Have you heard of Wildlife Tourism?

Last updated on February 25, 2024.

Photo of a woman riding an elephant in the ocean surf.
Photo by Andy_Bay on Pixabay.

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 familiar with until I read an article about it. But once I read up on it, I realized that I had participated in this type of tourism myself! It’s a broad topic, 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 or swim with dolphins. 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.

This type of adventure travel can support the values of ecotourism and nature conservation programs. But it is 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 Statista, the global ecotourism industry was estimated at $172.4 billion in 2022.1 Economically, it is especially important to the economy of some developing 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.”2

Photo of a man posing with a large owl with orange eyes.
Photo by Una Laurencic from Pexels.

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 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.3

In a January 2010 article from Conservation & 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'”.4

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, 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 for food.5

Photo of a snorkeling diver looking at a sea turtle in the ocean.
Photo by Anton Avanzato on Pexels.

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 sad. But it was worth reading because it opened my eyes to the issue.6

As Susan Goldberg from National Geographic wrote, wildlife tourism is “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.”7

Another 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?8

Sad photo of a tiger on a short chain sitting in shallow water.
Photo from Free-Photos on Pixabay.

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.

Marie Cullis holding a baby lion.

Marie Cullis and her Dad sitting with a tiger.

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 did not understand then.

I’ve also let my son ride a 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. However, not all organizations and countries have or follow proper guidelines set forth by national and international organizations.

Going forward

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.”9

The most important takeaway 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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Additional Resource:

Suffering unseen: The dark truth behind wildlife tourism