shows and swimming classes – they uncover the miserable lives the animals live in trapped in cages or chained up, trained with fear, speed-bred or with pulled claws. Usually all close-up interactions with wild animals are questionable. Just below the surface of wildlife tourism hides blatant animal abuse.

By visiting these attractions, instead of saving those animal species, we support illegal animal breeding and trait and destroy the environment they live in and alter their natural behaviour – quite the opposite of what we want to archive. Also poorly managed wildlife tourism can cause more harm than good as we have seen in the Galapagos islands. The sheer volume of tourists each year poses a serious threat the islands’ unique wildlife.

What you can do against it 

Don’t support it! Avoid once-in-a-lifetime encounters with wild animals and go on responsible wildlife holidays. Those are the ones where you see animals in their natural habitat from a distance and where guides make sure you don’t just see the animals but learn about them, their behaviour and issues around their conservation. Do not go whale watching into countries where whaling is still allowed like in Japan.

There are enough existing examples of good wildlife conservation that you can integrate into your holiday. One is the orangutan conservation in Sumatra and Borneo. The highly endangered animals are threatened by the islands’ rapid deforestation, which are only places they inhabit. Sanctuaries like Sabah und Sarawak rescue and rehabilitate injured, orphaned or displaces orangutans. Visiting these contributes to the creation of more protection reserves as well as orangutan conservation and research.

Another example of a successful wildlife conservation holiday project is gorilla tracking. The creation of national parks with strictly regulated gorilla tourism has been a success story for mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. Tourists that want to see the gorillas have to follow strict rules – a visit lasts maximum one hour, no more than eight people per day can visit the gorilla families and they have to keep at least seven meters away from them.

To enjoy and maintain our wildlife, we do not only have to start to see but also to respect it. We have to change our mindset: Instead of looking at cute Instagram posts thinking “I want to see that animal in real before it goes extinct”, we have to start thinking like “how can I contribute saving this species (even though I might never see any In real life)?”.

By Desiree Schneider - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservationcommunityteaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!