Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Leif Blessing/Pexels
Recent findings and the popularity of wildlife tourism show that tour operators should have an animal welfare policy in place alongside other social responsibility protocols that should evolve as new information becomes available. Travel companies needing to develop or update such a policy can begin with the tips below.
In Malaysian Borneo, travelers traversing the Kinabatangan River can
watch the proboscis monkey munching on leaves in trees along the shore. Like
many wildlife tourism experiences, this is an opportunity to glimpse an
endangered animal in its natural habitat from afar — a seemingly unobtrusive,
once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people.
Yet, recent research in the International Journal of Primatology
reveals that approaching proboscis monkeys from as closely as 60 meters (about
200 feet) induced stress in the animals, even when boats travel at slow speeds.
In other words, even those tour companies that sincerely care about the monkeys’
wellbeing may be causing unintentional harm.
Wildlife tourism directly contributed US$120.1 billion to global GDP in 2018,
according to the World Travel & Tourism
Viewing and experiencing animals in their natural habitat accounted for 4.4
percent of all direct tourism GDP, directly creating 9.1 million jobs in the
process. Further, wildlife tourism plays an important role in raising awareness
about conservation efforts, and it often provides an incentive for local
communities to protect fragile ecosystems.
But, despite the importance and popularity of wildlife tourism, many
travel-related companies have failed to develop animal welfare policies.
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“On a global scale, there is definitely a significant interest in animal welfare
among travelers; and in the media, you’re seeing animal welfare issues becoming
more of a focus; but I would say globally we’re not there yet, in terms of
companies picking up on this and understanding it,” said Melissa Matlow,
campaign director at World Animal Protection (WAP)
Canada. “It’s just not seen as high of a
priority as other environmental sustainability issues.”
These recent findings and the popularity of wildlife tourism serve as a reminder
that tour operators should have an animal welfare policy in place that exists
alongside other social responsibility protocols — and that policy should be
flexible and evolve as new information becomes available. For travel companies
that need to develop or update such a policy, begin the process with the tips
Any company that has taken this journey has discovered that pulling on a single
thread to eliminate harmful wildlife practices reveals a host of nuances to
consider, which can cause paralysis. However, Matlow suggests companies begin by
removing the obvious offenders: wildlife entertainment. This includes activities
such as swimming with dolphins, riding elephants, and any other such “wildlife
tourism activities that have the highest detriment of mental impact on animal
welfare and conservation.”
On-the-ground guides are important frontline ambassadors for identifying
problematic animal welfare issues. However, encouraging travelers to report on
areas of concern either via a post-trip survey or other means can surface
concerns that go undetected by tour leaders. Companies can also use travel
experiences to educate people on animal welfare and best practices for observing
wildlife in its natural habitat.
“Our research has shown that the people who participate in these activities are
wildlife lovers,” Matlow said, “and I assume anyone who’s putting in that effort
and money wants to find an experience that aligns with their values. If they
understood the impact of their behavior and actions on these animals, they
wouldn’t want to participate; so, there’s quite a lot of opportunity there.”
As demonstrated by the stress observed in proboscis monkeys in Borneo, animals
don’t have to be ridden, held or touched to be negatively impacted by the
presence of people. Think holistically about how guests show up in spaces where
they encounter wildlife and decrease that presence. Green
Safaris, for example, uses four electric vehicles at
three of its safari camps to minimize both noise and smell in the natural
“The vehicles are so quiet, they cause minimal disruption to the wildlife when
out in the bush,” said Alice Baker of Small World Marketing, which
manages Green Safaris’ UK sales, marketing and PR efforts. Green Safaris
also uses a solar-powered e-boat on Zambia’s Kafue River and e-bikes at
some of its properties.
Animal welfare is part of the global climate and biodiversity challenge travel
companies must address. As such, a more holistic perspective and response that
considers the wellbeing of all stakeholders is appropriate.
“Both crises are real and happening in the places where we’re operating; so,
we’re building a really robust response as a company in how we can invest in
solutions in the places we visit with the communities we visit,” said Jamie
Sweeting, VP for social enterprise and responsible travel at G
Adventures. “True animal welfare requires a sound
ecosystem and environment in which to live.”
If there is room for improvement, work with suppliers rather than abandoning
“Don’t just drop a company because it doesn’t yet do the right thing,” says
Susanne Etti, global environmental impact manager at Intrepid
— which co-produced a publicly available animal welfare policy
with WAP. “Work with the supplier to educate and
— not preach; but say, ‘Hey, this is where we’d like to get to. How can we get
“We tend to oversimplify stuff in the tourism industry and think, “Oh, I’ve done
animal welfare. I sorted out stuff with the elephants,’” Sweeting said. But
developing an animal welfare policy is not a one-and-done activity. Like any
corporate social responsibility commitments, companies should check in with and
update the policy regularly. Attitude change can help accelerate progress; and
as traveler sentiments and expectations evolve, companies should respond
“One of the things we stress is that animal welfare is an evolving science,”
Matlow said. “This is an evolving conversation and requires an open strategy and
Published Aug 16, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker and solutions advocate who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for her entire career. She is also the founder of Rooted — a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, social impact and storytelling. A returned US Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer and intrepid traveler, JoAnna helps tourism professionals decolonize travel and support sustainability using strategic communication skills.