We’re often asked about what ethical wildlife experiences around the world we support. Nowadays there are so many unethical operations exploiting animals for profit it can be confusing for tourists. We never want to see anyone mistakenly end up in questionable wildlife encounter so we spent some time researching and collecting our favorites. Over the years we’ve recommended dozens of fantastic sustainable tourism projects, but we can’t be everywhere in the world!
So, we asked some of our travel blogging friends what their favorite ethical wildlife experiences are around the world. If you’re seeking some amazing chances to get up close with wildlife, support conservation, and be a more responsible traveler keep reading!
Ethical Wildlife Tourism Experiences to Experience
1. Gorilla Trekking in Uganda
Gorilla Trekking in Uganda is surreal and unlike any other experience in Africa. The atmosphere of the trek through the jungle mist is unreal. With each step your anticipation builds and the reward of seeing the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world is spectacular. The setting, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, is arguably one of the most mystical in all of Africa.
Mountain Gorillas can only be found in the Virunga mountains in the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda and also in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Uganda holds 60% of the total mountain gorillas left in the world with about 400 of them residing in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Bwindi is the most popular place to trek the gorillas in Uganda.
The trek involves getting a little dirty and bushwhacking through thick jungle with an experienced local guide to find a troop of habituated gorillas. Finding the gorillas can take anywhere from one to five hours (sometimes longer). These are wild animals and the trackers have to locate where the gorillas have gone each day.
After we found the gorillas we had one hour to observe, ask questions, and take photos and video of our encounter. There is no drinking or eating around the gorillas and flash photography is prohibited. Gorillas share about 98% DNA with us and they are highly suspectable to human diseases so humans should not walk closer than seven meters from the gorillas unless they approach you.
The entire hour we couldn’t take our eyes off the family. They each had their own personality and demeanor that made for the most intimate wildlife encounter. When the gorillas look into your eyes it is humbling.
Visiting them and paying the rather high price for a gorilla trekking permit is one of the best ways to ensure their survival in the wild! The price to see the gorillas for just one hour is expensive at $650.
However, it’s important to understand that gorillas are critically endangered animals. We learned that 25% of the money earned from gorilla trekking in Uganda goes back to the local communities too. Tourism creates local jobs. And the majority of the permit contributes to the conservation of the mountain gorillas.
2. Whale Shark Diving in Mozambique
Tofo Beach, Mozambique is famous for its deep bay and abundance of Megafauna. It is arguably one of the best places in the world to go diving and snorkeling with whale sharks. These gentle giants may have the name “shark,” but they are filter feeders like many whales don’t mind the presence of swimmers.
This lead to one of our best days in Africa as we swam with the whale sharks and manta rays off the coast. The sharks glide through the water and allow swimmers to spend plenty of time to swim with them. Unlike other whale shark operations in the Philippines or Mexico, in Mozambique, it is much quieter. Mozambique isn’t a huge tourist hotspot so you already don’t have to compete with mass tourism here.
There are only a few small companies that will take you out to go swimming with whale sharks and they all have a marine biologist on board to monitor the behavior. There are no mass crowds hoarding the gentle giants. At most, we saw three other small boats the entire morning of our excursion. Meaning the whale sharks are much calmer in the water and not fighting to swim as fast as they can away from humans.
We highly recommend going with Peri-Peri Divers as they practice ethical tourism practices and provide a great time!
3. Watching Spinner Dolphins in the Maldives
We recently visited the Maldives for a bit of relaxing. When one of the resorts we were staying at suggested we go on a dolphin watching sunset cruise I was a little dubious. I’m know how touristy dolphin activities can be so we almost canceled, but at the suggestion of the staff we committed to go.
What happened later was the highlight of our trip to The Maldives. Many of the dolphins in the Maldives are called spinner dolphins. When they get excited they will jump high out of the water and spin. They seem to be all over the Maldives so when boats take you out to spot them they will drive to where they think they are and clap and make whistles to get the dolphins excited.
Once you get one dolphin going they all start to have fun, and we were quickly in the middle of about 200 spinner dolphins jumping out of the water. These dolphins weren’t chased and there weren’t millions of boats surrounding them.
No baiting is used to attract the dolphins and no one even gets in the water to interact with them. All the observing is done from the boat making for an incredible ethical wildlife experience.
