Time to Talk: Animal Tourism Ethics

The boat engines revs in the water.


“Out, out , out quickly here come the dolphins!”


Blazing out of the water and hauling yourself onto the dugout you shake off any of the water from your snorkel mask, awkwardly kicking your fins round your body and onto the base of the boat. It doesn’t matter that it’s a frenzy of feet and salty water, there is a pod of wild dolphins cruising past the atoll and your boat captain is hell bent on giving you that perfect island experience- a chance to swim with dolphins and if your lucky get a underwater selfie.


I’ve seen this first hand, especially in places like Mnemba Atoll in Zanzibar.  On any given day I could count at least 20 boats out, filled with divers and snorkelers under the water and bobbing on the surface throughout a good diving day. As soon as a pod of dolphins moves through the area the boats speed around like the pod, chasing them down in an attempt to get in front of the group and quickly plop their tourists in the water. If you miss the pod because they are moving to quickly through the area, not a worry. The dive boat hauls everyone out the water, races ahead of both the pod and other boats to try and deposit you in the prime position. What is effectively happening here is that the dolphins are getting harassed. Even if you have been taken in by the romance of adventure holidaying on an exotic island, some part of you must feel a little bit uneasy when this kind of interaction takes place.  How far do we have to go to force a wild animal encounter, and can our drive to have wild animals interact with us be to their detriment?


As humans we cannot seem to help ourselves. We have this desire to want to touch and find a connection with wild animals. It the exact reason why you will find programs on people who have exotic pets and why people are enthralled by Animal Planet series that have a presenter in speechless ecstasy as a wild animal comes into the camera frame with them mere whispers away.


But that’s Attenborough, not us tommy tourists that travel across the globe, and we are not experts.  As more remote areas are now becoming accessible to tourism the chances of having an encounter with a wild animal is far greater than back in the day where you needed a whole bullion of cash, large boats and an army of Sherpa’s to get even remotely near the area of a wild species habitat.


Seeing an animal in the wild is probably one of the more memorable moments you will have as a traveller, and I think in this day and age we have to realize that truly wild places are not that easy to come by, albeit that they still are around us. People are going to want to interact with wildlife whether we agree with it or not, so perhaps its time we start talking about the ethics around this practice because there are some seriously dubious experiences out there, and like the just released documentary Blood Lions , which is looking into lion petting and its links to the canned lion hunting industry, we need to really think about how our small actions contribute to a bigger problem. 


Interacting with animals is generally considered a “hot topic’, and if anyone has ever peeked into online forums and comments sections when people write articles on the issues around animal interactions, you will often be inundated with many, many heated responses both for and against. It is like wading into the deeper ethical waters and it can be incredibly intimidating if you don’t have a background or deeper information on the issues. There is a lot of shouting, unflinching beliefs and sometimes name-calling. It can get ugly, but that should not scare us away from addressing the issue. This might feel like a long list of don’ts, so on the brighter side DO support the guys that are getting it right!!  Thank them, congratulate them, give them shout outs and all other means of encouragement because in a world where it is very easy to jump on the band wagon of wild animal tourism only for profit, the people working passionately to try an adhere to their ethics as well as protect a species are to be applauded for their effort.


A good example of a sanctuary that works to rehabilitate would be SANCOB  in and the African Penguin and Sea Bird Sanctuary based in South Africa. Here they have exactly all the right mixes that you would require of a research and rehabilitation facility, but the key is that their primary goal is what is in the animal’s interest. They are also dealing with endangered species and species that are at risk, but they don’t charge tourists to sit in the pens with the birds that are at risk. I have been criticised for speaking up about projects that I feel are not really adhering to standards of a rehabilitation centre and sanctuary should be, but I think that if we as tourists and travellers don’t speak up, then we are only be complacent when it comes to accepting bad practices.


A lot of the things we can do are actually quite simple and if you want to make subtle differences, as tourists and travellers we should really not feign ignorance and make it somebody else’s problem. You don’t need to support bad practices, because if you do it will just keep happening.



