Cruel wildlife encounters travellers are duped into subsidising

Most people who visit dodgy animal attractions love animals. They just aren’t fully aware of the animal welfare issues associated with various forms of wildlife tourism. To mark World Wildlife Day coming up on 3 March, I’ve rounded up some popular wildlife encounters that unsuspecting travellers are often led to believe are responsible, when in many cases the opposite is closer to the truth.

The best wildlife sanctuaries allow elephants to be elephants. Image by tontantravel / Flickr

Visiting an elephant ‘sanctuary’

Thanks to the pioneering efforts of travel operators like Intrepid Travel, which was among the first to phase out elephant rides from its tours in 2014, many travellers have quite rightly scrapped this cruel activity from their bucket lists. Unfortunately, many more are still being duped into visiting what they think are legitimate elephant sanctuaries, when in fact many are just elephant camps that have had a bit of a makeover. Some may have ditched elephant rides (but still host elephant shows, treat elephants poorly, and/or support the illegal wildlife trade), while others simply operate as retirement homes for elephants that are too old or injured to continue to work at an elephant camp owned by the same company (hint: there are a few of these in Thailand). Always do your research to make sure you’re visiting a legit sanctuary (there are only a handful in the whole of Southeast Asia), and never take a ‘sanctuary’ website at face value.

The wild: the best place to see lion cubs. Image by Make it Kenya / Stuart Price

Walking with lions at a ‘conservation centre’

The 2015 documentary Blood Lions shed light on a horrible emerging industry which sees lions bred in captivity, and the cubs separated from their mothers to supply the tourism industry. Unable to survive in the wild (without an enormous amount of expensive assistance), they face a lifetime of captivity, or worse – being sold to a canned hunting farm when they are no longer cute enough to be pimped out for selfies, or too dangerous to interact with tourists during ‘walk with lions’ experiences. Many ‘walk with lions’ operators position themselves as beacons of conservation, but independent animal welfare experts claim these operations are just another revenue stream in the chain of exploitation. Not only does interacting with big cats pose a serious safety issue (many tourists have been bitten), but it severely limits the chances of these apex predators being successfully released into the wild. At the very least, it totally erodes the mystique of spotting these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

The Galapagos Islands host the best kind of animal show © Sarah Reid

Watching any type of captive wild animal performance

The sad plight of Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca at the centre of damning 2013 documentary Blackfish is now well known, but captive cetacean shows and swims aren’t the only type of wildlife performances that are best avoided due to the myriad animal welfare issues associated with them. While animal shows are often promoted as educational, ultimately it is distressing for any type of animal to be forced to perform for an audience, whether it’s a seal jumping through hoops or an elephant demonstrating how it used to carry logs. With everything you could want to know about animals now available to every traveller with access to the internet, many experts are now claiming that the educational value of these types of shows – and even zoos – is redundant.

Koalas look cuter in the wild. Image by Phil Long / Flickr

Cuddling a koala

It’s an iconic Australia travel must-do, but koalas don’t actually want your cuddles. A handful of studies prove as much, including a 2014 study conducted by Melbourne University which confirmed that koalas displayed to the public are distressed by noisy and close encounters with humans, and a 2011 study by Griffith University that found cuddling koalas can put them off sex, which is not ideal for a declining species. Humans can also pass on viruses that can be lethal to koalas. Due to a combination of these facts, koala cuddling is banned in New South Wales, Victoria, and the Northern Territory. Even Instagram took a stand last December, adding #koalaselfie to a list of hashtags that trigger an animal welfare warning to people who search for them on the app.

While there’s a case for captive koala sanctuaries (to ensure the genetic diversity of Australia’s struggling wild populations), it’s unfair to expect koalas to give out free hugs to support these conservation initiatives. I hope I see the day when Tourism Australia (and its relevant state departments) sees more value in supporting lower-impact koala experiences, or at the very least implements a code of practice for holding a koala (there are voluntary codes in place at present). For it’s much more rewarding to spot a koala snoozing in a tree than clinging to you in panic.

These rehabilitated turtles just wanna go home © Sarah Reid

Holding a turtle

A raft of studies have identified that sea turtles don’t like being manhandled, but many ‘sancturies’ will let you pick one up for a selfie (this actually happened to me on a blogger trip to Thailand and I was stoked that my fellow Aussie participants joined me in declining the offer). Turtles also really don’t like people shining torches (or flashing cameras) in their eyes at night, which can distress nesting females so much they may never return. Cute as turtles are, avoid the temptation to hold these critters (unless instructed to by a conservation professional, which may be necessary if you’re volunteering on a conservation project, for example), and avoid using anything but a turtle-safe torch when turtle-spotting at night. With hundreds of turtles now dying each year after being entangled in plastic, and recent reports indicating that global warming is turning a high volume of turtle eggs female, these guys don’t need any more stress from humans.

There is nothing cute about this situation. Image by Kurt Bauschardt / Flickr

Selfie opportunities with captive wild animals

A damning undercover investigation by World Animal Protection at Thailand’s notorious Tiger Temple between 2015 and 2016 successfully put a lot of travellers off getting a #tigerselfie (Tinder has since banned them), but the cruel practice of pimping out wild animals for selfies continues in various forms around the world. Owners typically claim their ‘pet’ monkey/gibbon/toucan/iguana was ‘orphaned’ or ‘rescued’ before charging you a tenner for a photo with the poor animal, which has likely been trained to make you believe it is actually enjoying the experience. By paying that person, you are keeping the cruel industry of animal trafficking and abuse alive (most ‘pet’ monkeys have their jaws and claws removed). The same goes for animal cuddling cafes that have become popular in Asia. Just because they’re legal doesn’t mean they’re not terribly cruel, especially when shy, nocturnal animals like hedgehogs and owls are involved.