The dark truth behind wildlife tourism

There is no denying that the majority of us are animal lovers and if you are reading this post, the chances are you are too! Since the boom of social media our feeds have been flooded with people getting up close and personal with wildlife, but this love for animals can often lead people, unwittingly, to hurt them.

During my recent years of travelling to different countries (including living in South Africa for a time) I have encountered many forms of wildlife tourism, some for beneficial purposes, others just for pure financial gain with little respect for the actual animals. With the experiences I have I feel it’s important to educate people on the ways to appreciate and support animals appropriately and avoid the exploitative businesses which come with terrible, hidden consequences.


So let’s start with the basics…


What is wildlife tourism?

Wildlife tourism is quite simply, tourism that involves animals. Types of wildlife tourism can be divided into two categories: animals in captivity and animals in the wild. From safaris in Kenya, to Great Barrier Reef diving and even local sanctuaries there are plenty of ways that tourists can watch and get up close and personal with wildlife.

If done right this kind of tourism can have a great impact on the conservation and protection of animals, bringing much needed funds that can be used to restore animal population, increase efforts against poaching, protecting habitat and create awareness.


However, sadly there are also huge disadvantages to animal tourism which is what I want to highlight. Whilst there is so much potential for wildlife tourism to do good, many businesses are poorly managed and demonstrate unethical practices. A huge amount of greenwashing is used to prey on the naivety of tourists who think it is okay to ride on an elephant's back, get a selfie with a tiger or cuddle a baby orangutan, despite all the evidence that states these actions cause irreparable harm to the animals involved.

Just in case you are wondering whether you are about to be involved in ethical animal tourism or not, here is a list of some examples of things you definitely be avoiding!


Popular examples of negative wildlife tourism.

  • Shark cage diving: this is essentially underwater diving whilst inside a cage and probably one of the less obvious examples of unethical wildlife tourism. A process called chumming (baiting the sharks with minced fish) is used to lure the sharks towards the cage. This method encourages the sharks to behave in a way that they wouldn’t usually and lead to lasting behavioural changes, which will inevitably have a knock on effect on other marine life and the wider ecosystem. It can be argued that shark cage diving can “raise awareness” of the beautiful great white…however, in my opinion I don’t feel it changes people’s hearts towards commitment to saving them. If you are passionate about sharks and would love to see them up close, look for a shark diving expedition which is used for carrying out research on shark behaviour and sexing the animals. The Shark Research Institute or Shark Trust are good places to look for advice on these. Whilst living in South Africa I noticed that places (in particular the eastern and western cape) were plastered with shark cage diving posters and adverts. I can’t count the number of times people asked ‘have you been shark cage diving yet, it’s the thing to do!’.

  • Riding elephants: It is now a well known fact that riding elephants is unethical. But this hasn’t always been the case, until a decade or so ago elephant rides were the thing to do in Asia and India. I certainly don’t remember any awareness around it when I was a teenager! In order to be trained to carry people, elephants go through a training known as ‘the crush’, which quite literally has the aim of crushing the elephants’ spirits and forcing them to be more submissive. They are starved, beaten with bull hooks/bamboo canes and confined to tiny cages for a long period of time. By the time you are ready to jump on board they will be completely placid. Please avoid elephant riding places at all costs!

  • Tiger selfies: Again this is something I saw plastered all over my Facebook about a decade ago. Tigers are wild animals, and any selfie with a tiger whether posing with one that is half asleep, or bottle-feeding a cub will most likely involve some level of drug being administered to the animal. Although thankfully, along with elephant riding I feel this is definitely something that has been highly labelled as ‘unethical’ in the media, so the hope now is that most people think before they partake.

  • Swimming with dolphins/turtles: This is a very common example of something you may not think would be unethical. This type of animal tourism doesn’t involve any chains, breaking or obvious forms of abuse. Like the sharks these animals are tempted with food to areas where tourists can wade out to sea and touch them. So although you may not see it as cruel these animals are breaking out of their natural way which can have a knock on effect to their wellbeing and the ecosystem. If you want to get close to them on holiday, find companies that don’t allow any touching/stroking and simply take you out to sea in the hope of seeing the odd turtle or dolphin (that has not been lured!). Whilst on a trip to the eastern cape my partner and I wanted to study the cape fur seals - we did our research and found a company that worked with the local authorities and made a huge effort to raise awareness and protect the colonies of seals and their environment. It was the only one with a government permit and the only one which didn’t allow you to touch the seals or swim towards them. This was stressed heavily! It was a simple google search, but it gave us the most memorable experience without worrying that we were changing the behaviour of the seals. If you are in further doubt about the place you find, call them, ask them questions and trust your gut.


