Wildlife tourism has grown exponentially around the world. Tourists enjoy spending time with animals and watch them perform in any part of the world they’re in. While specific countries are known for their exclusive wildlife experiences (Examples include Australia and Africa among others) nearly every other country has managed to incorporate some form of wildlife tourism because of its popularity among tourists.
Wildlife experiences are available in plenty both on land and water. In countries like Australia, you can go swimming with exotic marine life or visit grasslands to watch unique species in their habitat. In Asian countries, elephant rides and camel rides are ‘fun’ experiences that eager tourists look to be a part of. Based on a report in 2017, “The UN World Tourism Organisation estimates that 7% of world tourism relates to wildlife tourism, growing annually at about 3%, and much higher in some places, like at Unesco world heritage sites. Further, A WWF report shows that 93% of all-natural heritage sites support recreation and tourism and 91% of them provide jobs.”
The tourism industry has evidently benefitted from wildlife experiences being offered to tourists, but at what cost?
The consistent exploitation of animals
The exploitation of wildlife at the hands of humans for tourism has been present for ages. Animals are caged, beaten, deprived of food and kept in unhygienic shelters. They are isolated from their herds and forced to lead a life of submission, all for the entertainment of tourists. National Geographic released a special investigative report in 2019 on the dark side of wildlife tourism, revealing gruesome details of how animals are treated for profit. The report highlights how the tourism industry thrives on people’s love and affection for animals, curating all kinds of experiences just so they can maintain a steady source of income.
The journalists that covered the story travelled to different parts of the world visiting wildlife tourism facilities in Thailand, Russia, the U.S. and the Amazon. They found whales and dolphins forced to live on trucks and in inflatable pools as part of a travelling oceanarium. Young animals are ripped from the wild so that can be available to pose for selfie-seeking tourists. There was even a polar bear show that made the poor creatures wear metal muzzles. The stark reality is atrocious and cruel, a series of injustices against these creatures who cannot fight back.
Wildlife tourism has threatened several species, making matters worse for endangered animals. In 2017, the Guardian reported the severe torture elephants in Asia were subject to. “The majority of captive elephants are taken from the wild, where just 50,000 remain in Asia.77% of the captive elephants surveyed in the report. They are chained day and night when not being used for entertainment purposes and experience very little social interaction with other elephants. The animals are fed poor diets, have no access to proper veterinary care and are often exposed to stressful environments with loud music and a large number of tourists.”
Wildlife tourism creates jobs, but does that justify animal exploitation?
The upside of wildlife tourism is the number of jobs it creates. In many areas, people are employed to handle these animals and care for them. Wildlife destinations are generally away from major cities which is why it is important for local communities to get involved. Tourist operators have the opportunity of hiring people from these areas and employing them, which would be a beneficial arrangement for both parties involved.
While wildlife tourism is thriving, several threats face animals. These include habitat loss, pollution, infrastructure, climate change, over-exploitation and illegal trade. Poor management of animals despite having enough people employed to care for them is a tragedy. With the rising demand for wildlife tourism, illegal wildlife trade has also increased. Illegal traders kidnap animals from their natural habitat and sell them for huge profits. There is a nexus of illegal activity that ensures these animals continue to remain slaves.
Is there a ray of hope?
Nature-based tourism and wildlife tourism have their benefits, but as the world battles with climate change and the loss of hundreds of species, major changes need to be made. Animals cannot continue to be exploited and tortured for the benefit of tourists who should, by now, understand the implications of their choices.
Sustainable wildlife tourism operations need to be implemented on a larger scale. A report by the World Bank has highlighted that certain sustainable wildlife tourism operations have “led to increased investments in protected areas and reserves, a reduction in poaching, an increase in the non-consumptive value of wildlife through viewing.”
However, these tourism operations haven’t raised enough awareness among tourists and a majority of tour operators and organisers that handle wildlife experiences. Tourists need to be made aware of the kind of animal exploitation that takes place for such wildlife experiences. Tour operators need to make more efforts to deal with organisations that offer sustainable nature tourism. Wildlife tourism and conservation management should work in synchronisation to keep animals safe from becoming victims