4. Swimming with Sea Turtles in The Galapagos
A cruise around the Galapagos is a bucket list worthy travel experience. It’s without a doubt the best way to see the Galapagos Isles off the coast of Ecuador. The amount of wildlife you can see on the relatively untouched islands is amazing. That’s just what’s on land as when you step off the gorgeous islands you’ll find deep blue Pacific water abundant in marine life.
It’s a place unlike any other on earth and it’s easy to understand how the islands provided inspiration for Charles Darwin. However “unlike any other places on earth” usually come with a high price tag, and the Galapagos is no exception. Due to strict regulations on boat numbers, visitors, and itineraries only about 75,000 people a year get to take a Galapagos Islands cruise meaning there are no mass tourism outlets here.
Many of the wildlife creatures that can be seen in the Galapagos have never even seen humans before. There are no cages, no attractions, and no humans benefiting from exploited animals. Everything here is just wild – the way it should be!
Our favorite experience in the Galapagos would have to be snorkeling with sea turtles who don’t seem bothered at all by the few tourists around. It’s amazing to just swim with them and observe. No touching of any animals is allowed in the Galapagos of any kind and doing so may result in a fine or even Ecuadorian jail time!
5. Diving with Bull Sharks in Costa Rica
Diving with sharks is an activity touted in various destinations across the globe, whether it be in a cage or swimming freely. The idea of coming face to face with a huge apex predator can be a real bucket list experience. However, many people don’t think about the unethical side of the practice, and the long-term negative effects. Most sharks are predators and feed on other animals to survive. They have an incredible sense of smell and can sense injured fish and their flesh from a huge distance. This is used by the tourist agency’s to lure sharks to specific areas.
By “chumming” the water (throwing dead and bloody fish into the ocean) they attract sharks. This allows them to advertise to tourists that they will be guaranteed to see sharks. The problem with this is that it confuses the sharks and also alters their natural behavior. If food for these animals is repeatedly and systematically thrown into the water, the sharks will come to rely on this as the there main source of food. They become lazy, knowing that they can get food from the same place at the same time every day.
If then suddenly this practice stops, they have to fend for themselves after having had it so easy for so long. Chumming or baiting also has another huge impact. The sharks smell dead fish, yet they are seeing humans in the water. We are certainly not their natural prey, but you can imagine how confusing it is for a shark to be eating delicious dead fish which is coming from humans. This theory was widely argued as a contributor to a string of attacks in Egypt, during 2010. Swimmers were attacked, mostly in the thigh and buttocks area. Researchers believe this is from the sharks being constantly fed from divers fanny packs, and so have now become conditioned to associate humans with food.
Interacting with sharks in an ethical manner, where they are just going about their natural behavior, can never be “100% Guaranteed”. There are very few places in the world where you can dive with sharks and know that they never have been baited. However, in Costa Rica on the northwest Pacific coast, it was discovered that Bull Sharks like to congregate in the waters around “Bat Islands”.
The islands are part of the protected Santa Rosa national park, meaning they are strictly patrolled by coastguards. All boats must carry a license for diving in the area, and guards regularly come aboard to check out paperwork. Diving trips here can be booked from nearby tourist destinations such as Playa Del Coco. Most dive operators in the area are extremely professional and offer a full and informative briefing about how to observe the sharks without disturbing them. I have personally dived here many times, and on some occasions, there were no sharks, and others 10 – 15 Bull Sharks, circling us and trying to figure out what we were!
It is a beautiful experience to just observing these magnificent creatures, safe in the knowledge that they have come here on their own natural instincts. The area is also very quiet, and there are never more than a handful of dive boats in the area. Whilst it can be disappointing to make the trip out there only to not see any sharks, that is nature and no one can ever guarantee that you will 100% see a shark without altering their behavior somehow.
6. Penguin Watching in Punta Tombo, Argentina
Peninsula Valdes in Argentinian Patagonia is an incredible place for watching wildlife especially marine fauna, here you can see; whales, orcas, elephant seals, sea lions, fur seals, penguins, and many seabirds. One of my favorite parks in the area is Punta Tombo National reserve. It’s three km of coastline that in season, between September and April, hosts thousands of Magellanic penguins. This makes it the largest colony of these penguins in the world.
