Planning to take a trip in 2019? Most people are. Global tourism is a trillion-dollar industry and one quarter of it is driven by the desire to interact with wildlife. Afterall, who isn’t drawn to the possibility of observing wild creatures close up?

But even when your intentions to interact with animals are benevolent, many wildlife attractions have dark secrets of which you should be aware. Animal cruelty may not always be obvious. Even those attractions that market themselves as animal sanctuaries are sometimes just capitalising on increased public demand for cruelty-free experiences.  

According to the World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal welfare organisation, around 110 million people visit wildlife attractions every year. What most of these travellers simply don’t know is that the animals they are seeing may be subjected to abuse and cruelty.

If you’re one of the growing numbers of people who are infatuated with our wild kingdoms yet are motivated to minimise your impact upon them, consider an adventure that consciously avoids cruelty to animals. There are options for you that are both enjoyable and allow you to experience the wonders of nature without harming or exploiting its wild inhabitants.  

Know the Good from the Bad

“If you can ride, hug, or take a selfie with a wild animal, then you can be sure the attraction is cruel. Vote with your wallet and don’t go.” ~ World Animal Protection Organization.

First, make sure that you do not inadvertently participate in a holiday that exploits wildlife. Be aware of what to avoid. The University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, World Animal Protection released a list of the world’s 10 most cruel attractions. They are:

  • Riding elephants
  • Taking tiger selfies
  • Walking with lions
  • Visiting bear parks
  • Holding sea turtles
  • Watching performing dolphins
  • Watching dancing monkeys
  • Touring civet cat coffee plantations
  • Watching snake charmers or cobra kissers
  • Visiting crocodile farms

In Thailand alone, there are at least 3,000 elephants held in captivity, mainly for tourism purposes. Yet, even with a growing sensitivity to animal cruelty, a whopping 40 percent of tourists reportedly still want to take an elephant ride. That’s nearly 13 million rides a year. Try not to be one of them.

Making a Difference

Intrepid Travel was the first tour operator to eliminate elephant rides from all its itineraries, while travel website TripAdvisor has stopped selling tickets to tourism activities that involve the use of wild animals. Find out how to ensure your travel plans are animal friendly by checking out websites like that of AidAnimals, a non-profit that campaigns against animal abuse in tourism around the world. International not-for-profit, Wasp (World Animal Sanctuary Protection) International‘s website has an interactive map showing animal-friendly sanctuaries around the world. Seek out ethical tourism operators committed to providing wildlife experiences that do not harm animals.

Where to Go

The options for cruelty-free travel are more exciting every year. There’s bound to be an option that interests you and doesn’t negatively affect the wildlife.

In Sri Lanka, for example, where the booming tourism industry includes a large wilderness experience component, Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel was founded specifically out of concern for the impacts of tourism on wildlife. Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel are committed to providing incredible wildlife sightings in a way that doesn’t interfere with the animals’ daily activities.

If you take a trip to whale watch in New Zealand, you will not only be observing whales in their natural habitat but you will be supporting a company run by the local indigenous people. The Maori tribe that runs the Kaikoura business on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island adds a unique cultural perspective to an amazing wildlife experience.

Maple Leaf Adventures run boutique tours in Canada that provide an opportunity to glimpse the rare white Spirit Bear from a classical wooden schooner or tugboat, with proceeds of your trip benefitting conservation efforts.

Or why not consider Wild Planet Adventures in Brazil, who provide authentic jaguar-viewing opportunities, demonstrating that wildlife tourism can co-exist with wild animals in their natural habitats. Caution should be taken, as you may witness the tensions between animal species as they fight for survival

Running a safari marathon alongside the animals you hope to preserve at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya is an unforgettable experience. The Tusk Foundation runs this event every June. With Prince William as their patron, you can be confident this event is genuinely helping animals.

Giving Back

If you want to make a real difference, consider volunteering at an authenticated animal refuge. The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, where orangutans are rehabilitated and released back into the wild, is just one of the orangutan sanctuaries that accept volunteers.

You can work with chimps as a volunteer at MONA in Spain, or become a volunteer in an elephant rescue centre in Thailand. Check out the volunteer opportunities with the Animal Rescue organisation in Cambodia or the Bear Sanctuary in Laos. With 200 tiger farms in Asia, perhaps you’d prefer to volunteer to rescue tigers. Before visiting any animal sanctuary, check to make sure it’s been approved by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

It’s easy to take a trip that avoids animal cruelty once you know that three out of four wildlife tourist attractions involve animal abuse. More travellers than ever believe that animals should not be confined and forced to exist solely for the entertainment of tourists. For ethical travellers, it’s never been easier to interact with local wildlife in a way that protects, conserves, and enhances their existence. Informed travel choices will contribute to ending animal suffering and still provide a thrilling and educational experience to remember.