It was the moment I’ve been dreaming of ever since I booked a puma hunting safari in Patagonia: two playful cubs and their mother, mere dots on the hill, heading our way. If we were lucky, they would soon be in plain sight.
I grabbed my binoculars, eager to watch their movements from afar – a good 400 yards away – but my heart stopped at the scene unfolding. Tourists with cameras did not even hide their attempts to get close to the animals; the mother puma, now on high alert with ears pricked, was visibly upset. My guide, local cougar tracker and photographer Miguel Fuentealba, shook his head in disgust. “It – it’s not good,” he said, noting that such behavior, unfortunately, is tolerated by outfitters in private lands outside Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. He does, however, mentor young guides in the hope that one day, ethical mountain lion tracking will become the norm.
The whole experience was heartbreaking. Sure, I was not on this irresponsible wildlife tour, but watching these travelers unscrupulously approach animals, perhaps without realizing they were wrong, reminded me how essential it is to seek out an experience like this before booking.
Finding an ethical wildlife travel experience requires research, analysis, and a BS meter for greenwashing lingo, not to mention a solid understanding of the do’s and don’ts of wildlife encounters in the wild. nature. Here are tips from conservation and wildlife travel experts on how to find responsible wildlife tour outfitters, as well as common red flags that signal companies to avoid.
Do thorough research on the companies
Before booking a wildlife experience, spend some time on various tour operators’ websites and their social media. Dig beyond “eco-friendly” marketing messages. Do they protect the animals they take to see travelers?
“Do they have a sustainability or conservation section [on their site]? What are they doing across the spectrum – are they engaging in sustainability behaviors, like giving back to the community? said Jim Sano, vice president of travel, tourism and conservation at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). “If you see these things, it’s a good indication that they’ve made a commitment and are most likely following the rules of the protected area.”
Ask the right questions
Not every tour operator can have a fleshed out website and multi-million dollar wildlife conservation campaign, especially local outfitters like the one I traveled with. That’s not to say they don’t take conservation seriously. Plus, exploring with a local or native guide is one of the best ways to help the community you’re visiting. So how do you determine who runs ethical wildlife tours?
“When choosing a carrier, ask questions about [the tourism] the approach, the species, the place and the process,” says Jack Fishman, community and conservation manager for the PADI Aware Foundation of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. If you can’t find this information on the guide’s website or on social media, contact us by email or phone to inquire before booking. Also, take the time to browse the review sites; are there any reports of bad behavior in one or two star reviews? David MacDonald, director of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, recommends avoiding all wildlife activity with an outfitter whose TripAdvisor score drops below 80%.
Another clue that a tour operator may not be responsible? A 100% guarantee of wildlife sightings. That assurance could result from an outfitter feeding the animals, a practice known as foraging, which conservation biologists say is “dangerous to the health and safety of wild animals,” according to The New York Times.
Beyond looking for red flags, you can also proactively find a responsible tour operator by referencing regional conservation associations to see their suggestions. (For example, the Galapagos Conservation Trust lists its recommended tourism partners; many support the trust financially, a sign that they are following the march and giving back to conservation research.)
Be Warned of the Sanctuary
Sanctuaries are one of the biggest marketing scams in wildlife tourism. Yes, some are legitimately trying to help at-risk animals, but perhaps an even greater portion of them are misusing the label to appear ethical and appeal to travelers. Those photos of travelers feeding adorable lion cubs or taking selfies with sloths are a major red flag.
According to PETA, reputable animal sanctuaries do not allow direct interactions with wildlife. This includes the common practice of bathing with elephants. This experience is touted as more responsible than riding an elephant (which you should never do), but unfortunately the training to prepare them for safe bathing with humans is just as traumatic.
“Tourists need to know the truth – any elephant you can get close enough to touch is an elephant that has been subjected to horrific abuse for that use,” Audrey Mealia, global head of wildlife at World Animal Protection, said in a company blog post. .
