It's World Wildlife Day, and Rob Perkins examines how we can enjoy animals on our travels without putting them at risk in his pick of the world's best ethical animal experiences
Wildlife encounters are a highlight of many holidays. But too often, tourist entertainment trumps animal welfare. So how do you know you're not, unwittingly, putting animals at risk?
It's not always obvious.
The thrill of playing with lion cubs in a South African rescue centre may seem harmless enough, but this kind of facility frequently provides animals for the "canned hunting" industry - lions that have had their fear of humans "cuddled out of them".
The elephant you're riding may show no obvious signs of abuse, but they're often cruelly mistreated to break their spirit.
The more human contact animals have, and the more dependent they become, the less likely they can ever be released.
With few exceptions, animal experiences should happen in the wild. Not only is this safest for them - it's better for you. You won't be petting them, but observing their natural behaviours in their native environment – watching as they hunt, play, nurture their young or even watch you right back – is a far richer experience.
Certain experiences – such as captive orca and dolphin shows – receive a lot of attention, so we might know to avoid them.
But it's not always so clear-cut, and figuring out what's truly ethical can feel like a mammoth task. Which is why some responsible operators do the legwork for you - so they can advise based on the latest research and advice from NGOs, welfare charities and local experts.
The heart of the matter
Humans are usually at the heart of wildlife conservation. It can't happen without the support of local communities in preventing conflict with animals, poaching or habitat loss.
And when conservation also presents a financial benefit – like employing local guides and rising tourism revenue – there's a strong incentive for communities to protect wild animals and the places they live.
For this reason, responsible wildlife holidays are often rooted in community – employing guides drawn from the area, and including visits to local villages.
What to look out for
• When observing animals in the wild, ensure your vehicle and guide stay a good distance from the animal and never get between adults and their young
• When volunteering with animals, in most cases you should have little or no actual contact with them: the hope is that they can one day be released into the wild
• In most cases, zoos and wildlife parks put entertainment before conservation and welfare. Animals shouldn't be held in captivity to attract visitors
• Support responsible centres that breed endangered animals with the hope of increasing wild populations
• There are many sanctuaries rescuing animals that cannot be released back into the wild. Those that operate ethically don't offer rides or performances, and discourage close contact with the animals
• If you encounter exploitation of captive animals while on holiday, you can report it to the Born Free Foundation
• A responsible operator will be happy to answer any questions you have about an animal attraction that appears on your itinerary
• Support local communities when you travel. If people see the value in protecting wildlife and conserving their habitats, they're much less likely to hunt them.
• Wildlife holidays should contribute towards the conservation of animals and the habitats they depend on, whether that be through financial donations, education or volunteer work
What to avoid:
• Walking with lions or playing with lion cubs – quite possibly linked to the canned hunting industry
• Turtle hatcheries that use tanks which, while often set-up with the best intentions, risk disrupting natural behaviours
• Elephant riding – there are some sanctuaries in countries such as Thailand and India however where you can visit and support them, without having the exploitative ride
• Captive orca and dolphin shows – keeping these beautiful creatures in restrictive spaces where their natural behaviours are inhibited is stressful for them, and cruel
• Rodeos and stampedes - these are often hazardous to animal welfare in the name of 'tradition' and entertainment
Ethical wildlife experiences
• Whale and dolphin-watching tours
• Responsibly operated safaris that put animal welfare first – especially those that also benefit local communities
• Gorilla-watching in Uganda and Rwanda, helping to protect these huge and critically endangered creatures
• Wolf-tracking, which encourages protection of an animal that has been unfairly vilified around the world
• Shark conservation – research volunteering trips usually involve exciting cage-diving, while the suitability of baiting the water to attract sharks is something we continue to monitor
• Wildlife volunteering such as at a bear sanctuary in Romania, or a turtle conservation centre
Rob Perkins is a writer at Responsible Travel. responsibletravel.com
How to have an elephant-friendly experience
Since 2005, World Animal Protection has worked in Asia to improve the welfare of elephants. Their Taken for a Ride report documented the conditions endured by nearly 300 elephants used in tourist venues across Asia and found that 3 out of 4 are living in unacceptable conditions.
As a result of their ongoing work, the non-profit foundation has put together the dos and don'ts of elephant experiences.
Don't book an elephant experience if…
• You can get close to the elephant. If a venue allows you to get close enough to ride, bath or touch an elephant, it's because they've been cruelly trained.
• Baby elephants are present Baby elephants are tourist magnets, but true elephant-friendly venues shouldn't allow breeding. You shouldn't be seeing young elephants, except for at orphanages where babies are rescued from the wild.
• Hooks are used Elephants should always be treated with kindness and respect, and hooks shouldn't be used unless in a real emergency.
Do book an elephant experience if…
• Elephants are behaving naturally The elephants spend their days roaming and socialising in large forest enclosures, not confined or forced to entertain.
• People are a safe distance Being wild animals, elephants can be unpredictable, so mahouts (elephant handlers) will stay at a safe distance and require tourists to do the same.
For more information, and to find a list of elephant-friendly venues in Asia, go to worldanimalprotection.org.au