Asian elephant in Nepal © Maynard Davis

© Maynard Davis

You may have seen the cover of this month’s National Geographic: a sloth peeks out from behind boards under a headline announcing “The Hidden Cost of Wildlife Tourism.” The magazine’s special report details how an influx of travelers and social media influencers are unwittingly fueling exploitive animal encounters.

Did you stop to wonder if your interest in wildlife tourism is part of a global problem? How do we know the difference between harmful animal encounters and those that can actually benefit wildlife?

This article by Natasha Daly, accompanied by Kirsten Luce’s haunting images, sheds light on disturbing truths that bring attention to the captive wild animal trade and the plight of its victims. Its practices are in stark contrast to the kind of genuine, natural wildlife encounters offered by Natural Habitat Adventures.

The stories are heartbreaking: muzzled polar bears perform on Russian circus stages, elephants struggle to break free from spiked ankle chains in Thailand, and dolphins sink into the depths of depression as they float listlessly in theme park pools in the U.S. and China. Baby sloths soon die after being illegally taken from their forest home, wolves cower in cages, and tiger cubs are separated from their mothers after birth, all for a picture coveted by a smiling tourist.

As I read this article, what struck me most were the words of Ryn Jirenuwat, the author’s Thai interpreter, who told of an aged tiger at the Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo. “When he hears people coming, he twists on his chain and turns his back to them. Like he just wants to be swallowed by the wall.”

From fear-based training to speed-breeding, “blatant animal abuse is hiding just below the surface of the wildlife tourism industry,” Daly observed. As she researched on this story for a year and a half, traversing four continents, Daly also learned “how methodically and systematically animal suffering is concealed.” Exotic wildlife attractions may draw audiences because the animals seem happy, and the signs of suffering are difficult to read. Their silent cry for help is often displayed through behaviors such as pacing and grinning. Exposés that document the physical and psychological harm these animals undergo are a critical part of uncovering abusive practices and providing a voice for those which have none. With this knowledge, governments, communities and individuals can take the necessary steps to advocate for their welfare.

The heavy issues addressed in this article lift the veil on the horrors behind exploitive wildlife tourism. The message we’re left with is that in order to secure a better future for wildlife, it is essential to avoid tourist attractions that utilize unethical practices. As travelers, we have a powerful choice when it comes to what businesses we support. We can influence the market and become an integral force for change by engaging in responsible travel.

Tiger with cubs in India © Surya Ramachandran

© Surya Ramachandran

So, what does responsible wildlife tourism look like? It is markedly different. Rather than causing harm, conservation travel benefits wildlife. Ethical travel allows people to observe animals displaying natural behaviors in their natural habitats, wild and free as they are meant to be. Life-changing forays into nature leave visitors with a deepened appreciation of the beautiful creatures they have encountered and a strengthened desire to conserve them. The tourism dollars and jobs generated by the traveler’s presence flow to local communities and provide a compelling incentive to protect wildlife, from polar bears in the Arctic to mountain gorillas in East Africa.

Natural Habitat Adventures, the conservation travel partner of World Wildlife Fund, has set many “industry firsts” as a pioneer in sustainable ecotourism. With a mission to preserve wild places and species, Nat Hab and WWF are committed to operating sustainably, and their many philanthropic initiatives aid animals and communities across the planet. For those seeking out a responsible outfitter, who better than an organization at the forefront of conservation-minded travel, whose aim is to safeguard wildlife for future generations?

Elephant and photographer in Botswana. © Nicole Hickey

© Nicole Hickey