The Truth About Wildlife Tourism

Santorini donkeys with ANIMONDIAL
Santorini donkeys with ANIMONDIAL

Daniel Turner, Director of animal welfare consultancy ANIMONDIAL, offers insight into the complex world of wildlife tourism

It happened many years ago, but it still breaks my heart. I was working in Spain with a vision to improving the conditions of animals living in captivity, and crossed paths with two beautiful bears. They were in an impossibly small enclosure, confined behind metal bars and with no means to escape the scorching heat. Save a small tub of water, the cage was starkly empty.

As I was taking notes on the situation, a slight breeze blew a leaf into the enclosure. Just a leaf. But to one bear that had previously been sitting lifelessly in the enclosure, the leaf was a lifeline. Almost child-like, he pounced and he played; his curiosity was clear. But as quickly as it wafted into the cage, the leaf escaped, and the bear withdrew into his lifeless state once more.

It was an incredibly emotional experience and it demonstrates that animals in captivity, no matter the species, must be housed in enriched environments. This heart-breaking memory, and an overriding objective to safeguard animals’ welfare, inspires my work as co-founder and director of ANIMONDIAL.

There has been growing talk about animal welfare in tourism in recent years and it is an important conversation to have. Research shows more than half a million captive wild animals worldwide, including elephants, primates, tigers and dolphins, are enduring bad management, or poor living conditions in the name of entertainment. Meanwhile, around 110 million people annually visit animal attractions, either independently or through travel companies. The bad practice must stop and, thankfully, most people agree with that. But how to put a stop to it is not quite as simple.


The Elephant in the Room

Elephants provide a strong case study. I have seen first-hand the poor conditions some of these magnificent mammals are subject to. In fact, my very first visit to a so-called ‘elephant camp’ was especially eye-opening.

I had travelled to Thailand to evaluate these popular tourist attractions against animal welfare standards and, having read words such as ‘no riding’, ‘sanctuary’ and ‘rescued elephants’ in promotional materials, I was anticipating a high standard.

In reality, I was way off the mark. The scene was chaotic. The noise of chattering tourists was intense, the elephants – overweight and lethargic – were overwhelmed by large crowds and subject to continuous touching from tourists, not to mention the countless selfies being snapped. The mahouts (traditional elephant handlers) were some distance away, sitting in the shade. It was an accident waiting to happen.

As animal welfare groups and concerned individuals begin to make more noise about unethical tourism practices, elephant camps such as these have been created to try to deflect the criticism. They no longer offer elephant riding, but instead they offer alternative interactions. Good news? Maybe not.

ANIMONDIAL is a specialist consultancy that works in positive collaboration with travel companies and other stakeholders to better manage tourism’s impact on animals, their natural environment and on local communities. Although some animal activities are no longer acceptable, ANIMONDIAL believes, in most cases, responsible, sustainable and positively impactful alternatives can be found. These alternatives not only protect the animals, but also provide travellers with unique experiences and travel companies with peace of mind that what they are offering is trusted and inspiring.

When the Thai government banned logging in 1989, about 2000 elephants and their mahouts were left unemployed. The solution? Logging facilities were transformed into elephant ‘tourist’ camps. It seemed like a positive resolution. The elephants were saved from an uncertain future and the camps were hugely popular, expanding quickly across the country. Now, as calls for a boycott grow louder, we must recognise that captive elephant numbers have increased to about 4700 and, with no viable alternative, we are at risk of hurtling back to square one. For decades, tourism has been the primary driver proliferating animal attractions. Tourism must, therefore, be part of the solution. To walk away now would be irresponsible.

Boycotts can raise awareness, and that’s a good thing, but alternative interactions can be just as damaging. And the potential closure of facilities strips elephants and their mahouts of their home and livelihood.

As a person who feels animals of wild species are better off in the wild, I would welcome this industry to eventually phase out, but we are nowhere near that ideal outcome. In the meantime, we must do our best to find a viable solution. Together with its partners, ANIMONDIAL is committed to delivering a robust education program, adapted to cultural differences, that we hope will encourage facility owners to implement genuine change that is sensitive to the needs of the animals and the communities that rely on them.


Under the Sea

For a look at another highly commercialised segment of the Animal Kingdom, we venture to the world’s oceans. Whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans, are housed in zoos and aquaria, or can be viewed in the wild, and attract tens of millions of tourists a year.

Much like captive elephants in tourism, captive cetaceans continue to generate debate. While many experts claim captivity is detrimental to animal welfare, marine parks continue to insist their animals are ‘happy’. Regardless, these once-popular animal attractions are falling out of favour, which can place the animals involved in jeopardy.

Around the world, once-performing cetaceans are swimming idly with nowhere else to go. I’ve seen beautiful bottlenose dolphins trapped in dismally tiny pools, eating the paint peeling from the pool wall out of boredom, while some facilities try desperately to relocate the animals. But where to? There are no established sanctuaries to meet the growing global need.

“For decades, tourism has been the primary driver proliferating animal attractions. Tourism must, therefore, be part of the solution. To walk away now would be irresponsible.”

While interest in captive cetaceans is waning, the popularity of cetacean-watching in the wild is on the rise. Sadly, these beautiful creatures can be subjected to large numbers of tourist-toting vessels and, unless such activities are controlled, their welfare can be put under threat. Tourist boats have been known to chase marine mammals or encroach on their space for close-up experiences, while feeding, or direct contact with wild cetaceans can cause injury and unnatural behavioural change.

ANIMONDIAL is working with the World Cetacean Alliance ( to help deliver meaningful change. The Alliance has created the Global Best Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching, and through its implementation, we hope to improve viewing practices, safeguard wild cetaceans and create Whale Heritage Sites.


Some Home Truths

Domestic animals can also be caught up in animal tourism. Think carriage rides to explore a city, pack animals used to transport luggage, donkeys ridden to heritage sites, or camel riding in the desert.

From my point of view, it is important to examine the particular circumstances and identify whether the animals’ physical and behavioural needs are being met.

For a donkey carrying a traveller and their luggage up the steep Santorini cliffside, for example, we must consider specifics such as the weight of the load, riding etiquette, equipment used, weather conditions, and whether the animals are provided suitable healthcare and living conditions.

As travellers, it is crucial we do not accept things at face value. We must consider the wider implications of our actions. So, before taking a ride with a horse or donkey, check its condition to ensure there are no wounds or signs of malnourishment; if visiting an animal sanctuary, ensure it genuinely rescues animals for rehabilitation and care; and try to eat responsibly, recognising that in some countries, endangered species, or even domestic dog or cat could be on the menu!

Much of our work at ANIMONDIAL involves advocating improvements in animal welfare through the adoption of standards, robust evaluation and trusted certification to identify best practice. This kind of approach will also help travellers identify and support ethical practices.

Until then, ANIMONDIAL encourages you to ask your tour operator whether safeguards to protect animal welfare are in place and whether their activities have been reviewed against recognised standards. This not only provides assurance, it also encourages tour operators to adopt best practice and better manage their impact.

The Good Guys

Running an animal sanctuary is hard work. They are usually run by impassioned people, who constantly strive to improve animal welfare despite limited resources. ANIMONDIAL is proud to work with many responsible experiences, including animal sanctuaries. These include:

Ape Action Africa | Offering volunteer tourists a unique opportunity to care for rescued great apes in Cameroon.

Mahouts Elephant Foundation | An alternative elephant experience viewing captive Asian elephants in their wild environment in Thailand.

Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation | Protectors of Aegean marine life and currently creating of the world’s first sanctuary for cetaceans.

For information about responsible whale watching operators:

The Details

To find out more about ANIMONDIAL, visit

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