I’ve highlighted the ones above as they are the most severe in terms of bad animal tourism, but there are other smaller types which you may come by whilst on holiday. Examples I’ve seen are slow lorises being carried around beaches for people to get photos with them (if you see one, report them to the local authorities!), most of them have had their teeth pulled out so they don’t bite the tourists. Monkeys dressed up and made to dance on the sides of roads, photos with eagles in the Middle East…the list goes on. But the good news is you can help not to fuel these types of entertainment which leads onto my next section :).

What can you do to help?

What you choose to experience or avoid can help ensure animal wellbeing, not animal suffering and send a clear message to travel and tourism companies around the world that animal welfare matters. Choose animal-friendly tourism. So here’s a little help list based on what I know.

  • Plain and simple, trust your instincts, if something doesn’t feel right – don’t do it.

  • Look for facilities free from hunger, thirst, discomfort, fear and where animals are able to express normal behaviour.

  • Avoid any photo opportunities where the animal is forced.

  • Do your research into the company you are booking with. This is sometimes easier said than done, because there isn’t always a great deal of information available about every wildlife tourism attraction. Nonetheless, you should always try to research the place that you are considering visiting before you do so. There are many wildlife conscious people around in today’s world, and if it is a major attraction that you are thinking about going to then there will be reviews on Trip Advisor and other review sites. And if there is mistreatment of the animals then you will most likely find information about it here.

  • Try to choose sanctuaries where you can, or pick a zoo which is very ethical, London for example is without a doubt one of the best ethical zoos in the UK. Although very close to the city centre it offers a fantastic conservation experience. The habitats created are large and kept as close to natural as possible…again it just comes down to doing your research. The reason I say sanctuaries over other standard zoos is they are often a lot more passionate about the values of wildlife preservation and a sustainable environment and their underlying motives are not all about making money. Unfortunately a lot of the animals can no longer be released into the wild due to being too used to humans or too broken after being used for entertainment. Beware, however, some places label themselves as sanctuaries when there is in reality little conservation involved. It is simply a cover up for their selfless intentions. This is why doing your research is important - don’t just read what you see on the tin! Having spent time in Thailand I was thrilled by the vast number of elephant sanctuaries (as elephant riding becomes less popular a lot of these elephants are bought by sanctuaries who allow them to live our the rest of their life in peace as they can’t be released back into the wild)…however, on closer inspection I discovered that quite a few were just using ‘sanctuary’ as a way to draw the more ethical tourist in. I scoured the internet and found a lot of them were just sister sites to elephant riding places. This is why it’s so important to not just google ‘Best elephant sanctuaries’, but ‘ETHICAL elephant sanctuaries’. Really do the research and give your money to the places which need it for the animals’ benefit and welfare.

  • But what about safaris? If done right, a safari can be a fantastic way of seeing animals in a completely ethical way. I have done a great deal of them – in South Africa and Botswana. But again, do your research. There are some reserves out there who support and allow canned hunting on their land. Canned hunting (or trophy hunting) if you don’t know is the easy slaughter of animals in fenced areas. People pay a lot of money to shoot big game and so some reserves allow it to bring more money in. Again a simple google search will highlight which ones do and which don’t. Although some may argue that trophy hunting can have a positive impact on local communities and on the maintenance of the environmental balance, I fail to see its purpose and to me it remains unethical animal tourism.

  • The most important thing you can do is raise awareness! If you visit a wildlife attraction that you think is doing a great job, write a review on Trip Advisor, tell your friends. Every little helps to support their cause. Likewise, if you see an attraction that is operating unethically, then you should speak out. If nobody tells you, then you don’t know!

In summary, wildlife tourism can be great if done properly but at the moment there is so much that is still unfortunately very bad. We as tourists can ensure that the right places are thriving and the wrong places fold so I hope the above has proved a little insightful for you!


Written by Emily-Mei Cross


Artist with her painting of a tiger

Emily-Mei Cross is a self-taught British artist.


​"From a young age my love of wildlife has been the driving force for my career in the world of animal portraiture. I use a range of techniques and mediums across my art and I'm always on the look out for new and exciting ways to evolve and innovate.

​I look for personality, expression and movement in my subjects and it is my ability to pinpoint and capture this essence in such fine detail that makes my work so unique.

I hope to share my passion for the beauty of nature across the globe and continue to raise awareness for all endangered species.

Picture: Emily Mei Cross with 'Looking Fine' acrylic painting 2020


To see more of Emily’s work, visit her website or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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