They migrate here every year from southern Brazil for nesting. The area has been protected since 1979 which helped a lot to increase the local population of Magellanic penguins. Park rangers try to keep interaction between visitors and penguins as little as possible and there are several strict rules in the park. You’ll find that rangers patrol the area all the time to make sure everybody follows them. Park visitors are not allowed to touch penguins, to feed them, to scare them away, to come too close to penguins or their nests, to leave the boardwalks, or to make loud noises.
If penguins want to cross a boardwalk visitors must give them the way and wait till they finish crossing, there are even special signs “Ceda el Paso al Penguin” (Give way to a penguin) along the boardwalks. Other local animals such as elephant seals, guanacos, ostriches, armadillos, hares as well as dolphins and whales can be seen in the park as well. Tourists can get a lot of information about Magellanic penguins and their behavior at the visitor’s center at the park entrance. The reserve can be visited as a day trip from Puerto Madryn – the closest big town, about 170 km away.
7. Kiss a Giraffe at the Giraffe Center in Nairobi, Kenya
The Giraffe Center in Kenya’s capital city has been rescuing orphaned giraffes since the 70’s. The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (A.F.E.W.) is non profit Kenyan organization. A.F.E.W was founded in 1979 with their main goal to educate Kenyan school children on their country’s wildlife and environment. After seeing a need to rescue, rehabilitate, and breed the Rothschild Giraffe they opened The Giraffe Center in 1983.
Since then they have had over 300 success stories of Rothschild Giraffes being released back into the wild. Every day young and excited Kenyan school children come here to learn about the wildlife, which I think is so important to conservation. If you educate youth early and get them excited about animals, they grow up loving their wildlife.
It’s not just school children that can visit though. The Giraffe Center is open to visitors who want to come lean, feed, and even kiss earth’s tallest creatures. You are only allowed to feed the Giraffes special food pellets made of corn, wheat, grass and molasses. In my opinion no visit to Nairobi is complete without stopping here and seeing these magnificent creatures up close.
8. Swimming with Humpback Whales in Tonga
Whales have always been my favorite animal and any chance I could get to go whale watching I would do it. When I heard you could actually swim with humpback whales in Tonga I jumped at the opportunity.
Tonga is one of the few places where you can swim with humpback whales. The Tongan government has put strict rules in place to ensure the safety and well being of the whales. You can only have four people in the water with the whales at any one time, you must be accompanied by a certified guide, and you must stay at least four meters away from the whales.
There are several islands in Tonga where you can go swimming with the whales with the most popular being Va’vau. I went to the smaller island of Ha’apai because the flights worked better for me and my connection from New Zealand.
I spent a week swimming with humpback whales. My first experience was with four large males on a heat run which is basically them showing off for the females. I watched them breech meters from me, swim on their backside and blow bubble underwater and sing.
I had several ‘hang’ experiences with mother and calf where we would just hang out and chill for over two hours at a time. Humpback whales migrate to Tonga for their shallow warm waters to birth their calves. As the calves cannot hold their breath as long as the mothers you will see the calf coming up for air every five minutes or so and then go back down to the mother.
I am glad I was able to experience this wildlife encounter in a natural state where the whales felt comfortable enough to share the experience with us.
9. Visiting David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya
One of Africa’s most respected wildlife conservation organizations, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was founded in 1977 by Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick. With its headquarters located inside Nairobi National Park (just 4 miles from the heart of the bustling city), the NGO was built to help orphaned wildlife and honor the memory of her late husband, who was the founding game warden of Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park.
The heart of the trust’s model is its world-renowned Orphan’s Project, which focuses on rescuing and rehabilitating young elephants and rhinos whose lives are increasingly endangered due to poaching (for their ivory tusks and horns). Others have been displaced by habitat loss, which is primarily caused by human population pressures and conflict, deforestation and drought.
Known as the babies’ foster mom, it was Dr. Sheldrick who perfected the milk formula and the necessary husbandry methods. She has since been recognized as an international authority on the rearing of wild creatures. These animals are eventually reintroduced into the wild after rehabilitation. Since its inception, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has hand-raised over 150 infant elephants.
Now run by David and Daphne’s daughter Angela Sheldrick, the Trust continues to works for the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife with a variety of initiatives, including anti-poaching, protecting the natural environment, enhancing community awareness, providing veterinary assistance, rescuing and hand-rearing elephant and rhino orphans, and nurturing a variety of other species.
