Looking back five or six years, an elephant ride would be pretty high on most travelers' Southeast Asian bucket lists.

Today however, more and more people are coming to understand the harm this can cause to these majestic creatures and are seeking out ethical alternatives.

Elephant riding goes hand in hand with other not-so-friendly animal attractions around the world, like swimming with dolphins, walking with lions, tiger temples…to name but a few. Most travelers are likely to encounter at least one of these ‘experiences’ during their adventures around the globe, so it’s good to be clued up on some key dos and don’ts if you ever consider trying one of them.

You might wonder why such ‘attractions’ continue to thrive in an age where publicity around their damaging effects is growing. In truth, I believe that this is mostly still due to a lack of awareness, people see an attraction and may think that A, Plenty of people are visiting so it must be OK, or B, What difference do I make? I am just one extra amongst the crowd.

Others may never have known it could be harmful to the animal in the first place. In reality, whilst visitor numbers for these activities are maintained, they will continue to operate, and the only ones’ suffering are the animals themselves.

Rather than dwell on the negatives and the impact of these activities, let’s instead take a look at a few ways you can have amazing wildlife experiences when you travel, without causing any detriment to the species!

1. Visit ethical sanctuaries and projects that put the animals’ welfare first

elephant trek Thailand

Elephant Trek, Thailand

In Thailand, in particular, ethical elephant programs are growing in both number and popularity. The income generated by visitors is quickly filling the deficit left behind by taking the animals out of less favorable attractions like circus shows and rides, and allows visitors to get close to the animals without causing them any harm.

2. Go into the wild

What better way to see wild animals than in their natural habitat? Head out on an African safari with a reputable provider, a jungle trek to find orangutans in Indonesia or hike with mountain gorillas in Uganda. This way you’ll get the added thrill of encountering these amazing creatures in a natural setting!

3. Learn to scuba dive

Diving Bali

Diving in Bali

Scrap swimming with a dolphin in an enclosure, learn to scuba dive and head out into the depths of the deep blue sea to discover an underwater world of amazing wildlife – 70% of the globe is covered with water after all!

4. Volunteer on a wildlife project abroad

Elephant Safari Kenya

Elephant Safari, Kenya

Do something to give back and make a real difference to the animals’ lives by volunteering to assist with their welfare or conservation on a long-standing project. This might involve care and rehabilitation for animals in need or even conservation-focussed research to help prolong the future of a species or ecosystem!

This will allow you opportunities for positive interactions or sightings, whilst doing something truly positive to the animals’ benefit.

5. Choose carefully

It is of course still important to choose your activities and providers carefully, so here are a few hints to get you on the road to awesome experiences filled with amazing wildlife encounters:

  • Do your research – read up on the provider/site and check out travelers reviews as well, there are plenty of guides online linked to ethical animal tourism and attractions, so just do your homework – due diligence is key!
  • Consider the perspective of the animal – are they required to behave in any way that differs from how they would normally live their life? Any ‘humanised’ behaviour, for example, is completely unnatural, so no, watching an elephant paint with his trunk is not OK, watching them roam the savanna from a good distance in a safari jeep is.
  • Consider if anyone profiting from the activity - Are the funds supporting the cause and giving something back to the local community and economy? Or are the animals being used to generate a profit in a business-sense? (This one particularly applies to sanctuaries).
  • What is the provider doing to further benefit animal welfare? - Again, particularly for sanctuaries, is the provider offering education to the local community regarding environmental awareness and conservation? Is alternative livelihoods training part of the program for those previously involved in ‘negative’ forms of animal tourism? For safari or diving operators, are they following the rules and regulations imposed by local government and conservation organisations, such as staying on designated tracks in national parks?
  • What are the long-term goals? - Especially in the case of volunteer programs, consider the sustainability and longevity of the impact being made, with the right outcome in mind, the best procedures should follow!

How To Be an Animal-Friendly Backpacker (5 tips to get you started) #travel

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We’ve all be naïve about something on our travels at least once in a passport full of stamps, but moving forward, help to spread understanding and awareness around the importance of ethical animal tourism, and help to make the planet a happier place for all its wildlife.

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Image source: All images are the author's own