captive elephant in chains

Wild animal tourism fuels the wildlife trade: who you book with matters



Let’s examine how animal tourism fuels an even bigger problem - the wildlife trade. What is the relationship between the two, why is animal trading so problematic, and what can you do about it?

Travelling expands the mind and allows us to learn more about our world and the people, plants, and animals we share it with. For those of us who love animals, it can offer us a unique opportunity to see and experience the magnificent creatures we’d normally only see on TV.

However, most tourists never see the true price of wildlife experiences. Wildlife entertainment is inherently exploitative and harms the animals involved. Despite the marketing claims, interactive wildlife performances and experiences do not have conservation gains. In fact, they achieve the opposite.

How animal tourism fuels the wildlife trade

Let’s start by defining what we mean when we talk about wildlife trading. The wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar industry that sells wild animals as commodities. This can include taking animals from the wild or breeding them in captivity.

The animals involved are used for various purposes, including entertainment, luxury meat and medicine, and even pets. Wildlife is traded on a global scale. For example, keeping wild animals as pets is extremely popular in the United States, while animal parts for medicine are highly valued in parts of Asia.

What's the problem with the wildlife trade?

It harms animals

Wild animals aren’t products or goods — they are sentient beings. They experience pain and pleasure and have emotions like fear and joy. When we trade animals as commodities, we don’t just move an object from one place to another. We condemn a living being to fear and suffering.

Some animals taken from the wild as part of the global wildlife trade will be killed for use in luxury food, medicine, fashion products like leather or fur, or ornaments. Or they may be taken to wildlife markets, where they are often kept in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

Wild animals kept for entertainment or as pets might escape this fate, but their circumstances are still far from acceptable. Animals used for entertainment are typically subjected to cruel and painful training methods. Even those wild animals kept in higher welfare wildlife entertainment venues cannot thrive like they can in the wild.

When it comes to keeping wild animals as pets, social species like parrots are often kept alone, leading to distress, trauma, and significantly shortened lifespans. Plus, larger wild animals kept as pets rarely have sufficient space.

It’s important to understand that the needs of wild animals can never be fully met in captivity.

It threatens the environment

The wildlife trade isn’t just an animal exploitation and welfare problem. It’s a threat to human health and the environment as well.

Every step of the wildlife trade chain has a risk of spreading zoonotic diseases from collecting species — from the wild or breeding them in captivity, through transport and on to their final destination with consumers or slaughter. For example, wildlife markets bring animal species that would normally never occupy the same space into close proximity. This creates an ideal environment for spreading zoonotic diseases, including enabling new infections that can affect humans.

The recent pandemic has brought attention to the potential risks of the wildlife trade and keeping wild animals in captive conditions. Action must be taken to ensure the devastating impact of the spread of zoonotic disease does not happen again.

Removing animals from their natural environment also affects their original ecosystem. Large mammals and apex predators, like big cats or elephants, can hugely impact their environment. Removing even a few individuals can threaten the survival of an entire group. It can also alter the balance of prey animals and vegetation, leading to unpredictable results.

Wildlife entertainment and trade: how one fuels the other

But, what does this have to do with wildlife tourism and entertainment?

The problems associated with wildlife trade feel like a world apart from brightly-lit water parks with dolphin shows or elephant “sanctuaries” that allow you to ride or wash the animals.

A dolphin jumping out the water at night

Throughout October 2022, Sea World Australia held a series of ‘Spooky Nights’ which included dolphin presentations by night. Carol Slater Photography / World Animal Protection

Captive wildlife tourism fuels the demand for the wildlife trade, both legal and illegal. It legitimises “traders”, justifies or minimises animal suffering, and helps hide the true size and nature of the wildlife trade. Every ticket sold gives venues a reason to continue acquiring more wild animals for tourist entertainment.

1. It hides the scale of the issue

Let’s start by addressing the scale of the problem. The illegal wildlife trade is both huge and rapidly growing. Global estimates suggest that it is similar in scale to the illicit drugs trade or the illegal arms industry.

Traders can point to “legitimate” trade with animal entertainment venues to mask their illegal activities. These trades may be legal, but they have little or no regulation or oversight. This allows traders to fraudulently sell captured animals as “captive bred”, avoiding legal consequences for their actions. And, ultimately, legitimate or legal wildlife trading often involves illegal smuggling of additional species. Even when the wildlife trade is “legal”, it may not always be what it appears on the surface.

2. It normalises treating animals as commodities

If companies are selling “experiences” and “encounters” to interact with animals, the implicit message to visitors is that this human interaction is harmless, or even enjoyable, for the animals.

Wildlife entertainment activities also fuel the demand for exotic pets and wild animals. For some travellers, it is a small step from interacting with animals at an entertainment venue to wanting one as a pet at home. Given the implicit reassurance that the animals enjoy human contact, customers have no idea that their new pet will suffer.

