Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda. Tracking pumas in Patagonia. Animals motivate us to make pilgrimages to the ends of the earth, filling our bucket lists and our Instagram feeds in equal measure.
When carried out responsibly, travel can help ensure the future of these awe-inspiring creatures and their habitats. But too often, thoughtless or downright opportunistic operators put financial gain above sustainability, leading to such stories as last week’s tiger temple bust, with monks in Thailand (yes, monks) accused of perpetuating terrible animal cruelty for tourist-driven fun and games. The rise in app-induced "road rage" in South Africa's game parks feels tame by comparison.
Here’s the silver lining: Luxurious and fulfilling wildlife trips often go hand-in-hand. In fact, luxury travel fuels some of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects. The next time you’re heading into the wild, be part of the solution by following these rules of thumb.
Be Wary of Interactive Encounters
“A good guideline is to avoid tours that promise hands-on encounters with wild animals,” said David Emmett, a senior vice president at Conservation International. Many of these operators remove animals from their original habitats—often separating them from their packs and uprooting their social dynamics. Even when animals are kept in their habitats, interacting with humans can throw off their natural behavior and make them more susceptible to threats in the wild.
Pick the Free-Range Option
Particularly if you’re traveling abroad, avoid venues that keep animals in enclosures, such as those you’d find in a zoo. “In the developing world, you simply don’t have the resources to create environments for captive animals to thrive,” explained Jim Sano, vice president of travel, tourism, and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, which says these animals are often mistreated. Instead search out places that let the figurative (and literal) buffalo roam.
Discover the Backstories
Good news: It is possible to have interactions with wildlife that are both close-up and completely kosher. “Look for ones that house animals that can’t be reintroduced into the wild and where the animals are being cared for diligently,” said Leigh Henry, a senior conservation policy advisor with the World Wildlife Fund. Opening these sanctuaries to tourism “can sometimes ensure that resources are available to care for those animals,” she explained.
For instance, at Abu Camp, a Wilderness Safaris property in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, safari-goers are encouraged to take savannah walks with a herd of rescued elephants or help give them baths. The property’s website offers backstories for each member of the herd; it also offers entire pages dedicated to elephants it has successfully reintroduced into the wild. Here, conservation and animal welfare are twin priorities.
Look for a Badge of Honor
So how do you find properties like Abu that get it right? While there isn’t yet a certification program for the tourism industry that undergoes regular audits, several organizations will point you in the right direction. Jennifer Morris, chief operating officer for Conservation International, is partial to Rainforest Alliance. “Their standards emphasize sustainability and responsible environmental practices that don’t harm animals or the planet—as well as sound social and economic practices that are good for people,” she said. (So far, the program focuses on Central America and South America.) The team at WWF maintains a global list of preferred travel operators called WWF Partners; Henry and Sano also recommend tours that have received a seal of approval from the UN-endorsed Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
Baby Animals Are Cute; Breeding Is Not
Every expert we spoke with agreed: breeding centers are dangerously misleading. According to famous conservationist Gregory Carr, who has spearheaded the rehabilitation of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, places that “claim they are breeding wildlife for reintroduction, or are acting as sanctuaries" are often just “baby animal factories for tourists.” Chris Roche, chief marketing officer for Wilderness Safaris, put it quite simply: “Unscrupulous breeders use tourism as an additional revenue stream for their activities.” And WWF’s Henry agreed. “There are a handful of zoos that have credible conservation breeding programs,” she said, “but many outside of the U.S. are really breeding for financial gain, regardless of what they claim.”
Trust Operators That Talk Openly About Conservation
Operators that prioritize conservation don’t usually make a habit of hiding it. That’s why Sano recommends going to a company’s website and seeing how much information it provides beyond the price and dates of itineraries.