How to Book Responsible Wildlife Encounters

Dolphin encounter, Dunheger Travel Blog


Wildlife can be one of the greatest inspirations for traveling the world. From African safaris in search of lions and rhinos to scuba dives seeking a close-up look at hundreds of fish and other underwater species, there are countless options on the market for globetrotting animal lovers. What’s more, with so many endangered species dwindling every day, there’s no reason to wait and risk missing your chance of seeing some of these creatures in their natural habitats.

Elephant crossing road, South Africa, Flickr © Charles (Chuck) Peterson

You might, however, want to think twice before putting your hard-earned dough towards some of the tour operators offering wildlife encounters. Many less-than-reputable businesses break and drug wild animals to meet tourist demands for experiences like riding elephants and petting tigers. True animal lovers will want to follow a few important guidelines to ensure they are interacting with wildlife responsibly.

Ask questions
The key to any successful travel experience is to do your homework. Booking wildlife encounters is no different and anyone interested in joining an animal-oriented tour should ask several questions of the operator. Take a few minutes on the phone or in person after you arrive in your destination to learn everything you can about the operation.

Ask about the organization’s history and purpose. Animal sanctuaries with passionate and experienced staff will be more likely to take good care of their wards, while for-profit companies looking for tourist business probably think of their customers first and their animals second.

Diving, Dunheger Travel Blog
Diving, Flickr © Boris Bialek

Request detailed information about the animals’ living conditions. Look for groups that provide each creature with plenty of room, food, and fresh water. Animal enclosures should also have ample shelter to protect them from the elements. Find out how often animals receive veterinary care or if any animals are exhibiting signs of distress or suffering.

Ask if and how much the animals play. Childhood visits to the zoo have trained many of us to believe most animals spend their days lazing in the sun and pacing the perimeter of their habitats, but these are habits typically representative of an unhappy creature. Animals whose needs are being met will play, both with fellow creatures and with toys. Playing is not the same as performing, however, and you should steer clear of organizations whose animals are forced to behave unnaturally to entertain tourists.

Monkey, Dunheger Travel Blog
Monkey, Flickr © Ronit Bhattacharjee

Keep your distance
If wild animals were meant to be ridden and cuddled by humans, they wouldn’t be wild. Though the urge to touch these beautiful creatures may be hard to resist, opt for experiences that don’t involve physical contact. Once you open yourself up to the magic of sitting back and watching the animal kingdom while the days away without interference, you won’t be disappointed. Feeding wild animals is especially frowned upon as this might disrupt their food chain or encourage them to rely on unsustainable food sources. If you absolutely have to get up close and personal, volunteer at a well-reputed wildlife sanctuary to ensure you are working with creatures who have been responsibly conditioned to human contact during rehabilitation and not any animals who were taken from the wild to attract tourists.

Yang lions, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Dunheger Travel Blog
Yang lions, Maasai Mara, Kenya, Flickr © Pim Stouten

Make the smallest footprint possible
Litter surely left your list of bad habits long ago, but just in case your environmental values slip on holiday, be extra careful not to leave wrappers, cigarette butts, or any other trash lying about. These items risk being ingested and endangering an animal’s health. When you’re in a wild habitat, move slowly and carefully to avoid startling animals and keep flashlight use on night tours to a minimum. When buying souvenirs, steer clear of animal byproducts, particularly those impacting endangered species like ivory and coral. Vendors working to meet tourist demand may claim items like snake wine and tortoiseshell combs are farmed, but this is rarely true and most specimens are taken from the wild.

Zebras by the waterhole, Dunheger Travel Blog
Zebras by the waterhole, Flickr © Steve Slater

Sorting out responsible wildlife tour operators from environmental crooks isn’t easy, but your just reward will be a truly meaningful encounter with nature. Tourists wield tremendous economic power – use yours for good.