What are the conservation and welfare impacts of different types of wildlife tourist attractions - and how can you spot them?

Every year 4-6 million[1] of us visit tourist attractions in which we can directly touch and interact with wild animals. Some might want to swim with dolphins, or ride an elephant or have their photograph taken with a tiger; or to bottle-feed lion cubs, or visit a crocodile farm, or see where civet coffee comes from; or perhaps to trek to see gorillas or polar bears in the wild, or dive with sharks. We might get to hold a snake, or see a dancing macaque, or watch a Nigerian hyaena-man dance with his hyaenas.

What’s the problem?

Wildlife tourist attractions offer “bucket-list”, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and experiences. At their best, these attractions leave us with fantastic memories, knowing that our money helped to preserve the habitat of an endangered species, or rescue animals and offer them a better life, all while giving livelihoods to local people. But on the flip side, attractions exist that illegally capture animals from the wild, keep them in terrible conditions, and which support the illicit trade in animals and body parts across international borders.

A visit to an exploitative attraction might leave us feeling cheated, or that the amazing experience of seeing and interacting with an animal had perhaps not been worth the price, not just in terms of the money we paid, but more importantly the bad outcome for conservation, or the animal suffering we had inadvertently supported.

But how careful do we need to be? How common are exploitative attractions, and how can we tell the good from the bad? (For example, of the attractions we describe in our first paragraph, can you tell which are likely to be good for wildlife, and which might have negative consequences? Hint: a few are likely to be very beneficial but most are not!)

These were the questions we set out to answer in 2015 when we conducted the first global review of the impacts of wildlife tourist attractions. We identified at least 48 different types of wildlife tourist attraction (representing thousands of individual attractions) available worldwide. We selected 24 of these types for a detailed review, using all of the published information available.

What did our study find?

Of the 24 types of wildlife tourist attractions we looked at:

  • Eighteen types (including venues where tourists can take “selfies” with tigers, feed bears in Japan, or see civet coffee production) are likely to negatively affect the welfare of, collectively, 230,000–550,000[1] individual animals.
  • Fourteen of these eighteen types (including some venues where tourists can swim with dolphins – both in the wild and captive – dive with sharks, and watch snake and bear dancing), involved 120,000 – 340,000[1] animals which, due to the way in which they were sourced, also lowered the conservation status of their wild populations (in addition to having likely negative welfare impacts).
  • By comparison, only six types of attraction, involving 1,500 – 13,0001 animals, were judged likely to have net positive effects on conservation and welfare – and all of these were wildlife sanctuaries. (But beware attractions that claim to be sanctuaries but which are not).

The above findings are generalizations – and there will certainly be venues within a given type of attraction that have better impacts – but in general our work implies that 2-4 million tourists every year financially support – through attending them, and probably without intending to or realising – institutions that are likely to have negative impacts on animal welfare and/or conservation.

You might expect that visits to some of these attractions could leave tourists with a bitter aftertaste and, to a limited extent, this was true. We examined tourists’ feedback ratings on TripAdvisor for wildlife tourist attractions and found that attractions we judged likely to have negative welfare impacts did receive more negative feedback than ones likely to have better welfare. (Note: it is extremely difficult for anyone to judge conservation impacts when visiting an institution, but tourists may be more able to assess animal welfare conditions while there.) However even for types of attractions that we awarded the lowest animal welfare scores, typically 80% of the feedback left by tourists was positive.

What does this mean for your holidays?

We must stress that our results are generalizations across types of attractions, and that standards and impacts vary between individual attractions – so not all attractions of a given type will have the same impacts (and should not be tarred with the same brush). A large number of brilliant institutions exist that do great work for conservation and animal welfare and for the local community, and these institutions rely on the public’s money to survive.

Without a full review of conditions at every establishment, tourists cannot be sure if, for example, a given organization that keeps elephants has excellent standards and happy elephants (and so deserves support through visits and donations) or if it treats them badly (in which case we might not wish to give them money.)

The problem is that no global authority regulates wildlife tourist attractions, and so the responsibility falls to us, as tourists, to be discerning. We must ensure that we follow a few simple steps to identify and visit the right attractions.

Our advice

Always carefully read reviews on TripAdvisor, and the other articles by TripAdvisor’s partners, before deciding which wildlife attractions to visit. Remember that the vast majority of wildlife attractions get many positive reviews, whatever their standards, so the key is to look at the percentage of negative reviews. Our study suggests that a sensible rule of thumb is that any wildlife attraction with 80% or less good reviews (four stars or less on average) are likely to have some negative impacts on animal welfare.

Our rule is that if 20% or more of reviews on TripAdvisor for a wildlife attraction are negative, you should strongly suspect that your visit might have detrimental impacts on wildlife. Read the negative reviews carefully, and ask yourself if they describe an attraction you would want to support. Think about choosing a different attraction with better reviews – the chances are that it will be better for wildlife, and that you will have a much better experience.

So just do a small bit of homework, and follow our rule, and you are far more likely to have a wonderful, positive, wildlife encounter – and to take home a memory you can truly treasure.

Learn more here



*The views and expressed opinions in this article are those by Oxford, WildCRU, and are not necessarily those of TripAdvisor, Inc.  Any cited research is sourced by Oxford, WildCRU and has not been necessarily verified or independently evaluated by TripAdvisor, Inc.