Their Nairobi facility welcomes visitors to daily public viewings of the orphans’ feedings (from 11 AM to noon), where dozens of baby elephants come into a circle. As they feed (and occasionally come close enough to be pet), their caregivers talk about the challenges these animals face and the importance of wildlife conservation. Local schoolchildren are often there beside you: For many of them, it’s clearly their first time seeing these animals up close.
The DWST encourages people to symbolically adopt an animal by donating money to support conservation efforts. Those who do are invited to a special visitation in the late afternoon when the facility is closed to the public and elephants are put to bed for the night. It’s an excellent, intimate interaction, giving us a chance to spend time with our adoptees, 1-year-olds Kiasa and Maktao.
10. Samadai Dolphin House in Marsa Alam, Egypt
Mention Egypt and most people typically think of pyramids and desert – not wildlife encounters. That’s too bad, because Egypt’s Red Sea is home to some of the most diverse marine life on the planet, offering visitors thrilling up-close-and-personal wild encounters.
Case in point is Samadai Reef, located a few miles off the coast near Marsa Alam in Egypt’s southeast corner. Better known as the “Dolphin House,” this remote reef is a sanctuary for Spinner Dolphins.
Upwards of 100 Spinner Dolphins regularly spend the day basking in the clear, shallow waters of the reef’s lagoon. Daily boat trips bring snorkelers to swim and play with these frisky, charismatic creatures.
Sadly, the volume and practices of visitors to the reef in the early 2000s almost drove the dolphins from their home. With little regard for the animals they had come to visit, boaters chased the dolphins around the reef from sunup to sundown, causing whole pods to abandon their resting grounds.
That’s when a local conservation agency, HEPCA (the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association), intervened. In 2004 HEPCA and their partners developed a dolphin protection strategy called the Samadai Project.
Regulations now limit the number of visitors per day, and reef “visiting hours” from 10 – 2 are enforced. Furthermore, certain zones have been designated as “dolphin-only” locations, to remain completely free of boats and people. Fortunately, with regulations in place, the local dolphin population has recovered.
To fund continued conservation, the price of any trip to the reef is supposed to include a reef service fee, collected and paid by the boat operators to the conservation project. When booking a trip to Samadai Dolphin House, look for the HEPCA logo on the tour operator website, or ask about HEPCA, in order to ensure the operator is adhering to these regulations.
11. Swimming With Dwarf Minke Whales in Australia
A liveaboard expedition with Deep Sea Divers Den is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ethically interact with whales in the wild. What sets this experience apart is the staff’s commitment to allowing the whales to take the lead in every interaction. Swimming with the minkes is not guaranteed – the crew is clear that they’ll anchor in known whale hot spots, but there is absolutely no chasing or baiting allowed. Fortunately, these whales are unusually friendly.
If all goes to plan and the curious creatures show up, tourists must abide by strict rules: Enter the water slowly and calmly (no jumping in, splashing around, or causing a ruckus), keep your hand on the rope attached to the boat at all times (absolutely no diving or chasing after the whales), no flash photography, and no touching – no matter how close your new friends get.
We were fortunate to be approached by a pod of five whales, who spent several hours swimming around the ship, gliding past snorkelers close enough that we could have reached out to touch them (but nobody did!). With absolutely nothing enticing them to stay or preventing them from leaving, it seemed as though these massive creatures were genuinely interested in playing with us. They circled past us over and over, rolling on their sides to stare at us with one giant eye. It was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life; hours passed in what felt like minutes.
Divers Den also partners with the Minke Whale Project, so during our trip, we shared the boat with a scientist who collected information about minke sightings and flakes of whale dandruff from the water, and handed out questionnaires so that our observations of the whales’ behavior could be used to support conservation efforts.
In comparison to forced interactions at places like SeaWorld or dolphinariums, sharing the ocean with these astounding creatures who chose to spend the day with us was an incredible privilege and an unforgettable experience.
12. Jungle Trekking with Wild Orangutans
When we did our research about jungle trekking in Southeast Asia we were looking for places where you can still find wild Orangutans in their natural habitat. There are only two places left worldwide where orangutans can still be found in their natural habitat – Sumatra and Borneo. Today experts differentiate between three species spread on Indonesian and Malaysian territories – The Sumatran, the Bornean, and the Tapanuli Orangutans.
