Look, but don’t touch.
“Ethical wildlife tourism means viewing wildlife with no contact or interaction,” This means avoiding any activity that allows touching, feeding, or baiting wildlife, no matter how harmless it may seem.
Keep the bigger picture in mind.
Being a responsible tourist goes beyond refraining from petting manatees or snapping off chunks of coral to make into jewelry. “Ethical tourism needs to have a direct gain for the animals, ” adds Simon Pierce, a New Zealand-based marine biologist who works with the Marine Megafauna Foundation, a science and conservation non-profit. Fortunately, marine wildlife are often able to inspire that call to action. “When people see marine animals such as whales and dolphins in the wild they are often profoundly moved by the experience and far more motivated than before to actively contribute to the conservation of these animals and their environment,” Kidd notes.
Recognize that rich ecosystems create rich experiences.
Some of the biggest threats sea turtles face in the world are loss of habitat due to poorly planned construction and coastal development.” Keeping coastal areas clean can mean reducing plastic use and staying at hotels that emphasize eco-friendly practices, such as those that use renewable energy sources and building materials; truly green resorts can also facilitate direct donations to local marine conservation organizations that spearhead projects to protect wildlife habitats.
But ecosystems don’t just comprise wildlife and landscapes; they also include local communities. “Conservation efforts work best if the affected communities actively support and lead the work,” Pierce says, noting that many conservation areas and endangered ocean wildlife are found in the developing world. “Given the funding constraints these countries face, sustainable tourism can help support much-needed protection efforts like hiring rangers, while also creating good jobs like tour guides and maintenance.” Empowering local communities to participate in and benefit from conservation is just as fundamental to ethical tourism as not touching wildlife.
Avoid experiences with captive animals.
Despite waning popularity of captive wildlife experiences, dolphins and other marine life remain in cages across the world. Typically, tourists pay to watch dolphins perform tricks, or to get in the water with them to pose for a photo. “I do not believe it is ethical to hold dolphins in captivity, and I do not think it is safe to swim with dolphins in a captive space,” says Angie Gullan, founder of Dolphin Encountours Research Center in Mozambique, which follows a strict code of conduct—including a no feed, no touch, and no chase policy—when bringing tourists to see wild pods of dolphins.
When it comes to wildlife sanctuaries, there can sometimes be a gray area (or what seems like one) in which there may be a legitimate reason for holding an animal captive, like an injury that temporarily prohibits it from surviving in the wild. Still, there are ways to tell when those animals are being exploited. “Genuine wildlife sanctuaries have a defined conservation benefit to keeping the animals in captivity, and they do not use the animals for interactions with customers or in performances,” says Natalie Kidd of Intrepid Travel. Travelers may be able to see them, but only in the context of their manmade environment, rather than being put on display.
Do your research before making any plans.
There are plenty of people out there ready to separate tourists from their money at the expense of wildlife—so the onus is travelers to thoroughly vet any operator before a trip. “[It’s key to] find a tour operator that shares your values and [who] you can trust to act in the animals’ best interests,” says Stephen Petersen, director of conservation and research for Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Canada. This isn’t always straightforward, he says, since many nature-based tour operators will claim to be doing so. Instead, “tourists should educate themselves about the experience they are going on and the species they hope to see in order to choose.”
Sarah Ellis, owner of Ningaloo Discovery, a marine tour operator in Western Australia, suggests looking at the bigger picture, too. “For me, the biggest red flag in relation to unethical interactions are unregulated tourism industries,” says Ellis. “It can be observed in many places around the world where the pressure on tour operators to make an income overcomes the desire to maintain ethical interactions.” Not every operator in countries without explicit government standards for wildlife tourism will be unethical, but it means you’ll want to take a deeper look. When it comes down to it, Pierce says, “look for the places where the wildlife are being observed without interfering with their natural behaviors, and where the operators are partnering in or leading their own conservation and research efforts.”
Tour companies like Intrepid Travel have also made it easier to identify ethical operators with its Animal Welfare Policy Toolkit, written jointly with World Animal Protection as members of its Coalition for Ethical Wildlife Tourism (CEWT). Adventure travel company G Adventures outlines its animal welfare policy as well, and you can download the World Cetacean Alliance’s global guidelines to ethical whale watching.