If you travel to the wilds of Africa, chances are that a safari is on the agenda. If you're exploring tropical Thailand, you'll want to spot elephants. But what impact do these activities, especially 'wildlife tourism', have on the welfare and lives of these wild animals?
First of all, it is important to explain what the term 'wildlife tourism' means. Think of it as the set of activities that facilitate interaction with wildlife in holiday destinations, accounting for 10 to 20 per cent of the global tourism industry. Elephants in Thailand, whales in the Atlantic Ocean, lions and antelopes in Tanzania: we travel to the other side of the world to come into contact with wild nature. And that is exactly the starting point: wild and untamed nature. Because today, unfortunately, we see many situations in which the welfare and freedom of animals is subordinated to the entertainment of tourists and the moneybags of local organisations.
In itself, wildlife tourism should strive for a situation in which the (economic) benefits for the local community are maximised, and pollution and disruption of wildlife life are minimised. While true animal lovers may have the reflex to want to abolish wildlife tourism altogether, it also has a number of benefits.
Advantages of wildlife tourism
It goes without saying: from an economic point of view, safaris and visits to large nature reserves have an important impact on the local economy. You support meaningful and local employment and give local animal lovers the budget to maintain the nature reserve and contribute to the welfare of the animal populations. It is unfortunate that many people abuse this strength of wildlife tourism, leading to wildlife crime. An example: in reality, many wild animals are exploited with the help of narcotics, while in the eyes of the average tourist they live in harmony with the local population. And this is difficult to distinguish with the naked eye from situations in which action is taken in the animal's best interest.
Apart from the advantages for the local economy, the benefit of wildlife tourism can also be found in the fact that the wild animals have to live for it. Thus, several groups, such as local authorities and tourists, benefit from preventing the extinction of certain species. It is mainly thanks to the tourists who insist on visiting such reserves that money ends up in the pockets of non-animal lovers, which motivates them to protect local populations for financial reasons.
A third argument in favour of wildlife tourism refers to the protection of the environment and habitat of both people and animals. If you go to Africa to spot wild animals, you do not want to do it in the same setting as the Antwerp Zoo. If you go to Cambodia, you want to spot chimpanzees in a primeval forest, not behind a glass wall in some modern building. In that way, wildlife tourism also pays attention to rainforest protection and the presence of certain plants and insects as food for wildlife, which in turn results in better soil and air quality.
Disadvantages of Wildlife Tourism
As mentioned above, the benefits of wildlife tourism depend on what happens behind the scenes of tourism organisations. Wildlife crime is the greatest and most poignant threat to the survival of certain species, and the rise of social media does not help. Photos with elephants on the beach, posing with a tiger or alligator with its mouth open: these are trends that are giving wildlife tourism, and unfortunately also wildlife crime, a strong boost. The encounters of tourists with wild animals are shared en masse, but unfortunately the situations that take place behind the scenes do not receive the same coverage.
What is missing today in wildlife tourism is transparency and control. Animal lovers and biologists have to hope for an evolution from mass tourism to critical tourism, where visitors look for themselves what happens behind the scenes and research what to pay attention to in order to notice wildlife crimes and how to report them. Fortunately, there are a number of organisations, such as the National Geographic Society's Wildlife Watch, that are working to raise awareness of the commercial exploitation of wildlife. You can support this organisation here.
But what about safari tourism, where you visit a large nature reserve where truly wild animals are observed from a distance? Well, that too has an impact on the lives and chances of survival of these populations. Years ago, researchers published a report in the academic journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, stating that human presence changes animal behaviour. Even stronger: these changes can put the animals at risk. "The big danger in friendly interaction with humans is that the animal loses its vigilance a little," says researcher Blumstein. "If they adopt the same, friendly attitude in the face of a predator or poacher, it is more likely to end badly."
What do ecotourism, domestication or urbanisation have in common, according to the researchers? They lead to more tame local animal populations. Animals that are used to tourists are less alert in the wild. "It is important to know which species are affected by contact with people and which forms of contact ultimately endanger the animals." If you really don't want to have a negative impact on local animal populations, then it's best not to visit them either.
Finally, we would like to emphasise that the distant journey you make also has a negative impact on the environment and, consequently, on the lives of wild animals. Aeroplanes have an enormous impact on our air quality and emit pollutants into the most vulnerable layer of our atmosphere. Whether this will ever change through technological progress is a question that is currently being discussed in many places.
Do you want to act entirely in the interests of the animals? Then there is only one piece of advice we can give you. Skip that safari, stay home and donate the cost of a safari to a local organisation that deals with animal welfare. Do you want to feel like you are in the wild? In Europe, too, you can spot wild animals ethically, and from your living room we will take you on a safari thanks to the most beautiful nature documentaries of all time.