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Be an animal-friendly traveller – the hidden cruelty of animal tourism


More Kiwis are going overseas for winter holidays than ever before and we are heading for more exotic locations.

However, before you book to escape the winter gloom, it’s important to take a hard look at the travel itinerary you are considering – to make sure the attractions and entertainment on offer doesn’t involve abuse of animals. Some of the more common travelling ‘experiences’ that are cruel to animals include ‘walking’ with lions or tigers, cub petting, elephant rides, or venues with captive cetaceans like dolphins or orcas.

Ironically, many tourists who love animals unwittingly contribute to this because they are unaware of hidden animal abuses at the ‘attractions’ they visit.

SPCA scientific officer Sarah Zito, who has travelled extensively, particularly in Africa, pursuing her passion for wildlife photography, says travellers should avoid any attraction offering close interaction with wild animals. This applies even if it is marketed as a sanctuary or charity, and claims to provide rides or interactions to fund rescue and conservation work.

The World Animal Protection organisation warns many of the animals involved will have been cruelly trained, be physically restrained by chains or ropes, be living a life of unnatural isolation and not have basic shelter. They may have been removed from their mothers too early and raised by hand; harshly trained, de-clawed or have had their teeth filed or removed to control their natural behaviour. The public sees none of this.

“No genuine conservation organisation would allow close general public interaction with wild animals,” said Sarah. “The only exception to this would be people undertaking veterinary treatment or research – those who are paying to take part in a genuine conservation operation such as darting a wild animal for veterinary treatment or research or people volunteering with a reputable organisation providing veterinary care to injured or sick wild animals before they are released,” she explains.

lioncub“In public interactions with lions or tigers, it is often young animals, and once they get older and more difficult to handle they are often passed on to the ‘canned hunting’ industry, put into a fenced bush area and shot by paying trophy hunters. “

The canned hunting industry was exposed in the Blood Lions documentary but it continues to happen, says Sarah. “It is not just wild animals that can suffer as a result of being used for tourist entertainment; camels, horses, donkeys and other animals offered for tourist rides may be overworked, suffer inadequate care and live and work in poor conditions.”

In 2015, the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) from the UK’s elite Oxford University, carried out the first ever detailed review of the wildlife tourism industry internationally. Researchers analysed 48 different types of wildlife tourist attractions across the world, representing thousands of organisations.

These ranged from snake charming, bear dancing and macaque shows to large established attractions like dolphin and tiger interactions, which have tens of thousands of visitors every year. WildCRU audited 24 of these types in detail, collectively visited by 3.6 to 6 million tourists annually.

The resulting report, The Customer Isn’t Always Right – Conservation and Animal Welfare Implications of the Increasing Demand for Wildlife Tourism, studies, identified that up to four million tourists who visit non-zoo attractions involving wildlife are likely to be contributing to large-scale animal welfare abuses and declines in species’ conservation status.

Eighteen types of attraction, including tiger interactions, lion encounters, dolphinaria, civet coffee farms and elephant parks, negatively affected the welfare of, collectively, 230,000-550,000 individual animals. Fourteen types, involving 120,000-340,000 animals, lowered the conservation status of the wild populations due to the way they were sourced.  

lion and lioneessIt also found that these tourists are typically unaware of their impacts. The report concluded that, through patronage of such ‘attractions’, two to four million tourists per year are financially supporting practices which have negative impacts on animal welfare or conservation. At least 80 per cent of tourists left positive feedback for attractions they had visited on TripAdvisor – even for those with the poorest welfare standards.

Sarah Zito says most New Zealanders would be shocked and distressed to realise the reality of animal abuses behind the places they may be supporting as visitors.

“Most people don’t put two and two together but once you know the kind of things that happen behind the scenes – and once your eyes are opened to what is really happening to these animals, then it’s impossible to close them again. I have learned to look at things very differently.”

It is perfectly possible, with some research and careful planning of your holiday, for tourists to enjoy wildlife-related trips which do not involve exploitation of animals. World Animal Sanctuary Protection (WASP) International is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing accurate information on ethical animal sanctuaries worldwide – including those which provide volunteer/work experience programmes.

World Animal Protection has also produced Your Guide to Being Animal Friendly on Holiday to help tourists plan for an animal-friendly overseas trip. It includes a checklist for before you book, including researching the venues you intend to visit, checking if animal encounters are offered, and asking questions of your tour operator or travel agent, including whether they have an animal welfare policy.

The organisation is urging all tourists and tour operators worldwide to not take part in any rides or performances involving wild animals, including elephants, and not to pose for photos with wild animals. Intrepid Travel banned elephant rides on all its trips in 2014 and does not permit any activities that allow passengers to pet or walk with wild animals, such as lion walks. In March this year, on World Wildlife Day, House of Travel became New Zealand’s largest travel agency to commit not to sell, offer or promote venues or activities involving elephant rides or shows.

AnimalIn 2016, following the WildCRU report, TripAdvisor and its Viator brand also announced that it would discontinue selling tickets for specific tourism experiences where travellers come into contact with wild animals or endangered species. It has also partnered with WildCRU and is developing an education portal linked to every animal attraction listing on TripAdvisor. The aim is to provide links and information on the animal welfare and conservation implications of wildlife tourism.

As well as being aware of what attractions you visit, it’s also important to think about what souvenirs you buy. The World Wildlife Fund cites ‘wildlife trade’ as the second biggest threat to species after habitat destruction, noting that every year, hundreds of millions of plants and animals are caught or harvested from the wild, including for tourist curiosity much of it illegal.

“Before I travel I do my research,” says Sarah. “For instance, some African countries permit hunting but others don’t. Those with strong ethical objections to trophy hunting should avoid places that are directly involved with trophy hunting.”

However, she says, supporting those places that are purely for photographic or conservation tourism, and supporting conservation in countries or areas where trophy hunting is allowed, can help a gradual switch to non-hunting tourism overtime. “Sadly, wild areas and wildlife are generally expected or needed to “pay for themselves”, therefore, if we want this to be through photographic/conservation tourism, we have to sup[port this and demonstrate that wild areas and wildlife can ‘pay their way’ without the need for hunting," Sarah says.

“Ask your travel agent questions and look into the visits offered. There are some really good organisations doing genuine conservation work and contributing significantly to local communities. Do they allow animal interactions? Do they employ local people? Where does the money go to that they make from visitors?

tigers“Sometimes you do need to pay more for a holiday that aligns with your values. I now always go to a travel agent who specialises in Africa and knows my values,” she adds. "Equally, even in good places, you need to behave responsibly and ethically. Don’t grab a baby dolphin from the sea for a selfie, don’t drive too fast or too close to wild animals to get a better photo – I have seen that happen,” Sarah says.

“Importantly, share this message with people. If friends are going away and planning on riding elephants or walking with lions, then I do alert them to the reality of what that means for animals. The only way to prevent animal tourism abuses from happening, is to reduce demand for them.”

For more details on Your Guide to Being Animal Friendly on Holiday see

For details on WASP see: