How To Be A Responsible Wildlife Tourist

As the northern hemisphere finds itself rapidly approaching the holiday season, millions of tourists begin flocking toward popular travel destinations across the globe. Whether attracted by jaw-dropping scenery, rich culture, or exotic cuisine, most would agree that exploring new locations can help to broaden the mind and bring added enrichment into our lives. 

In the present day, holidaymakers increasingly aim to cram their vacations full with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities with itineraries that often include excursions that offer the chance to get up-close and personal with wildlife. From elephant trekking to walking with lions, many travelers find such encounters – especially those which promise souvenir photo opportunities – incredibly alluring. Unbeknown to many of these tourists, the animals that perform for their pleasure have often undergone many hardships in the process of their “domestication”.

It has been scientifically proven that many animals – not just limited to primates and other large mammals – exhibit traits similar to that of humans. Some are considered to be highly sentient, demonstrating familiar characteristics including self-awareness, self-consciousness, and even empathy. Many species have also been well documented for their capacity to form highly complex social structures. In fact, most, if not all animals that are pressed into service for the “entertainment” of humans possess these exceptional cognitive abilities.

Practicing responsible wildlife tourism is actually quite easy. All one need do is ask themselves one simple question. Given the choice, is it likely that the animal would comply with the activity? If the answer is yes, you are probably in the company of a truly domesticated animal such as a dog or cat. If the answer is no or you are unsure, then one must ask themselves if the short-lived experience and social media attention is worth the animal’s lifetime of suffering.

As a wildlife enthusiast and professionally certified safari guide, I am of the strong opinion that nothing trumps a purely authentic encounter with wildlife. Observing animals in their natural habitat is a far more rewarding experience, not least because they are behaving and interacting with the surrounding environment as nature intended.

The following are among the cruellest, yet most popular wildlife attractions one must avoid to consider themselves a responsible tourist.

Elephant Riding

As young as four years old, infant elephants are separated from their mothers to undergo a severe, almost humiliating taming process. The young calf is confined into a small space and held tightly in place using constricting ropes and chains. The procedure involves physical torture including poking and prodding with sharp implements such as knives, bullhooks, and bamboo sticks with nails embedded in the end. Other methods include food, water, and sleep deprivation. The elephant must endure this until the persecutor senses that it has become submissive enough to work with humans.

Almost all domesticated elephants – whether rode whilst trekking, performing tricks or street begging – must endure this gruelling ritual. It’s an unpleasant reality unbeknown to the majority of tourists who support the industry in countries such as Thailand, India, and Malaysia. 

The elephants may seem at peace, but that’s only because their spirit has been broken. When given a break from their arduous duties, their physical and psychological wellbeing is further crushed by unfavourable living conditions and limited social interactions with one another.

Walking with Lions

Lion cubs are purposefully bred for this growing industry and are typically taken away from their highly distressed mothers within a month of birth.

Most walking with lions experiences are available to tourists holidaying in southern Africa. Visitors can also expect to handle young cubs for hours on end, with the opportunity to pose with them for souvenir snaps. Many providers encourage their clients to correct (smack) the cubs if they display aggressive or any other form of unwanted behaviour.

When they become too old to tame, the lions face either a miserable lifetime in captivity or are handed over to the canned hunting industry. For those who are unaware, canned hunting is similar to trophy hunting, only the victim is confined to a smaller area ensuring 100% kill rates.


Another industry that has been exposed by animal rights groups and the award winning documentary, Blackfish.

Millions of tourists part with their hard earned cash to visit destinations such as Sea World and Discovery Cove each year, but most are entirely unaware of the abuse inflicted on these highly intelligent and socially complex creatures.
The animals are often captured from the wild where they are chased down by boats and then hauled on board. The stress induced by this traumatic event is often too much for the animals to endure, and consequently they perish during transit to their intended destinations.

The animals that are selected to be kept in dolphinariums are subjected to a lifetime of suffering. The area in which they have to swim is barely larger than a swimming pool, which is far smaller than their natural sea environment. Furthermore, the pools where they are held captive are regularly treated with chlorine which can lead to painful skin problems and eye irritations. Other health concerns include sunburn and stress-related illnesses including heart attacks and gastric ulcers.


