10 Responsible and Animal Friendly Wildlife Encounters
In our Guide to Cruelty-Free Wildlife Tourism (hyperlink to previous post), we discussed the current state of the wildlife tourism industry, as well as the benefits of supporting responsible wildlife tourism companies and how to identify them. Taking this into consideration, we’ve done the research and compiled a list of unforgettable wildlife encounters hosted by responsible organizations – all of which are dedicated to protecting animal welfare and educating others on the importance of conservation. Now go forth and travel with kindness!
Watch families of wild African elephants in South Africa’s Kruger National Park
Nothing takes your breath away like seeing an elephant in the wild. Whether they’re strutting across the African savannah or hosing each other down at a waterhole – observing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is by far the best way to appreciate their size, intelligence, and heartwarming group dynamic. In addition to a healthy population of African elephants, the protected national park is home to lions, rhinos, leopards and buffalo.
Volunteer with Asian elephants at the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS)
Work alongside scientists, conservationists and others dedicated to preserving Asian elephant populations (as well as leopards and sloth bears) as part of SLWCS’ unique and life-changing changing volunteer program. Located in Wasgamuwa National Park, volunteers work hand-in-hand with staff to carry out essential conservation work heavily focused on research and education.
Avoid: Elephant rides and performing elephants
According to World Animal Protection, these attractions top the list as the cruelest forms of wildlife tourism. Young elephants are taken from their families to undergo a terribly cruel training process to break their spirit and make them submissive to their handlers. Known as “the crush”, it involves painful restraints, beatings with sharp spikes, and, in some cases, deprivation of sleep, food and water.
Take a dip with wild dolphins in Rockingham, Western Australia
The warm waters of Western Australia offer some of the world’s best opportunities for memorable encounters with wild dolphins. Since the 1960s, humans and dolphins have lived and played harmoniously in the protected bays of Rockingham and Shoalwater Island Marine Park, which is home to over 250 wild bottlenose dolphins. Thanks to Australia’s firm commitment to ethical wildlife tourism, this is one of the few places you can swim – or, rather float – in close proximity to large numbers of these incredible creatures in a responsible manner.
Avoid: Swimming with captive dolphins or watching dolphins perform at marine parks
The life of a captive dolphin is an unhappy one. Dolphins are incredibly intelligent, cognitive and emotional animals. Because of their ever-present smiles it’s easy to anthropomorphize (project human emotions) on them. But, what we interpret as a happy expression can obscure the animal’s true situation – especially when they are captive.
Captive dolphins are usually born in the wild. They are caught via speed boat, separated from their pod and trapped in nets before being transported to their destination. Many die during this process. The ones that do survive live out the rest of their lives in confinement, devoid of the complex social structures and endless ocean habitat they’re accustomed to – all for human entertainment.
Splash around with wild sea lions at Baird Bay, South Australia
Baird Bay on the coast of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula is home to a colony of endangered Australian sea lions. After falling head over heels with these handsome, intelligent creatures, a select few have worked tirelessly to protect them and share the joy of interacting with them. Since the early 1990s, these friendly and inquisitive sea lions – which aren’t fed or enticed in any way – have stolen the hearts of many. Though, it’s no surprise. Who can resist those round, soulful eyes, and playful underwater acrobatics?
Avoid: Swimming with captive sea lions or watching them perform at marine parks
Like dolphins and whales, sea lions are intelligent mammals that can be tamed and taught to perform tricks. Captive sea lions are confined in small, isolated areas. If they’re lucky, they will have a companion or two – a far cry from the large social structures of wild sea lions. Like dolphins and whales, captive sea lions often suffer physical and psychological illnesses due to confinement. These range from skin rashes and sunburns to psychological stress and shock.
Lend a hand to rescued orangutans at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) Samboja Lestari Eco-Lodge
Borneo is one of two places where the critically endangered orangutan still survives – making any encounter with this fascinating mammal a privilege. Located in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, BOSF rescues, rehabilitates and releases (when possible) orangutans who have lost their habitat, been orphaned in the wild or kept illegally as pets. Since it was founded in 1991, BOSF has rescued 2,200 orangutans.
Volunteers are fully immersed in orangutan conservation, with activities ranging from gathering, preparing and delivering food for the furry residents to cleaning enclosures, construction and collecting behavioral data – all of which is used to help ensure their release into the wild.
Meet your close relatives (gorillas) in Bwindi, Uganda
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is composed of mist-covered hillsides sheltered by ancient and biologically diverse rainforest that houses a staggering number of rare and wonderful plant and animal species – most notably, the charming mountain gorilla. The park is home to around 340 of the world’s 800 mountain gorillas. As you can imagine, reaching the gorillas requires a fair bit of effort. After hours of trekking, visitors are limited to one hour with the rare primates – but it’s well worth it. After encountering the gorillas himself, BBC Wildlife columnist Mark Carwardine described the experience as “one of the most emotional, humbling and exhilarating hours of my life.”
