Wildlife Tourism - what happens when the show is over

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

When last did you see an animal performing tricks? Was it at a circus? Was it at an amusement park? Or was it at an animal sanctuary? Wildlife tourism attracts tourists to many different parts of the globe, and they pay large sums of money to see it. Unfortunately, some businesses neglect the animals, keep them in small cages and abuse them. Let’s take a closer look.

What it’s all about

Wildlife tourism is often promoted as an activity that contributes to conservation by enhancing environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour through interpretive messaging and meaningful first hand experiences with wildlife. The industry can also assist in developing respect and appreciation for wildlife and nature amongst hosts and guests as well as raising awareness of environmental issues. The continuous delivery of these benefits requires effective sustainable management that protects wildlife and habitat as well as meeting the needs of hosts and guests.

Tourism is a major global economic driver, worth over a trillion US dollars, accounted for 9% of global GDP, and provides 1 in 11 jobs worldwide. International tourism interest has continually increased from 25 million in 1950 to 1087 million in 2013, with 1.8 billion predicted by 2030. Although there are no reliable global measures of the economic impact of wildlife tourism (tourism-based explicitly on encounters with non-domesticated animals), it is the leading foreign exchange earner in several countries and attending wildlife tourist attractions (WTAs) is a prime tourist motivation.

A trainer teaching an elephant a trick.

Wildlife tourism comprises activities as diverse as wildlife-watching tourism (viewing or interacting with free-ranging animals), captive-wildlife tourism (viewing or interacting with animals in human-made confinement; principally zoos, wildlife parks, animal sanctuaries and aquaria, circuses and shows by mobile wildlife exhibitors) as well as hunting and fishing tourism. The impacts are positive and negative in such activities and vary widely. Some venues prioritise a suite of ethical procedures above economic profit, but others may fail to do so to varying extents. In the absence of sustainable management there is the potential for serious problems to arise, which, depending on the species, life-cycle stages and habitats, include stress caused by close contact with humans, injury or death of wildlife, habitat alteration, modification of natural behaviour, overfeeding, and pollution.

An audit of WTAs produced a list of 48 types worldwide. Only six WTA types (involving 1,500-13,000 individual animals) had net positive impacts on both species’ conservation and individual animal welfare. Fourteen (involving 120,000-340,000 different animals) had negative conservation impacts, and 18 (involving 230,000-550,000 individuals) had negative welfare impacts. All 14 WTA types with negative conservation impacts also had negative welfare impacts. There is no global regulatory body for WTAs, and standards vary with countries’ internal wildlife and welfare laws, and degree of enforcement thereof.

Long hours carrying paid customs, for little reward.

Harsh Realities behind closed doors

WTAs are not always accurate or honest when describing their benefits and intentions to the broader public. Adopting the “marketing clothes of social responsibility” may attract more business, and for WTAs this can operate at least partially through enabling tourists to justify visiting the attractions on ethical grounds. For this reason, despite accreditation schemes and published ecotourism standards, greenwashing (e.g. promoting ecotourism while effectively doing the opposite; remains commonplace. As an indication, however, among the WTAs examined, fifteen of 46 (33 %) captive dolphin encounter attractions claimed in their promotional materials to benefit welfare and /or conservation, as did five of 23 (22%) wild dolphin encounters, 34 of 62 (55%) elephant parks / treks, 9 of 15 (60%) shark cage diving excursions, and one of three captive tiger interactions, despite all of these WTA types receiving negative objective scores for both conservation and welfare. Standards and impacts do vary between WTAs, but it remains highly likely that many attractions claiming welfare and/or conservation benefits in their promotional advertisements are misleading tourists to attract visitors.

