Holidays & Travel

How do you choose an ethical wildlife holiday?

Sarah Marshall speaks to experts about the dos and don’ts of booking a nature-themed break.

Could your wildlife holiday activity be harmful to animals?
Tourists on a safari boat watching a giraffe walk through a river Could your wildlife holiday activity be harmful to animals? (Alamy Stock Photo)

Inspired by numerous nature documentaries, wildlife holidays are becoming increasingly popular. Bookings for safaris have boomed in Kenya and Tanzania since the pandemic, and citizen science trips based around conservation are becoming more popular too.

But as we develop a greater sensitivity towards the wild world, our attitude towards nature is changing. Although once commonly accepted, the idea animals might be used for entertainment is now abhorrent.

Recently, easyJet Holidays vowed to stop selling any activities where animals might be harmed in captivity. Other operators have made similar commitments in the past.

Distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ wildlife experiences isn’t always easy, however. Some sanctuaries, for example, provide excellent care for animals – even if they aren’t living in the wild. On the flip side, there are occasions where animal behaviour is impacted by tourism – even in remote areas such as Antarctica or the African savanna.

So, how do you navigate the minefield of choosing an ethical wildlife holiday? We asked some experts to share their tips.

Be aware of any (too) close encounters

Attitudes towards animal tourist activities have changed a lot in recent years
Tourists riding on an elephant Attitudes towards animal tourist activities have changed a lot in recent years (Alamy Stock Photo)

“We don’t ever support any kind of ‘close encounters’ with wildlife, which involve touching, feeding or the exploitation of wildlife of any kind,” says Candice Buchan, head of Rainbow Tours. “We wouldn’t do anything that interferes with the natural order of the animals freely going about their business, or where they don’t have complete autonomy. The closest people could get would be with researchers or conservationists that are working to protect certain species.”

Charlie Potter, Africa sales manager at luxury family safari specialists, Coral Tree, adds: “Paying to feed lion cubs or washing elephants is normalising wild animals as pets and is fuelling the illegal wildlife trade. If you are paying for hands-on interaction with animals, you’re not travelling ethically. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

Avoid anything involving entertainment

“One of the biggest indications of whether wildlife experiences are ethical is if they include some form of ‘entertainment’ factor, where wildlife have been trained to perform, or more alarmingly a chance to get hands-on with wildlife,” says Greg Fox, co-founder Mahlatini Luxury Travel. “Research from credible sources is key.”

Do your research

“Many organisations have memberships or certifications that demonstrate they walk the walk ethically, sustainably and responsibly. World Animal Protection, The Long Run, Travel by B Corp and 1% For The Planet are just a few of these to look out for,” says Lara Webster, Journey Planner at Journeys With Purpose, an operator specialising in conservation focussed trips.

“Sometimes, the clearest indication of whether a holiday or activity is ethical is your gut instinct. As well as asking the relevant team/company questions, question yourself! Does your trip require the wildlife to behave (or worse, perform) in an unnatural way? Are you gaining access to it in a manner that is likely to encroach on its boundaries, comfort or cause distress? Read the reviews, and be honest with your judgement.”

Don’t forget about communities

“In an ideal world, we’d like to see national parks and their attendant wildlife conserved because it’s the right thing to do – because we believe that we should leave the planet in a better state than when we found it,” says Chris MacIntyre, managing director for Expert Africa.

“However, in the real world, we understand that these areas, and their wildlife, usually need to pay for themselves to be conserved – and so generating funds through tourism is often key to the conservation of many such areas and their wildlife. For the local communities, we’re keen on interactions which help to provide them with sustainable jobs and income, and encourage conservation of the wildlife and its ecosystem.”

Not all zoos and marine parks are bad

Should animals be kept in captivity for entertainment purposes?
An Orca leaping out of a pool in a display for tourists Should animals be kept in captivity for entertainment purposes? (Alamy Stock Photo)

“Clearly the great beauty of a wildlife experience is appreciating the magnificence of these creatures in their natural habitat, so we don’t have zoos or marine parks in our programme,” says Buchan. “However not all these experiences are 100% negative – sometimes the education on offer is valuable, and in some cases these organisations are doing important conservation or research work. So each case needs to be carefully assessed on its individual merits, ethics and objectives.”

Choose sanctuaries carefully

“When visiting a sanctuary or volunteering with animals, look for minimal or zero contact policies. The more human contact animals have, the less likely they can ever be released,” advises Rob Perkins from Responsible Travel. “In most cases, and unless necessary, you should have little or no physical contact with them. There are many sanctuaries rescuing animals that can’t be released back into the wild – but those that operate ethically don’t offer rides or performances, and will still discourage unnecessary contact.

“For example, bathing an elephant may seem innocent, but they aren’t domesticated animals. So they’re often badly abused to break their spirit, in order for tourists to be able to ride or wash them. With rare exceptions, wildlife experiences should happen in the wild – on the animals’ terms. Animals shouldn’t be held in captivity as a tourist attraction.”