Animal tourism: How to spot the ‘con’ in ‘conservation’

Watching animals can be one of the pleasures of travel. If you’re lucky enough to take a safari or go whale watching, it can be the experience of a lifetime. But sadly, animals can be exploited for tourists’ amusement (and money). Philip Mansbridge, CEO of Care for the Wild which runs the RIGHT-tourism initiative, offers some guidance on how to spot the good from the bad.

Marine parksMany adventurous holidays will bring you into contact with animals in some way; whether it be trekking with elephants in Thailand or riding camels in Morocco, seeking out the local zoo on a city break or bird-watching in a national park.

But when faced with an animal ‘attraction’ on holiday, we should always ask ourselves – ‘Is this okay?’ As we become increasingly aware of potential cruelty or poor animal welfare on our travels, how can we tell the good from the bad on holiday?

It’s not always easy, but there are a few basic rules:

Don’t leave your morals at home:  Here’s an easy one – bullfighting. Would you pop up the road to see a bull tormented and stabbed to death for a cheering audience? Wrapping it up in silk and calling it ‘culture’ doesn’t change the fact that it is cruel. What about Pamplona? That’s just running with the bulls, surely? Well no – they are running the bulls to the bull ring, where they will be killed. And some tourists are contributing to keeping these ‘traditions’ alive by watching, or even joining in.

Take a second to think: Most of us now realise that bears ‘dancing’ for money is cruel (this still goes on in places like India and Russia). But what about that cute monkey dancing in a hat? Elephants giving rides in Thailand and Cambodia? Tigers frolicking at the Tiger Temple? The question we need to ask is, ‘Is this natural behaviour?’ If not, how did the owner get the animal to do that…?

Birds of a feather: This one’s not about birds, but about tourists. The joys of seeing a lion on safari or a dolphin from a boat are immense – but how much fun is it for the animals if they are constantly surrounded and harassed by dozens of land rovers or boats. Pick tour operators who respect the animals and aim not to disturb them or their habitats.

Swimming with wild dolphinsDo your research: If you’re thinking of visiting a zoo, sanctuary, aquarium or such, take a moment to read about them online. Do they mention the welfare of the animals and actively ensure their natural needs and requirements are met? If not, give it a miss.

Those are just a few of the things we can do, as tourists, to ensure that our holiday doesn’t cause an animal to suffer, hurting the very thing we want to see.

On the contrary, we can actively do things that encourage animal welfare, for example going to a sanctuary where animals are rescued and kept in their natural environment, rather than a zoo. But beware – some places have cottoned on to this and use the word ‘sanctuary’ without justification. Again, a bit of online research, including review sites, should tell you if it’s more ‘con’ than conservation.

How do you spot the ‘con’ from the conservation when on holiday? Have you experienced bad animal tourism, or been in a difficult situation that you want to warn other travellers about? Share your thoughts via the comments below…

About the author: Philip Mansbridge is CEO of Care for the Wild. The organisation runs the website where tourists can get information on animal ‘attractions’, customs and issues for every country in the world.