After detailed research and friends who had already visited Northern Sumatra, it was clear, that Bukit Lawang was the place we wanted to do a jungle trek to see wild Sumatran Orangutans (with enough luck – after all they are wild animals. The Sumatran Orangutan differs from the other two species compared to their hair, which is longer and paler. They are also known for their intense use of tools to feed on termites or honey. The Sumatran Orangutan usually moves along trees and are less often seen on the ground than the Borneo Orangutan, because they face more predators, like the Sumatran tiger.
These Orangutans are facing severe threats with the biggest being deforestation, which is caused by agriculture and most of all palm oil plantations. The loss of their natural habitat leads to further threats like poaching and being held captive as pets. To protect these orangutans it’s most important to preserve the rainforest that is still left, but unfortunately, Sumatra has currently one of the highest deforestation rates in the world.
However, there are Organizations who protect the Sumatran Orangutans and thanks to fellow travelers we learned about Bukit Lawang – Jungle Trekking who arrange tours through the Sumatran Gunung Leuser National Park with the focus on a sustainable experience.
Besides offering trekking tours with well-trained guides Bukit Lawang – Jungle Trekking is also supporting the local community by organizing cleanups and holding events to educate the local residents about plastic pollution.
13. Observing Wildlife in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica
Most of my travel revolves around watching wildlife in its natural habitat, and one of my most memorable experiences was visiting Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula.
Dubbed by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth, in terms of biodiversity”, Corcovado protects an incredible abundance of wildlife including a number of threatened species.
Watching wildlife in Corcovado happens entirely on the animals’ terms. There are no roads, cars or guest houses in the park and only a small part of it can be explored. The only way to visit Corcovado is by being accompanied by a certified nature guide.
But the most incredible thing about Corcovado is that after more than four decades of protection, the wildlife in the park is not afraid of people and can be easily observed.
We stayed at Sirena Ranger Station for three nights and took a full day hike to Puma Valley one day. The trail followed the edge of the jungle, where it met the wild beaches of the Peninsula’s coastline. At one point, our guide grabbed my arm and pulled me down into a crouch, pointing into the jungle. I looked in the direction he was pointing and met the intent state of a puma.
The stunning cat watched us for a few minutes and when she continued walking, we saw that she was followed by two teenage cubs. The family walked across our field of view, no more than five meters in front of us. They were not running in fear or dashing for cover. To them, we were just another creature in the jungle.
This is the beauty of the ethical animal encounters. When the wild animals choose to reveal themselves to you, to accept you into their world, the experience is often unforgettable. For more eco-friendly tours in Costa Rica I would highly recommend staying with the Cayuga Collection.
14. Fortress of the Bear in Sitka, Alaska
“Bullets are cheaper” I was told by the Fortress of the Bear staff member when I asked why the bears needed to be rescued. Hard to imagine but Alaska doesn’t have a law to protect bears with rehabilitation programs. She told me a story of a hotel owner who was luring bears into town so his hotel guests could “spot” bears on their trip. I was disgusted, but when the mama bear was trapped looking for food she was shot and killed as an act of self-defense (legal).
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game would then normally kill (euthanize) the cubs who can’t survive without their mother. But in 2007, the Fortress of the Bear was born in Sitka, Alaska to rescue bear cubs. The Fortress of the Bear has seven permanent residents and helps to rescue cubs before sending them to zoos and sanctuary’s in the U.S. but hopes someday to be able to release the bears back into the wild. From the viewing platforms, you can watch the bears wander around, play in the water and eat. You can also listen to the naturalists explain the bear’s journey from the wild and the importance of rescue’s mission. The rescue is a non-profit venture and relies on admission fees ($10 adult/$5 children) and donations to accomplish its mission to save the bears. If you find yourself in Sitka, Alaska, most likely as a result of an Alaskan cruise, plan to visit the bears because you’ll quickly realize that bullets might be cheaper but rescue and education of the bears is a better value.
15. Visiting Puffins on the Treshnish Isles, Scotland
When people think of Scottish wildlife experiences, one animal they want to encounter for sure is the puffin. Agile like a penguin on land, beautiful like a bird of paradise, these clownish birds have captured the hearts of many bird-loving visitors in Scotland. And that’s the problem – they nest in incredibly remote places, but a lot of people want to see them. Unfortunately, puffins have been added to the “red list” of threatened birds in the UK in 2017 and are in need of conversation action. The biggest threats to puffins are the continuous pollution of the sea as well as the lack of food sources due to overfishing. Luckily though, the puffin colonies off the coast of the Isle of Mull in Scotland are pretty healthy.