Avoid: Any entertainment involving performing primates
Many species of primates are exploited for entertainment purposes. Typically taken from their mothers as infants, young primates undergo painful training to make them perform tricks or exhibit human-like behaviors. When they’re not entertaining, they are usually confined in tiny cages or kept on restrictive chains or leashes. These chains can become embedded in their sensitive skin and cause painful infections.
Snorkel with sea turtles
Unlike the other experiences on this list, an organized tour isn’t required to observe sea turtles in the wild – all you need is snorkel equipment and the right location. Although all seven species of sea turtles are endangered, two species – the green and hawksbill sea turtle – are abundant in certain areas, including:
- Gilli Meno Island, Indonesia
- Hawaii, USA
- Ecuador, Galapagos
- Cook Islands, New Zealand
- Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
- Turneffe Atoll, Belize
- Sipidan Island, Malaysian Borneo
- Ko Phra Thong, Thailand
Sea turtles are protected in the majority – if not all – of these locations. And, chances are you’ll encounter a plethora of other wonderful sea creatures like tropical fish, crabs, corals, sharks, whales, and rays.
Avoid: Turtle farms or any venue that encourages handling or touching sea turtles, or sells them for profit.
Human contact can be detrimental to sea turtles – particularly newly hatched young. It can weaken their immune system making them susceptible to disease. It can also cause them to panic, which triggers erratic movement that can cause injuries including fractures, bleeding and bruising – it also increases the likelihood of being dropped. Unlike wild sea turtles, captive or farmed sea turtles are much more susceptible to stress, disease and cannibalism.
Spot wild polar bears in Churchill, Canada
Polar bears both symbolize and put a lovable face to the daunting issue of climate change. Recognized as the ‘polar bear capital of the world’ Churchill is one of the only locations these magnificent arctic icons can be seen in the wild. The curious bears are known to come right up to the specially designed tundra vehicles for a better look. October and November are the best times to catch a glimpse of the bears as they head out onto the ice to hunt seals. Don’t be surprised if you spot other unique flora and fauna including beluga whales, chubby harp seals and arctic foxes.
Lend a helping hand at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Center
The BSBCC is one of only two sun bear conservation facilities in the world. Sun bears, the smallest and one of the rarest species of bear, have become increasingly threatened due to deforestation, illegal hunting for bear parts, and the poaching of cubs to sell as pets.
Established in 2014, the organization houses rescued bears in large natural habitats, facilitating their rehabilitation and eventual release back into the wild. Volunteers play an important role in this process. In addition to working closely with researchers and biologists to learn about sun bear behavior and conservation, volunteers assist in activities like enrichment programs, feeding, cleaning, and maintaining enclosures. Education is also a major component – volunteers can expect to leave this experience with a whole new understanding and appreciation for these unique animals.
Avoid: Visiting captive bears in bear parks
Bear parks contain one or more “pits” holding a number of bears. They are severely overcrowded and devoid of enrichment or stimulation – like trees, rocks, grass or anything else that resembles a bear’s natural habitat. As bears are typically solitary in the wild, the stressful environment and crowding often leads to disease, fighting, and serious injuries that go untreated. Some of these parks train bears to participate in circus-like attractions, where they’re forced to dress up and perform tricks such as riding a bike.
Tigers and Lions
Volunteer with rescued tigers and lions at Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa
Many previously captive wild animals can be successfully reintroduced into their native habitats. Unfortunately, most attempts to ‘re-wild’ big cats have failed. When raised by humans, cubs do not learn how to hunt or fear humans. Set free, they are unable to feed, defend themselves or socialize with others. And, they are attracted to people – which can be fatal for both parties.
The Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary in South Africa was established to provide a home for big cats rescued from zoos, circuses or private captivity. The cats live in large areas closely resembling their natural habitat, with plenty of room to roam, play and rest. The organization depends on volunteers to help with many critical aspects of the animals’ welfare and maintenance of the sanctuary. For those willing to lend a helping hand – expect an experience that is as rewarding as it is challenging. Volunteers work five days a week and assist in activities ranging from monitoring and observing behavior to feeding, cleaning, looking after visitors, and patrolling sanctuary borders.
Avoid: Taking selfies with tiger or lion cubs, or the participating in the recently introduced “walking with lions” tours
Tiger cubs are separated from their mothers at a young age so they can be used as photo props for tourists. While many venues claim their tiger cubs are rescued, this is rarely – if ever – the truth. When the cubs aren’t being poked and prodded, they are kept chained in small cages.
The story is similar for lion cubs. They are taken from their mothers at a young age and used as photo props. Once they’re too large to pick up, juvenile lions – that are still young enough to control – graduate to “walking with lions” tours, where groups of tourists are joined by a number of captive and somewhat tame lions.
The sad story only continues as these large cats – unable to be released – are destined for a life in captivity. The best-case scenario is that they will end up in a sanctuary like Lionsrock.
For more information on cruelty-free wildlife tourism, check out these resources:
Source: crueltyfreewithme.com Author: Lauren Burn