giraffe standing in the Savannah

Encountering wildlife is often a big drawcard for a holiday destination. In some instances, it can be the only reason we decide on that trip. The association with animal encounters and tourist hotspots is undeniable. I say Australia, you think kangaroos. I say Costa Rica, you think sloth. I say South Africa, you think great white sharks.

Tourist campaigns have been focusing on iconic wildlife for years, and as such we have an expectation of seeing these animals when we arrive.

The first step in organising holidays can be to book safaris or snorkelling excursions. But how ethical are our animal encounters? Is there a way to ensure our interactions with these incredible creatures are helping rather than hindering their survival?

Simple answer - yes! It’s all about responsible travel decisions. Read on for some simple ideas on how to make your next animal encounter ethical.

Go wild

Whale sharks in Australia – with one of the strictest animal protection policies in the world, Australia is leading the way with responsible marine mammal encounters. Sharks are left to swim as they were found, with strictly adhered to distances between sharks and swimmers at all times.

The first preference for an animal encounter is with a wild animal. That might sound a little crazy, or maybe even dangerous but in reality, it is not. Taking a safari with a licenced, registered company through a large nature reserve in Africa is an excellent way to spot elephants without too much adverse impact. You take a gamble as sightings are never guaranteed, but compare this with riding a captive elephant in Thailand and the wild option is much preferred.

What about a boat cruise? Again, there are no certainties about what or who might show up, but the chance to spot wild dolphins, whales, turtles or seabirds is thrilling. The cruise alone can often be a spectacular highlight. Compare this with dolphins performing in captivity and the wild option is much preferred.

Hiking through a forest or jungle to spot apes is definitely a wild encounter worth attempting. The hike can be exhausting and challenging, but spotting a chimp watching you from above is nothing less than exhilarating. Compare this with trained monkeys performing in a circus and the wild option is much preferred.

Captive can be responsible

Elephant Orphanage in Kenya – a wonderful conservation centre that takes injured or orphaned elephants and hand raises them until they can be released into a larger national park. Carers spend one-on-one time with the young elephants, often sleeping with them to really become their ‘mothers’. The centre is only open for one hour to allow tourists to visit and get some information, leading to adoptions and donations to fund the centre.

If encountering animals in the wild is not possible due to time or money constraints, or simply because the animals are so rare, then there are ‘captive’ options that can be responsible.

Conservation game parks are an alternative to the more isolated and expensive nature reserves. It pays to do some research to identify a legitimate conservation park and not one that is masquerading as such. Look for websites and publicly available data; reviews on travel websites also help. If a conservation park is also offering animal rides, photos with animals or animal shows, then keep looking.

Another option is captive breeding or rehabilitation centres. Such places should also be thoroughly researched and should have readily available information regarding the release of bred or rehabilitated animals. It also pays to ask just how the centre got it’s breeding animals as hunting animals for breeding stock would definitely raise red flags.

Legitimate, well-funded zoos are also an excellent way to get up close and personal with iconic animals during your trip. Look for well-known facilities with great websites, reviews and international relationships. Many zoos work together to breed animals, work on genetic diversity and help to release animals back into their native habitats. If the zoo you are looking at still hosts animals in cages, feeding them on pellets and letting visitors pat or ride them, then again, keep looking.

Know what to avoid

Gorilla in Uganda – the ultimate in hiking/tracking an animal. Respectful, based on research, limited to a number of people and to one hour in the presence of the apes.

To ensure your next animal encounter is an ethical one, there are a few simple things to look out for and avoid. If the activity or facility you are looking at for your next holiday advertises any of these things, then I’d suggest you look elsewhere;

  • Animal rides (elephants, dolphins, etc.)
  • Photo opportunities (cuddle a monkey, hold a baby tiger, etc.)
  • Performing animals (orca shows, dancing cobras, etc.)
  • Caged animals or unnecessarily chained animals

Scrolling through photos on a company’s website can give a great insight to what is on offer. Look for the food that is given to the animal and their enclosures as well as how other tourists have interacted with them.

Also look for public information regarding the release of rehabilitated animals and other success stories. If you can’t find anything, I’d query what the facility’s mission was.

Promote (or discourage) the company

River cruise in Borneo – this is an incredible way to witness animals, from monkeys to crocodiles to fish, birds and even elephants in Asia. Sunrise or sunset cruises are the perfect time to spot animals, but even if nothing shows up, it’s so peaceful and worth it anyway.

Regardless of how you choose to encounter animals during your next trip, advertising what you experience is invaluable. If you find a company that is doing amazing research work, helping to educate and conserve species as well as providing excellent service to visitors, then show them some love on social media, their website and traveller review sites.

The same goes if you find somewhere unethical – let other travellers know so they don’t make the same mistake. Social media is an incredible tool that lets us communicate with each other and share information like never before. Let’s use it to our travel advantage!

4 Simple Steps: How To Experience Ethical Animal Encounters #ethicaltravel

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I’d love to hear about your ethical animal encounters, and those that are not, so that myself and others can be better informed – and therefore ethical – travellers. Please comment below to share your stories.

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giraffe standing in the Savannah

Image source: all images are the author's own