The cruelty administered in this “sport” is merciless. Every year, thousands of bulls are brutally slaughtered to the cheers of olé in arenas spanning across Spain and South America.

From the very moment the bull enters the ring, they don’t stand a chance. Even before the fight they may be weakened by savage beatings. Some will even have petroleum jelly rubbed into their eyes in order to impair their vision.

Typically, when the animals enter the ring they are approached by picadors (men on horses) who drive lances into the bull’s back and neck muscles. The banderilleros then enter on foot and proceed to plunge banderillas (brightly coloured sticks with harpoons on their ends) into the bull’s back. Finally, the matador appears and tries to kill the disorientated animal with a sword following a few exhausted charges.

The animals rarely receive a clean death, resulting in further mutilation and suffering. If the matador is unsuccessful, an executioner is called in to stab the bull through the spinal cord, and, eventually to death. Even this stroke can be blundered, however, leaving the bull conscious but paralysed as he is chained by the horns and dragged unceremoniously away from the arena.


Countless animals have lost their lives to Rodeo with calf roping, bull riding, steer wrestling, and bronc riding make them little more than western-themed cowboy circuses.

Cattle and horses are often zapped with electric shots to encourage them to bolt out from the chute. Young calves’ necks are frequently twisted and even broken as they’re violently clotheslined and body slammed into the ground.

Fatal injuries including heart attacks, broken bones, and aneurysms are all fairly commonplace, and the animals who live to see another day are afforded little time to rest and recuperate. They are then hauled off to the next event and repeatedly forced to participate against their will.

When animals are considered too old or worn for rodeo, their next stop is nearly always a one-way trip to the slaughterhouse.

Tiger Selfies

This highly controversial industry was recently exposed for the unsavoury practices that ensued at Tiger Temple in Thailand.

Many of these centres misleadingly pose as wildlife sanctuaries, but have been discovered to be covertly acting as tiger farms where large profits are made from illegally selling tigers or tiger parts used in traditional Chinese medicine or as status symbols.

Similar to the walking with lions industry, tiger cubs are parted from their mothers and reluctantly made to pose with tourists for “selfies”. It is widely believed that many, if not all tigers are heavily sedated to reduce risks of attack, and any animals acting unfavourably are often disciplined with physical assault.

Furthermore, the animals are also constricted by short chains or confined in very small enclosures with hard concrete floors.

Horse-drawn Carriages

Commonplace in many busy cities including New York, Paris, and Prague, the horse-drawn carriage is another cruel yet popular tourist attraction that seems to have gone under the radar.

Despite their intimidating size, horses are very sensitive and skittish animals. They are forced to dodge traffic and road accidents have occurred in almost every city in which horse-drawn carriages operate.

With exhaust fumes polluting the city, respiratory ailments aren’t out of the ordinary, and debilitating leg problems are often suffered on account of the hard surfaces they’re made to toil.

Furthermore, horses are often made to pull oversized loads in all manner of weather extremes, and have even been witnessed dropping dead due to heatstroke.


In an animal activist’s ideal world, all wild creatures would be left to live happily in their natural environments of which they have evolved perfectly well to survive in.

To be brief, some zoos are considered by animal welfare groups to be “tolerable”, with others being cruel and unfit to serve as homes for wildlife.

A “tolerable” zoo tends to be one that serves more as a non-profit educational sanctuary. They exhibit vulnerable and endangered species which serve as ambassadors to help promote and support conservation. However, many zoo animals can still suffer from relentless boredom, loneliness, and in some cases, “zoochosis”.

If you’ve ever been to a zoo, wildlife park, or drive-through safari, you may have noticed animals rocking, swaying, or pacing endlessly. Some may even resort to self-abuse, chewing on their own body parts and removing fur or feathers. These are classic signs of “zoochosis” which is caused by the deprivation of diversity and freedom endured whilst living in zoos.

Cruel zoos exist entirely for profit. They are located mostly in poorer countries (but in more developed nations too), with animals often kept in tiny enclosures and in horrendous conditions. They’ll often be terribly malnourished and have contracted diseases or other illnesses that go untreated to limit costs.

Others Wildlife Attractions to Avoid:

Street Begging and Entertainment
Photo Props
Snake Charmers
Bear Parks
Crocodile Farms
Sea Turtle Handling
Animal Circuses
Civet Coffee Plantations

Photos: Shutterstock

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