-If you are diving in the ocean, DON’T TOUCH!


Really now, I can’t actually get over the idea that this still needs to be explained to so many divers, and on many occasions I have seen this happen. One of the first things that you are taught when you start diving is to keep your paws to yourself. This is not just for your safety (so you don’t go provoking or popping your delicate fingers into potentially poisonous creatures-which can result in serious injury and sometimes death) but also for the animals and the ocean environments sake. Harassing and chasing after ocean creatures when they are not interested in you can affect them and their behaviors, and breaking off pieces of coral, picking up souvenir is just a blatantly stupid thing to be doing.  The ocean is a mysterious place, and even though sea creatures can be pretty resilient we still don’t fully know the effects of our unwanted interactions with them. Compound your negligent action with the thousands of other divers that also visit the same dive sites throughout the year and don’t assume that it wont have an effect.  Your actions do count, you special little human you.


-Let your money do the talking.


If you are out on a boat and going whale/dolphin/seal watching and you feel as if the boat driver is harassing the animals in order to get you to an encounter, say something. Speak up; it’s your right to as a paying customer and as someone who cares about our impact on the environment and you should not be made to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about it.  If speaking up is too much, then make a point of letting the company know that you found the experience disturbing. Sometimes companies that run these kind of programs are not even aware that this kind of practice is happening, it’s not about naming and shaming but helping them to understand that as a paying tourist you would like better standards from them. If that doesn’t work or they don’t seem to care or take future note, then take it online and let others know how you feel in forums like trip advisor.


-If you are in the water and you are lucky enough to have a wild creature swim past or find you something of a curiosity-let the animal come to you. Don’t chase after an experience, it dulls the beauty of the entire interaction and you are not fooling anyone. 


-Don’t just accept culture as an excuse for animal cruelty.  Just because people have been doing it or eating it for however many millennia does not mean it is still applicable in this day and age where we need to be more conscious of what we are doing to our environment.


-Don’t have your picture taken posing with wild animals, especially if it is out in local markets where a wild animal is kept on some kind of leash and made to pose with tourists for cash.


-Don’t purchase any souvenirs made from animal products. No shells, turtle shell, coral, fur and do I even have to say ivory and rhino horn? Many of these are also illegal to transport home, so just don’t.  


-Avoid riding wild animals like elephants as part of a tourism experience. And if you are on the ocean, for goodness sake don’t attempt to ride whale sharks/sunfish you will come across like the noddle head you are if anyone gets a photo of it on social media.


-Ask questions, and no question is to dumb, if someone makes you think that it is a silly question to ask then consider that a red flag. I do.  When a project is open and accessible with what they are doing and can give you validated reasons why they are doing it (backed up by actual science mind you- I cannot tell you how many times we have come across projects that say they are helping the environment with their research but cannot produce a single paper that has this research in it.) If you are not sure or don’t understand what the project is telling you do some research before hand and ask around for some experts opinions in the respective fields. The Internet is an amazing tool for gathering information on projects, and believe me if something is a bit off, chances are someone is talking about it online.


-Don’t go on any swim with the dolphins programs. There is a very good article written by Journalist Christina M. Russo that goes into the deeper issues of why we feel the need to have these kind of interactions, and the damage that we are actually doing: Please don’t do this….ever.  


It’s too easy to not ask the difficult questions, harder still too admit that there are faults and to work on changing a practice so that our wild animals are protected and educate the public at the same time. Not everyone can get it right, but we can join in the conversation and make it possible to change, we will see a difference.

Animal tourism only exists because of tourists- it’s time to start being a responsible one.











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  • 2015-07-22 14:31:49

    Good tips here for those that are unsure. Well done, Linda. I'm so glad this topic is getting talked about more and more. Let's hope the Blood Lions movie opens people's eyes so that dodgy places can no longer pull the wool over their eyes.

    • 2015-07-27 13:37:10

      Thanks Roxanne, It is such an important issue and yes we definitely to get this topic talked about more often. As a travel community we need to educate as much as we can.