Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid

BY Daniel O'Neill

Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With & What to Avoid


In recent years, there has been a major increase in demand for ecotourism and wildlife based experiences whilst travelling. This increase in interest in the natural world is exciting and hopeful, but engaging with wildlife – especially captive wildlife – carries a responsibility to ensure our presence is positive for the animals and their environment, and doesn’t cause them harm.

According to research carried out by Tourism Concern, more than 75% of wildlife tourist attractions across the world have a detrimental impact on animals and their environment (cue Tiger King). Many of these attractions falsely advertise themselves to be ethical or conservation focused, so asking the right questions and knowing how to research is vital.

There are parks and wildlife sanctuaries that use the revenue supplied by tourism to pay for the upkeep of their facilities, raise funds for conservation initiatives, or help local wildlife. Unfortunately however, many others rely financially on circus performing, canned hunting (trophy hunting), or even resort to harming or starving captive animals when visitors aren’t present to make them appear more engaging.

When searching where to ethically engage in wildlife and conservation experiences, it’s important to consider where animals have come from, why they are in captivity (if they are), what they are expected to “do” for tourists when they visit, and what their life might look like in the future.

Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid
Photography by Charlie Red
What to straight-up avoid

You may well have already heard this advice before, but never engage with these unacceptable wildlife-based experiences, regardless of the situation:

Petting infant wild animals (e.g. baby tigers, monkeys, etc)

Performing/circus animals

Petting dangerous predators or cetaceans (e.g. bears, big cats, killer whales, dolphins)

Walking alongside elephants or dangerous predators such as tigers

Riding animals such as elephants.

If any of the above are offered, drugging and/or cruelty are usually involved to make them possible. Avoid, always. Read reviews, and don’t ignore the negative ones. Only through making cruel operators accountable and visible can we make it unprofitable.

Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid
Elephants' spines cannot support the weight of people, which leads to permanent spinal injuries.
What to actively engage with


Visit community based ecotourism projects

There are countless local communities around the world that rely on international tourism for their livelihoods. For example, the Rewa community in Central Guyana make a large part of their income from visitors, of which they recieve around 200 per year. Losing this revenue - which mostly comes from international tourism - would mean they would struggle to afford vital medicines, supplies and education for their children without seeking alternatives.

If travelling abroad, there is always the question of the ethics of flying and rightly so - long haul flights do emit dizzying carbon emissions. But simply avoiding air travel isn’t necessarily always as ethical as it may seem on the surface.

The Rewa community owns their surrounding forest, currently over 350km², and have applied for ownership of a further 350km² of adjacent state land. This forest could be absorbing as much as 70,000 tonnes of carbon each year (according to Kevin Rushby’s calculations) and with the 200 yearly visitors (half of their maximum quota) travelling from an average distance equal to that from the UK, a cost-benefit analysis suggests that it could even be a more sound ethical choice to fly.

Research has long suggested that the archaic fortress conservation methods of the past (which involve removing local communities from conservation areas) are less effective strategies for long term successful conservation of protected areas. That being said, communities engaging in ecotourism operations need to be supported enough to reject the destructive offers from logging, mining, plantation and cattle ranching companies offering significant sums of money for their land.

Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid
Neville Moses on our last expedition up the Rewa river together
 Ethical Ecotourism What to Engage With What to Avoid
Me fishing for dinner up in the remote Rewa area
Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid


Work with ethically minded tour operators working in tandem with conservationists

When looking for wildlife based tours – especially all-inclusive deals – consider doing some research to find single operators working in tandem with conservationists or scientists. This way, it is likely there will be more people sitting at the ideation table thinking about ethics than profit.

For example, Wild Expeditions operated by wildlife camera operator Chris Beard and expedition leader Becca Jevons is working directly with Kuban Zhumabai-Uulu, founder of the Snow Leopard Foundation, Kyrgyzstan to create a snow leopard spotting expedition tour that has its roots in supporting local people and snow leopard conservation, with minimal impact on the environment as a priority.

