Gone with the wild

Wildlife experiences can appear harmless — or even beneficial — at first glance. However, such interactive activities are often advertised as being either educational or conservationist.

WILDLIFE tourism’s popularity have surged in recent years as this captivating industry is the sole one that allows travellers an opportunity to connect and immerse themselves in mother nature while experiencing wonders of the animal kingdom — getting an awe-inspiring and educational experience.

It can make a significant contribution to the conservation and preservation of the incredible animals that live on the planet, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

Visiting the animals to observe them in their home country or region contributes to the local economy and conservation efforts, making it a win-win-win situation for the wildlife, the local community, and travellers.

WTTC mentions that wildlife tourism supports the protection of endangered species. It explains that when travellers choose to support reputable initiatives and responsible providers, they are actually helping generate the income needed for continuous conservation work.

It encourages governments to invest in conservation when demand for conservation and responsible tourism increases.

Besides that, necessary income can be generated for responsible wildlife tourism through storytelling (it can be as easy as posting on social media) and it helps reprioritise wildlife tourism over illegal wildlife trade and crime — which has become one of the world’s largest and most profitable crime sectors.

INTERPOL had revealed in November that the black market for illegal wildlife products are now worth up to USD$20 billion per annum and it will continue to grow as it pushes many species to the brink of extinction.

Meanwhile, a report by World Bank also states that wildlife tourism is a powerful tool countries can leverage to grow and diversify their economies while protecting their biodiversity and meeting several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, engage tourists in wildlife conservation and inject money into local communities living closest to wildlife.

Emphasising that collective efforts are essential to ensure its long-term sustainability as the sector is in the midst of tremendous growth, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) concurs that sustainable tourism — wildlife tourism included — has the capacity to support job creation, promote inclusive social integration, protect natural and cultural heritage, conserve biodiversity, generate sustainable livelihoods and improve human wellbeing when it is responsibly planned and managed.

Demand for wildlife tourism have driven some unscrupulous parties tocapitalise on it. thus, travellers have the power to make a change.Demand for wildlife tourism have driven some unscrupulous parties tocapitalise on it. thus, travellers have the power to make a change.

Cruelty that we don’t see

Wildlife tourism can bring substantial benefits as mentioned above, but it also poses risks - one of the crucial ones being animal welfare.

There have been many instances of captive animals being exploited, starved, severely malnourished, kept in inadequate and dire conditions, as well as subjected to stressful, unnatural behaviours, and more.

Does the Tiger Temple debacle in Thailand ring a bell? News outlets worldwide had a whale of a time reporting on Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno’s (Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple) take down in 2016.

Time reported that over 500 officers from Thailand’s Department of National Parks (DNP) raided the Tiger Temple and uncovered 40 dead tiger cubs frozen in a freezer of the now shuttered attraction that were managed by monks.

Another 20 tiger cub carcusses kept in jars of formaldehyde were uncovered. Two adult tiger pelts were also found, along with the body of a bear and around 1,500 tiger skin amulets, plus other trinkets apparently made of tiger teeth.

The DNP confiscated a total of 147 live tigers from the temple.

According to the BBC, the tigers were subsequently held at two breeding stations in a nearby province. It was reported that in 2019, only 86 from the original 147 have survived in captivity and even more have passed since then.

The World Animal Protection organisation warns that travellers need to be cautious towards wildlife greenwashing, stating that many well-intentioned holidaymakers choose captive animal ‘experiences’, unaware of the harm they do to the animals involved, and the potential damage to the local ecosystem, and its communities.

It elaborates that some of these experiences such as washing elephants, swimming with dolphins, or hand-feeding primates can appear harmless — or even beneficial — at first glance.

However, such interactive activities are often advertised as being either educational or conservationist. The organisation emphasises that they are neither as it is required for wild animals to be kept in captivity and trained to behave in ways which are not natural for them - which are undoubtedly exploitative.

Suffice to say, unregulated wildlife tourism can lead to exploitation, habitat degradation, wildlife disturbance, exploitation, and increased pollution from improper waste management - which in turn harms mother nature’s fragile ecosystems, fragment habitats and disrupts the natural behavior of animals. Ultimately, all these lead to biodiversity loss.

travelers are advised to conduct research before engaging in a wildlifeoperator, ensuring it is transparent in funding, as well as its conservationand preservation activities.travelers are advised to conduct research before engaging in a wildlifeoperator, ensuring it is transparent in funding, as well as its conservationand preservation activities.

Mindful thoughts, mindful actions

Humans are fascinated by animals — often in awe of the creatures’ biodiversity — with some (scientists) wanting to study them, while others (animal lovers) can endure hours of travel just to connect and interact with them, touch them, and take mandatory selfies for social media.

Hence, it is essential to ensure animals, nature and the planet as a whole do not pay the price of tourists’ experiences.

It is here, where responsible tourism and ecotourism converge, to play a vital role in protecting mother nature and all her inhabitants.

As stated by the World Animal Protection organisation, responsible and sustainable travel demand that people travel consciously, while ecotourism is a way for humans to preserve the natural world while learning about it.

It allows for a more sustainable, kinder and thoughtful way for people to experience wildlife tourism while engaging in conservation, preservation, and protection.

It is up to travellers going for a wildlife adventure to do the mindful thing, beginning with some critical thinking and asking the right questions — kicking off with a simple “is this ethical”?

If the wildlife experience has no effect or a positive effect on the individual animals involved, then it can be considered ethical.

Travellers should not take claims at face value. Instead, conduct some research into the wildlife attraction extensively before considering a visit.

While the most common thing to do on such occasions is to dive into other travellers’ reviews, Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) cautions travellers to approach them with a critical eye. WildCRU had discovered that 80% of people who leave reviews, such as those on TripAdvisor, were unaware of cruelty as an issue within the animal tourism industry.

The World Animal Protection organisation have repeatedly warned that if a traveller can ride, hug, or take a selfie with a wild animal, chances are the venue is cruel.

It reiterates that if any animal is expected to behave in a way that isn’t natural to them or causes them any kind of stress (even too many people observing them from a distance), then the experience isn’t ethical and should be avoided.

In addition to opting for responsible operators which are transparent in its conservation and preservation programmes, funding, and operations as a whole, travellers can leverage on travel agents to check on the attractions’ policies on wildlife tourism and ethical behaviours.

Other seemingly simple yet mindful gestures travellers can do to make an impact include respecting every animal as an individual, not disrupting their peaceful time with flash photography, purchasing the right type of souvenirs, as well as recording and reporting unethical wildlife attractions.

Ultimately, travellers — like voters in an election — have the ability to make positive changes that can leave lasting impacts.

Quoting Sir David Attenborough: “Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that”.

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