It seems that every type of tourism exists now, as you can almost have any experience you can dream of if you’re willing to pay for it. But when does it go too far?
This is something I wasn’t really familiar with until I read an article about it recently. But once I read up on it, I realized that I had participated in this type of tourism myself! It’s a broad topic and also slightly outside of the scope of my blog, but I wanted to expose my readers to the topic.
What is Wildlife Tourism?
Simply put, wildlife tourism is interacting with wild animals either in their natural habitat or within controlled environments, such as tours where you can bathe with elephants. It also includes observing and photographing animals, interacting with animals in zoos or wildlife parks, and animal-riding. Hunting and safari trips are sometimes lumped into this category as well, but for the purposes of this post, I’m not including those today.
This type of adventure travel can support the values of ecotourism and nature conservation programs. But it can be damaging if not done responsibly.
A growing industry
Wildlife tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry. It is often an important part of the economy in many countries. According to a 2005 book on Wildlife Tourism, “ecotourism generates as much as $20 billion in revenues each year. It is especially important to the economy of some lesser developed countries.” Wildlife tourism spans the globe and is happening on every continent.
John Scanlon, the Secretary-general of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), wrote an article entitled “The world needs wildlife tourism. But that won’t work without wildlife.” He wrote that in Belize “more than 50% of the population are said to be supported by income generated through reef-related tourism and fisheries.”
Good for economies – but is it good for wildlife?
This is, of course, the big controversy: Can wildlife tourism protect threatened and endangered animals while vastly improving local economies?
The answer is sometimes. I found many articles and even entire books dedicated to this very topic.
In Scanlon’s article, he argued that when wildlife tourism is done appropriately, it can actually protect animals, even endangered species. Wildlife tourism provides economic resources to local communities. When those local communities have such a stake in the wildlife, they will become the greatest protectors of it. Some countries, such as Kenya, have developed national guidelines for ecotourism. In one region, for example, elephant poaching was reduced by 50% and no rhinos have been poached in 4 years.
In a January 2010 article entitled “Tourists and turtles: Searching for a balance in Tortuguero, Costa Rica” from Conservation and Society, sea turtles and wildlife tourism “are now so inextricably linked in some places” because “sea turtle conservation organizations promote tourism as a way to ‘save turtles'”.
However, without informed and effective management, wildlife tourism can have negative effects on wildlife. It can disrupt normal activity, cause injuries, and alter habitats. In a June 2018 article from NewsRx Health & Science, a study of white sharks interacting with cage-divers found it may change the activity levels of the sharks and distract them from normal behaviors, such as foraging.
National Geographic‘s exposure
I recently read an article about Wildlife Tourism in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic. The magazine sent a reporter and a photographer to different countries to explore this business, and what they often found was exploitation rather than conservation. I’ll be honest, the article was depressing and left me feeling really sad. But it was worth reading because it opened my eyes to the issue.
As Susan Goldberg from National Geographic wrote, wildlife tourism “a way for people to appreciate and support animals when it’s done appropriately but an exploitive business with terrible consequences when it’s not.”
The article provided helpful guidelines for wildlife tourism, such as paying attention to the animal’s health, weight, and general appearance. Is the animal underweight? Does the animal have obvious injuries or illness? Is the animal performing unnatural tasks (such as bathing or giving rides to tourists)? Does the animal seem to have been trained by fear?
I am responsible too
When I was a teenager, my Dad took me to a popular tourist site in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to see a parade of wild animals. The elephants, lions, and tigers were starring in a popular movie at the time and touring, I suppose, to promote the film. We sat with the animals and got our photos taken.
While I wouldn’t have known better then, and my Dad was just trying to show me a good time that summer, we participated in wildlife tourism. I don’t see any injuries or evidence of neglect in these photos, but I have no idea if they were treated well. See the chain on the tiger?
I’ve also let my child ride the camel at the Chattanooga Zoo. I let him feed the giraffes at Zoo Atlanta as well. Were those examples of exploitation, or just fun childhood interactions? I’d assume both zoos treat their animals well since they are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. But not all organizations and countries have or follow guidelines set forth by national and international organizations.
Now that I’m aware of the potential problems with wildlife tourism, I feel it’s important to share the issues with my readers. John Scanlon wrote that tourism operators have the opportunity to protect wildlife while making money. “But operators can’t do it alone. How we behave as individual tourists is ultimately what counts.”
The most important take away from the National Geographic article and this blog post is that we should all be aware, be intentional, and be mindful of what we are doing when it comes to wildlife tourism.
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Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism