Whether you are spotting elephants among the foliage of Sri Lanka’s national parks, watching dolphins spin through the air off the coast of Madeira or tracking gorillas through the lush rainforests of Rwanda, seeing the world’s great fauna up close can be a once-in-a-lifetime, awe-inspiring experience. For those few precious minutes, it can feel like you are in a wildlife documentary. Each encounter bringing a wealth of knowledge and understanding about the extraordinary life and ecosystems supported by our planet.
However, there can be a downside. Sometimes, wildlife experiences are built for profit-making rather education and enrichment. As a result, animals can be exploited, crowded and disturbed – causing changes in natural behaviour and even the changing of habitats. By planning your trip with an ethical wildlife operator, you can support the businesses that safeguard the animals first. However, finding those operators requires research and the know-how of how to spot greenwashing jargon when needed.
Here, we share our guide on how to seek out the most ethical wildlife tour operators – ensuring a mind-blowing experience for you and a safe encounter for the animals.
An organisation that has genuine care for wildlife and habitats will put the animal’s safety first. Small group tours are ideal for this because they create less disturbance, are more manageable and less impacting. In some tourist hotspots, you’ll find wildlife operators that pack people into safari trucks and boats – purely to make as much profit from each tour as possible. However, these encounters are often stressful for the wildlife, not to mention uncomfortable and sometimes even, forced. Small group tours to lesser-visited regions tend to experience the most special encounters, because the wildlife remains safe, undisturbed and comfortable. In fact, the animal might not even realise there are several pairs of eyes on it. These subtle, less invasive experiences are the healthiest for any wildlife. As a result, choosing to support the smaller businesses that understand the value in keeping wildlife safe is often the most rewarding.
Most companies worth their salt will be proud to outline how they manage wildlife operations, often displaying a manifesto on safe wildlife watching their websites. Regulations such as keeping a safe distance from the animals, a slow approach and minimising time with in the vicinity to avoid stress, are usually great indications that the operator takes their role seriously. Some wildlife encounters, such as chimpanzee tracking in Uganda’s Kibale National Park, require a special pre-booked permit, allowing numbers of visitors to be limited. Greenwashing is, unfortunately, still common with wildlife tour operators but the key to spotting this is in the detail. If the operator mentions specific distances and strict regulations, the chances are they are genuine. However, general statements about caring for wildlife and being eco-friendly are not an indication of real concern. Having no wildlife safety policy is also an indication that perhaps this outfit isn’t taking their role in safeguarding the animals seriously. If you’re still unsure, email or call the operator with further questions.
You can’t go wrong with wildlife experiences that are led by experts who have studied a specific environment or animal. Such information-based tours are rewarding because they teach you about the wildlife, its behaviour and physiology. In such cases, you have the opportunity to fully understand what you are witnessing – rather than simply get close enough for a good photograph. Local tours or operator partners, who take pride in their community and surrounding environment, are typically great at putting experts at the front and centre of their tours. For example, whale, dolphin and seal encounters guided by marine biologists offer unbeatable knowledge about oceanic habitats and the tremendous detail in how marine creatures function underwater. While on land, naturalists who have studied and spent time around a particular species will be able to share invaluable knowledge about behaviour, surrounding environments and the threats the animals face. Operator who invest in expert guides will proudly state this on its website because they, too, know how special that experience is.
Sadly, there are still businesses around the world that put animals at risk. Some still use the ethical-sounding label of ‘sanctuary’ or ‘orphanage’. From elephant centres, marine wildlife swims and even the feeding of animals, what might seem animal-friendly on the surface can often turn out to be exploitative or harmful to wildlife. Before you book, have a look through pictures shared on the operator website or review platforms such as Google. A big red flag is if animals are used for interactive or entertainment purposes, showing off behaviours that aren’t natural – including meeting humans. Other indications of unethical operations are if the animals are restrained with chains or controlled by whips or sticks – see if you can spot these in the pictures. Feeding, bathing and ‘walking with’ activities might seem harmless, however each animal would have been trained, often through pain or starvation, to behave as ordered during such interactions.
Remember, genuinely reputable wildlife sanctuaries will be places of rehabilitation. In fact, truly ethical wildlife tourism means watching animals in their natural environment. Or if they are unable to remain in the wild, in well-managed sanctuaries where they are free to roam, feed and rest in the most natural manner.
Asking confident and genuine questions will show operators that you care about how your wildlife experience is conducted. And if they haven’t improved their practices, this could be the incentive to do. Remember customers can encourage positive change by asking questions and gently suggesting what they hope to experience. Here are a few key questions to ask before you book:
How do you ensure the wildlife aren’t disturbed by our presence? Are there any safety measures put in place to safeguard the wildlife? Will I have a guide who has expertise in speaking about this region, environment or species? Where can I leave a review after the tour?
You’ve thoroughly researched the operator, asked the right questions and have still ended up on a wildlife experience that is making you feel uncomfortable. So, what do you do? The best thing you can do is to call it out. Mention to the guide that the way in which the tour is conducted doesn’t feel right and you don’t agree with what’s been done. You can always ask to hear the company’s policy again and discreetly point out that’s not the procedure happening here. Another powerful way to handle the situation is to point out the discrepancy on a review platform such as Google or TripAdvisor, where others can be pre-warned. Who knows, it might even encourage an operator to change their ways for the better.