It was the moment I’d dreamed of since I booked a puma tracking safari in Patagonia: two playful cubs and their mother, just dots on the hill, crawling towards us. If we were lucky, they would soon be in plain sight.
I picked up my binoculars, eager to watch their movements from a distance – well over four hundred feet away – but my heart broke as the scene unfolded. Camera-walking tourists didn’t even hide their attempts to get closer to the animals; the mother cougar, now very alert with pointed ears, was visibly upset. My guide, local puma tracker and photographer Miguel Fuentealbashook his head in disgust. “That — that’s not good,” he said, noting that such behavior is sadly tolerated by private country suppliers outside of Chile. Torres del Paine National Park† However, he mentors young guides, hoping that one day ethical tracking of cougars will become the norm.
The experience as a whole was heartbreaking. Secure, l wasn’t on that irresponsible wildlife tour, but watching those travelers approach the animals unscrupulously, perhaps not realizing they were wrong, reminded me of the importance of researching an experience like this before booking.
Finding an ethical travel experience in the wild requires research, analysis, and a BS meter for greenwashing jargon, not to mention an understanding of the do’s and don’ts of wildlife encounters. Here you’ll find advice from conservation and wildlife travel experts on finding responsible wildlife tour providers, plus common red flags warning companies to avoid.
Research companies thoroughly
Before booking a wildlife experience, spend some time on the websites of various tour operators and their social media. Go beyond the “environmentally friendly” marketing messages. Do they protect the animals they show by travelers?
“Do they have a sustainability or conservation department? [on their site]† What are they doing across the spectrum — do they have sustainable behaviors, like giving back to the community?” said Jim Sano, vice president of travel, tourism and conservation for the United States. World nature Fund (WWF). “Seeing those things is a good indication that they’ve made a commitment and are probably not following the conservation area rules.”
Ask the right questions
Not all tour operators can have a comprehensive website and multimillion dollar wildlife conservation campaign, especially local suppliers like the one I traveled with. That doesn’t mean they don’t take conservation seriously. Plus, exploring with a local or indigenous guide is one of the best ways to help the community you’re visiting. So how do you determine which ethical wildlife tours are running?
“When selecting an operator, ask questions about: [the tourism] approach, species, location and process,” said Jack Fishman, community and conservation officer for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. PADI Aware Foundation† If you cannot find this information on the guide’s website or on social media, please contact us via email or telephone to inquire before booking. Also, take the time to browse the review sites; are there any reports of bad behavior in the one or two star ratings? David MacDonald, Director of the Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, recommends avoiding wildlife activities with an outfitter whose TripAdvisor score drops below 80 percent.
Another hint that a tour operator might not be responsible? A 100 percent guarantee of wildlife spotting. That certainty could come from an outfitter feeding the animals, a practice known as stocking, which conservation biologists say is “dangerous to the health and safety of wildlife,” the report said. The New York Times†
In addition to looking for red flags, you can also proactively find a responsible tour operator by referring regional conservation organizations to see their suggestions. (For example, the Galapagos Conservation Trust lists her: recommended tourist partners† many support the trust financially, a sign that they are walking the walk and giving back to conservation research.)
Be Sanctuary Savvy
Sanctuaries are one of the biggest marketing scams in the wildlife tourism world. Yes, some are legitimately trying to help at-risk animals, but perhaps an even higher proportion of them are misusing the label to sound ethical and appeal to travelers. Those photos of travelers feeding cute lion cubs or taking selfies with sloths are a big red flag.
According to PETAReputable animal sanctuaries do not allow hands-on interactions with wildlife. That includes the common practice of bathing with elephants† This experience is marketed as more responsible than riding an elephant (what you should never do), but unfortunately the training to get them ready for safe human bathing is equally traumatizing.
“Tourists need to know the truth – any elephant you can get close enough to touch is an elephant that has been horribly abused for this use,” said Audrey Mealia, head of wildlife at World Animal Protection, in one company blog post†
Use the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries for help choosing whether or not to visit one. Find a sanctuary Map. The federation researches and accredits responsible organizations around the world, so you can rest assured that a specific facility is putting their animals first.