To guide you in deciding whether or not to visit, use the World Federation of Animal Sanctuary’s Find a Sanctuary map. The federation reviews and accredits responsible organizations around the world, giving you peace of mind that a specific facility puts its animals first.
admire from afar
When you embark on a wildlife experience, you enter an animal’s home. It’s essential to be a passive spectator, says Fishman. Watch the magical realm unfold, but don’t stand in the center of it, even when a creature approaches you.
“Yes, the animal may touch you, but that’s not always a sign that the animal is looking for a physical response,” he says. “Our touch can be destructive to marine life, from introducing bacteria to destroying the protective layers of skin. And our touch can be extremely stressful.
Such close encounters are more common underwater – which is why PADI scuba instructors share responsible guidelines before every dive – but, as I discovered on my Patagonian cougar tracking tour, some operators Terrestrials are also known to get too close. The main ground rules of responsible wildlife tourism from the Association of Professional Safari Guides of Kenya include: do not disturb animals with noises, flashing lights or by getting too close for them to elevate ; stay on approved routes; and don’t approach closer than about 65 feet. (Similar to the approach to Fuentealba in Patagonia, it’s important to let wildlife roam. If they come your way, great. If not, watch with binoculars.)
When in doubt, be a fly on the wall – and if you find yourself on a tour where the guide breaks these rules, speak up. Your guide, or the owner of the tour company, may have an explanation for the behavior that you are unaware of. If the answer still doesn’t seem correct, contact a wildlife conservation organization for a bowel check. If the actions are found to be harmful to animals, Sano says the best way to report them is to write reviews on sites like TripAdvisor; this will help future travelers redirect their funds to more responsible outfitters.
Don’t forget: animal tourism Can Do good
Unfortunately, the negative actions of some tour operators stain the entire industry. Responsible wildlife tourism can and has done wonders to save endangered species by providing locals with a better financial incentive than poaching, hunting, and mining. “Shark tourism around the world has made sharks more valuable alive than dead, leading to their protection,” says Fishman.
And Sano cites Namibia, the first African country to adopt environmental protection in its constitution in 1990, as a case study in the positive effects of ethical wildlife tourism. When the government gave Namibians the right to manage their natural resources through communal reserves, the once decimated populations of lion, cheetah and black rhino rebounded – and ecotourism is now one of the main models of income to support these communities.
Book with responsible wildlife outfitters
Here are three examples of international outfitters that embody the above criteria. You can find other responsible wildlife tour operators, including local and regional guides, through the above steps or by using the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and B Corp directories.
Abercrombie and Kent: For decades, travel agency Abercrombie and Kent has prioritized animal welfare over epic photo ops. In 1982, two decades after the company was launched, leader Geoffrey Kent co-founded Friends of Conservation, one of the first community conservation initiatives on the planet. In the decades that followed, his company helped introduce a driver training program and a code of conduct for safaris in Kenya. More recently, the operator has launched a handful of innovative conservation programs, including a partnership with Rhino Conservation Botswana to relocate more than 70 rhinos from high poaching areas to the Moremi Game Reserve, where official ‘rhino monitors’ monitor them 24/7. Guests are invited to see and learn about this rhino conservation strategy on several of the company’s trips to Botswana.
Intrepid: Certified B Corp, Intrepid was the first global tour provider to ban elephant riding in 2014, long before the harmful effects of the practice were widely reported. The company has a strong animal welfare policy, starting with the golden rule: watch them from a distance. On the conservation side, Intrepid also runs reforestation projects, promotes carbon offsetting and leads efforts like the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund, a program designed to help this Patagonian park preserve its biodiversity as crowds continue to grow. .
Adventures in the natural habitat: Supported by WWF, Natural Habitat Adventures (NatHab) organizes trips from the Arctic to Africa and has long been an innovator of sustainable travel offerings. In 2019, he launched the world’s first completely zero-waste adventure, a Yellowstone excursion focused on composting, recycling and upcycling in nature. The company also supports local conservation initiatives within the communities it visits. This includes the Great Bear Rainforest Conservation project in British Columbia, where NatHab helped fund and protect critical grizzly bear land, and Hope for Madagascar, a project designed to help people across the country alleviate poverty through education and conservation.