No animal should live this way

A recent article in the National Geographic magazine (NGM) exposed some horrific examples of animals being treated poorly and living in poor conditions. It seems that animal cruelty is most rife in Thailand. Asian Elephants are used for entertainment in several ways, such as elephant rides, elephant tricks and elephant photos. On the surface this may seem, fun, exciting and a fun day out, but for the elephants it is nothing but misery. To begin training an elephant, you need to break its spirit. In your mind this should be the first red flag that pops up. How cruel or greedy for money do you have to be to break an animal’s spirit. If you are caught bullying or abusing a human it is frowned upon, and you can go to jail, however do it to an animal, and it’s a typical day’s work.

To break these strong-willed animals, spirit they keep it in a small enclosure using long sticks, stun/electric rods and other instruments to make the elephants bend to their human owners’ requirements. This snippet was taken out of the (NGM) As an example:

“I point my light down and follow the current of rainwater across the concrete floor until it washes up against three large, grey feet. A fourth foot hovers above the surface, tethered tightly by a short chain and choked by a ring of metal spikes. When the elephant tries and puts her foot down, the spikes press deeper into her ankle. Meena is four years and two months old; still a toddler as elephants go. Khammon Kongkhaw, her mahout, or caretaker, told me earlier that Meena wears the spiked chain because she tends to kick. Kongkhaw has been responsible for Meena here at Maetaman Elephant Adventure, near Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, since she was 11 months old. He said he keeps her on the spiked shackle only during the day and takes it off at night. But it’s night now. I ask Jin Laoshen, the Maetaman staffer accompanying me on this nighttime visit, why her chain is still on. He says he doesn’t know”. The above quotation is just one example of hundreds of animals which are mistreated, underfed and neglected daily.

An hour of pleasure for a lifetime of pain.

At some wildlife parks, the tourists can take pictures with wild animals such as tigers. Taking pictures sounds cool with an opportunity to get up close and even touch the worlds largest big cat and renowned apex predator. What these tourists don’t know is that the tigers are on a short chain so they cannot stand up, along with this the tigers are declawed and drugged for extra precaution. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for health and safety, but this does seem cruel on the tiger’s part, particularly if it has more than one photo shoot daily. Once the photo shoot is over the tiger is returned to a small cage. I have visited a reputable cheetah rehabilitation center which offers close encounters with a cheetah and its handler. Firstly, the cheetah had all its claws intact; secondly the handler had it on a leash, but it was still able to stand up, walk around and feel comfortable in its surroundings. Lastly the cheetah seemed pretty alert and not drugged at all. The cheetahs live in large enclosures and are well looked after. The handler also informed me that if the cheetah was restless or not in a good mood that day, they suspend the cheetah encounters until the cheetah content again.

Another fad which has taken off on social media is people having professional photographs hugging elephants, grizzly bears, wolves, monkeys and all sorts of other animals. Once again, these animals, for the majority of their lives, live in poor conditions under ball and chain.

It’s not just land mammals that are mistreated. Dolphins and whales also fall prey to the mistreatment of humans. Russia has pop up aquariums which travel across the countryside. Dolphins and Beluga whales perform tricks with balls and jump through hopes to please and excite the audience. Once the show is over, and while they are being transported to the next location, they live in small confined tanks.

There is a story behind those eyes.

What is being done

Despite its potential benefits, wildlife tourism or rather that segment of wildlife tourism comprising non-zoo, non-hunting attractions that offer opportunities to interact with non-domestic animals - is responsible for substantial, global negative welfare and conservation impacts. The diversity of types of WTAs, and the countries in which they are found means that the level of scrutiny and enforcement of their standards may vary markedly. For many WTA types in many countries animal welfare standards are legislated for, and sufficiently enforced by police and NGOs nationally, but such standards do not apply globally. Improvement of animal welfare and conservation impacts in many countries is unlikely to occur through top-down enforcement, especially if that country’s tourism industry (comprising the WTAs, and the agencies and tours that use and recommend them) does not perceive a need for it. It is tempting to censure the tourist industry for its ethical standards, from the viewpoint that it is WTAs’ use of animals that creates animal welfare and conservation problems and makes tourists complicit in them.