They are also in the process of creating similar projects in the Rewa area of Guyana mentioned above and have plans to expand. When tours are planned from the ground up with scientists and ethical wildlife treatment in mind, they are much safer projects to engage with, and your money is likely going to be spent helping the places you are visiting, and those living within them harmoniously.

There are lots of ethically minded people creating these tours out there today, and often these are cheaper than the more heavily marketed tours from major operators. They will likely provide a more authentic, unique experience too.

Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid
Chris Beard of Wild Expeditions
Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid
Sarychat-Etash Reserve, Kyrgyzstan
Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid
Kuban Zhumabai-Uulu from Sarychat-Etash Reserve, Kyrgyzstan


Visit genuine rehabilitation centres & sanctuaries

When animals are physically injured or mentally damaged, you would assume they’d be lucky to end up in a rehabilitation centre or animal sanctuary to be nursed back to health and released to the wild, or if that’s not possible, to be given a safe home for the remainder of their lives.

Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, and some less genuine “sanctuaries” and “rehab centres” are more focused on financial gain than animal welfare. Before visiting, try to make sure a facility does not partake in:

Animal performances or circus acts

Trading of animals

Breeding of animals

Riding, touching, or walking with animals

Keeping animals not part of a sanctioned conservation initiative, who do not have a safe home for life or will not be released to the wild if able to be.

Keeping animals that do not need to be there (i.e. not injured, unwell, handicapped, orphaned, abandoned, or rescued)

False advertising of any of the above, or reluctant to be transparent with details of operations.

Oftentimes the ethical facilities, wildlife attractions, and experiences are not only less hands-on, but they can cost a premium. Try not to be put off by these higher prices if your budget allows, as supporting them will increase their ability to do good work, and makes these kinds of experience

Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid
Photo of black primate (langur) here in leaves.


Ethics of Safaris

The African safari is on almost everyone’s bucket list. The idea of searching for incredible, iconic animals across the savannah and into the bush ignites a sense of wonder like no other. It also seems to most as one of the purest and most ethical wildlife experiences possible - what could be more ethical than taking photos of truly free animals, living their natural lives, unaffected by us? Unfortunately it’s more complicated than that.

The history of safari was heavily built on colonialist hunting culture and the killing of trophy animals such as lions, leopards, tigers, or elephants as a status symbol. And as much as the camera has now replaced the gun in many cases and we are more humanely minded than perhaps our ancestors were, there is still an uncomfortable and sobering reality that many safaris are still run in a similar fashion; animals tend to be fenced in by the landowner, and visitors still partake in hunting animals for closeups with their iphones and long lenses.

The truth is, the closer we can get to these wild animals, the more we endanger them. We shouldn't be able to get in such close proximity and in doing so, we increase the chances they will fall into conflicts with local people and contract human or farm animal diseases.

When choosing which safari or similar activity to join, make sure you research the purpose and ethos of the organisation running it, do they operate in canned hunting (releasing captive animals specifically to be tracked and hunted)? Do they have defined maximum visitor numbers in the park at any given time? Is the primary focus of the park the welfare of the wildlife and habitat? These questions are important as there are too many unethical businesses that put profit above ethics.

In Ranthambhore National Park, India, jeep drivers searching for tigers are not allowed to use walkie-talkies to alert one another when a tiger has been spotted. This is to avoid streams of cars appearing wherever the tigers go, giving them stress and altering their natural behaviour. There is also a maximum number of guests allowed in the park, which is zoned into areas that can be accessed at different times of day to allow a refuge for the animals, away from the glare of humans.

There are ways to manage safaris and other wildlife based attractions more ethically, ways that are being implemented today, but it is up to us as consumers to know what to look out for, as our decisions on where we spend our money will shape the future of this sector and its ethics.

Ethical Ecotourism: What to Engage With and What to Avoid
Photography by Ellena Mcguinne