Admire from afar
When you embark on a wildlife experience, you are entering an animal’s home. It’s critical to be a passive bystander, Fishman says. Watch the magical kingdom unfold, but don’t put yourself in the middle of it, even if a creature approaches you.
“Yes, the animal can touch you, but that’s not always a sign that the animal is looking for a physical touch,” he says. “Our touch can be destructive to marine species, from introducing bacteria to destroying protective layers of skin. And our touch can be extremely stressful.”
Such close encounters are more common underwater – which is why PADI Dive Instructors share responsible guidelines for each outing – but, as I discovered on my puma tracking tour of Patagonia, some operators on land have been known to get too close as well. Important basic rules for responsible nature tourism of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association including: not disturbing animals with noises, flashing lights or by getting too close to make them stand up; stay on approved roads; and get no closer than about 65 feet. (Similar to the approach to Fuentealba in Patagonia, it’s important to let the wildlife roam. If they come to you, great. If not, look with binoculars.)
When in doubt, be a fly on the wall – and if you end up on a tour where the guide doesn’t follow these rules, say so. Your guide, or the travel agency owner, may have an explanation for the behavior that you are not aware of. If the answer still doesn’t sound right, contact a conservation organization for a gut check. If the actions are found to be harmful to the animals, Sano says the best way to report them is by writing reviews on sites like TripAdvisor; this will help future travelers channel their money to more responsible outfitters.
Remember: Wildlife tourism Can Doing well
Unfortunately, negative actions by some tour operators are staining the entire industry. Responsible wildlife tourism can and has done wonders for saving endangered species by providing locals with a better financial incentive than poaching, hunting and mining. “Shark tourism around the world has made sharks more valuable alive than dead, leading to their conservation,” Fishman says.
And Sano points to Namibia, the first African country to include environmental protection in its constitution in 1990, as a case study about the positive effects of ethical nature tourism. When the government gave Namibians the right to manage their natural resources through municipal conservation, once-decimated populations of lions, cheetahs and black rhinoceroses recovered – and ecotourism is now one of the main income models to support these communities.
Book with Responsible Wildlife-Tour Outfitters
Here are three examples of international outfitters that embody the above criteria. You can find other responsible nature tour guides, including local and regional guides, by following the steps above or by using the global Sustainable Tourism Board and B Corp folders.
Abercrombie and Kent: Decades of travel outfitter Abercrombie and Kent has prioritized animal welfare over epic photo ops. In 1982, two decades after the company’s launch, leader Geoffrey Kent co-founded Friends of Conservation, one of the world’s first community conservation initiatives. In the decades that followed, his company helped introduce a wildlife-safe driving course and code of conduct for safaris in Kenya. More recently, the operator has launched a handful of innovative conservation programs, including a partnership with Rhino Conservation Botswana to bring more than 70 rhinoceroses from high poaching areas to the Moremi Game Reserve, where official “rhinoceros monitors” keep an eye on them 24/7. Guests are invited to see and learn about this rhino conservation strategy on several of the company’s Botswana tours.
fearless: A certified B Corp, fearless was the first international tour operator to ban elephant riding in 2014, long before the ill effects of the practice were widely shared. The company has a robust animal welfare policy, starting with the golden rule: watch them from a distance. In conservation, Intrepid also implements reforestation projects, promotes carbon offsetting and leads attempts like the Torres del Paine Legacy Funda program designed to help this park in Patagonia preserve its biodiversity while the crowds continue to grow.
Natural Habitat Adventures: Supported by the WWF, Natural Habitat Adventures (NatHab) organizes trips from the Arctic to Africa and has long been an innovator when it comes to sustainable travel offerings. In 2019, it debuted the world’s first completely zero-waste adventure, a Yellowstone field trip focused on composting, recycling and upcycling in the wild. The company also supports grassroots conservation initiatives within communities it visits. This includes the Great Bear Rainforest Conservation project in British Columbia, where NatHab helped fund and protect terrain critical to grizzly bears, and Hope for Madagascar, a project designed to help locals across the country reduce poverty. minimize through education and conservation.