Tourists are also not a standardised group. Their perspectives on wildlife and ethical standards may vary between countries and cultures. As an example, Chinese people’s attitudes to animals is typically “to value the human and disrespect the animal”, giving humans’ experiences priority over those of the animals. Similarly, among “western” (e.g. north or west European, and American) tourists, only a small percentage is likely actively to care about ethical standards – although a more significant proportion may be “willing to listen”.

Just horrid conditions

What can you do about it?

Tourists love animals. We want to get close to them and learn more about them. But the reality that many tourists don’t see is that to stay in business, animal encounters, such as elephant rides and photo opportunities with tigers, rely on putting wild animals to work. For visitors to environments ranging from zoos to national parks, it can be especially challenging to determine how to observe animals humanely. Consider these tips before your next wildlife experience:

Do your research

Look for facilities where animals appear to be well-fed and have access to clean water at all times. A facility that rates high on TripAdvisor may not be a humane one. Read one and two-star reviews, which often include animal welfare concerns mentioned by visitors.

Scan the space

Observe whether animals have an appropriate environment, including shelter, ample space, a comfortable resting area, and a secluded place away from crowds. Beware of buzzwords, including “gives back to conservation,” “sanctuary,” and “rescue.” Be cautious if a facility makes these promises yet offers extensive interaction to large capacities of people.

Look for red flags

Avoid facilities where animals are visibly injured or are forced to partake in activities that could harm them or cause them pain or where enclosures aren’t clean. Being chained, performing, and interacting with tourists giving rides, posing with them, being watched by them are not healthy for a wild animal, even one born in captivity.

Tread lightly

Be aware that large crowds and strange noises cause distress, particularly for animals that have experienced fear-based training, separation from mothers at birth, or other traumas.

Keep it wild

Not all wildlife tourism is terrible.Search for experiences that offer observation of animals engaging in natural behaviours in natural environments.

The global wildlife tourism industry is entrepreneurial. Individual actions can make a collective difference, signalling to the market that consumers support ethical wildlife encounters. When tourists decide they want humane treatment of animals, the wildlife tourism market will change for the better. Natasha Daly

Just recently Russia freed all or be it the majority of its whales and dolphins due to a public outcry.

Something to remember.


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Bateman, P. W., & Fleming, P. A. 2017. Are negative effects of tourist activities on wildlife over-reported? A review of assessment methods and empirical results. Biological Conservation, 211, 10–19.

Fatima, J. K. 2017. Wilderness of wildlife tourism.PhD. Advances in Hospitality and Tourism.

Huveneers, C., Watanabe, Y. Y., Payne, N. L., & Semmens, J. M. 2018. Interacting with wildlife tourism increases activity of white sharks. Conservation Physiology, 6(1), 1–10.

In Reply: Behaviour Therapy. 1965. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 111(479), 1009–1010.

Larm, M., Elmhagen, B., Granquist, S. M., Brundin, E., & Angerbjörn, A. 2018. The role of wildlife tourism in conservation of endangered species: Implications of safari tourism for conservation of the Arctic fox in Sweden. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 23(3), 257–272.

Lyngdoh, S., Mathur, V. B., & Sinha, B. C. 2017. Tigers, tourists and wildlife: visitor demographics and experience in three Indian Tiger Reserves. Biodiversity and Conservation, 26(9), 2187–2204.

Moorhouse, T. P., Dahlsjö, C. A. L., Baker, S. E., D’Cruze, N. C., & Macdonald, D. W. 2015. The customer isn’t always right - Conservation and animal welfare implications of the increasing demand for wildlife tourism. PLoS ONE, 10(10), 1–15.

Ojuva, J. 2018. Animal Welfare in Tourism. Publications of Lapland Uas.

Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/06/global-wildlife-tourism-social-media-causes-animal-suffering/

Tips for responsible wildlife tourism - nationalgeographic.com. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/lists/activities/how-to-do-wildlife-tourism-right/

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