3. It fails to encourage better livelihoods and economies

Animal entertainment also makes it harder for local communities to create sustainable (and responsible) livelihoods and economies. Local communities with livelihoods reliant on wildlife tourism or trade are left vulnerable with often dangerous, inconsistent, or unreliable income sources.

For example, during the pandemic, the complete halt on international travel and tourism left Elephants at wildlife tourism venues without the funds needed for appropriate care. The same is true for their caretakers who struggled to care for the elephants and support themselves. This dependency on wildlife tourism created a serious threat not only to the captive elephants but to the local communities involved in their care.

Being a responsible traveller: you have the power

Travel companies must step up their responsibility and ensure they’re not feeding and sustaining the exploitation of wild animals. With companies increasingly touting their ethical credentials, they need to stop the promotion of wildlife entertainment and turn their attention to supporting and promoting responsible wildlife experiences.

Our recent report demonstrates that tour operators just aren’t making changes, despite declining public acceptability. Across the world, we still see exploitative practices taking place every day. From elephant riding to dolphin ‘performances’, these activities generate huge tourism revenues. For example, each dolphin can make up to $2 million per year.

So, the time is now to implement truly wildlife friendly practices, rather than making incremental changes that leave wild animals exposed to continued exploitation.


A post shared by World Animal Protection (@world_animal_protection)

For their part, tourists need to expect more from travel companies. While a small proportion may recognise their responsibility and end their part in wildlife exploitation, others will respond to public outcry and customer demand.

Although both parts of the tourism industry have a role to play, tourists are going to have to create the momentum behind responsible wildlife tourism. For example, after tireless campaigning by over 350,000 World Animal Protection supporters, Expedia Group stopped selling tickets to captive dolphin shows. This major win was made possible by everyday people publicly calling out this travel giant’s exploitative practices.

Tourists can set the tone

The first step for any responsible traveller is to refuse to buy tickets to any activity, attraction, or entertainment that uses wild animals. If an animal is required to interact with members of the public, it is not able to act naturally. You should avoid supporting anyone who provides these encounters.

Remember that your actions will have ripple effects that go far beyond the costs of your own ticket. Posting pictures of wild animal experiences on social media sends a signal to others that these activities are acceptable.

Instead, explaining why you are boycotting wild animal entertainment can encourage others to rethink their own tourism choices.

Ask the important questions

Companies also pay attention to the questions that customers ask. Before booking with a tour operator, ask them about their animal protection policies and how they ensure their entire supply chain operates ethically and responsibly.

Of course, doing this research isn’t always easy and can make booking a holiday a more involved process. In an ideal world, all customers would be willing to make this extra effort, but doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Our report, The Real Responsible Traveller, exposes the companies that are continuing to fail wild animals. Responsible travellers can also make their voices heard by joining our campaign calling out exploitative companies and demanding an end to captive wildlife entertainment for good.

Common responsible tourist questions

Why is responsible tourism important?

Only when we are all accountable for the impact of our travel decisions and behaviours will we be able to eradicate harmful practices and better protect animals. Wild animals’ needs can never fully be met in captivity. And research has shown that animals are sentient - there is nothing 'responsible' about allowing sentient creatures to suffer.

Being a responsible tourist also helps preserve the natural world and the communities that rely on vulnerable ecosystems. As travellers, we value experiencing the vast variety present in this world. We owe it to future generations to preserve that variety.

What is responsible tourist behaviour?

A responsible tourist ensures they do not support wildlife exploitation in any way. This includes not visiting exploitative venues and avoiding booking with unethical tour operators or travel companies who profit from animal cruelty.

Being responsible also means doing your homework before booking your getaway. Great tour operators who take their responsibilities seriously are keen to show you their values and inspire others to meet those same standards.

If your preferred provider can’t prove that they put animal protection first, you need to look for an alternative provider.

How can responsible tourism help communities?

Responsible eco-tourism is not generic. Instead, it is specific to each species and ecosystem. There’s no one-size-fits-all programme for wild animal protection. Instead, we start from the principle that animals are best allowed to live undisturbed in their natural environment.

This means that responsible tour operators must be responsive to local communities, assessing their needs and finding creative ways to allow tourists to appreciate ecosystems without destroying them.

This creates space for community-led projects that educate and financially support communities on the ground across the world.

How can a wildlife trade ban make a difference?

A wildlife trade ban would be the first step towards creating a ‘humane wildlife protection system’ - a system that protects animals from suffering and recognises that our environment's health relies on their survival. It would help bring an end to breeding wildlife in captivity, taking wild animals from the wild, and spreading zoonotic diseases.

The combined influence of the effects of the COVID pandemic and increased pressure for sustainable animal tourism make this the perfect opportunity to end the global trade in wild animals forever.

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