I booked the Staffa and Treshnish Isles wildlife tour with Staffa Tours, which leaves from Fionnphort in the southwest of Mull. The tour lasts about five hours and runs from April to October. The best time to see puffins though is during breeding season from mid-April to early August – the rest of the year they are out at sea. Once the puffins have left, the tour includes a sail around the Treshnish Isles to see other seabirds, instead of the landing on the islands.
We landed on Lunga and had 2 hours which I spent mostly perched at the steep cliffs on the northern edge of the island. Here the puffins dig their small burrows in the soft soil on top of the cliffs. The adult birds fly back and forth, bringing back beak-loads of small silver fish to feed their chicks. The puffins here are not afraid of people – we actually kept the seagulls away – so it was easy to get close-up photos! There are no fences on Lunga, however, and your skipper will advise you how to behave to keep a safe distance. Listen to them in order to ensure that visitors after you can enjoy this beautiful encounter as well!
The Treshnish Isles are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and are a Special Protection Area under the EC Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds. The breeding seabird population is monitored every year, and by visiting this place in Scotland, you are actively contributing to making this conservation effort possible.
16. Witness the North American Sandhill Crane Migration in Nebraska
The annual North American sandhill crane migration stopover in the sandhills along the Platte River in Nebraska is an unforgettable opportunity to see an event which has been taking place for millions of years. More than 500,000 sandhill cranes, about 80% of the world’s population, pause in their route to Arctic nesting grounds to feed upon unharvested corn in fields lain dormant over the winter.
Here they engage in elaborate mating dances and their unique cacophony can be heard for miles. The Sandhill Crane appears in fossil evidence going back more than nine million years and is prominent in the lore of such diverse cultures as the Pueblo, Seminole, and Miami Native Americans. As well, it appears in Asian, Greek, and Roman mythology.
Sandhill Cranes mate for life and the couple will co-parent a single “colt” each year. The 3,000-mile long flight between summer and winter nesting grounds is made in the spring and fall. Visit the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, NE for education and ethical viewing. The Sanctuary operates a live cam and you can reserve time in blinds – even stay overnight – close to these majestic birds without disturbing them in their natural habitat. For those who prefer more traditional lodgings, nearby Kearney has a number of comfortable chain hotels and other activities the entire family will enjoy.
17. Observing Penguins in the Falkland Islands
In the Falkland Islands, penguins live in harmony with humans, and they far outnumber them. The human population of the islands is less than 4,000 people, whereas hundreds of thousands of penguins come to the archipelago every year to breed. With visitor numbers still relatively low – both due to the cost and nature of getting to these far-flung islands – the disturbance to the seabirds is kept at a minimum.
Measures are in place to protect the birds too. The island “countryside code” instructs visitors to stay at least 6m away from bird colonies and to always give birds the right of way. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to £3,000 – although such rules are hard to enforce when the islands are so sparsely populated. It’s not unusual to find yourself on an island with less than five people in residence in this corner of the South Atlantic Ocean.
At Volunteer Point on East Falkland, a circle of rocks indicates to visitors how close they are permitted to get to the colony of King Penguins that live there. In the summer months, a warden stays onsite to make sure the boundaries and penguins are respected as they rear their young in this idyllic spot by the sea.
Visiting the Falkland Island’s penguins is a unique and rewarding experience that would be hard to replicate elsewhere. Home to five different species of penguins, as well as numerous other birds and marine mammals, it’s on par with the likes of the Galápagos Islands, yet remains largely untouched by mass tourism.
18. Sea Turtle Nesting in Yakushima, Japan
Observing sea turtle nesting and hatching on the UNESCO World Heritage island of Yakushima in Japan is a truly amazing experience.
Yakushima is an extremely important place for the conservation of the endangered green sea and loggerhead turtles. In the North Pacific, loggerhead turtles only lay eggs in Japan. Half of them do so on Yakushima and 90% of those on one beach called Nagatahama on the island’s north-west.
Sea turtles come ashore to lay and bury their eggs from late April to early August and the eggs hatch from around early July to late September. In order to prevent disturbing the turtles or accidentally trampling on newborns heading to the ocean, Nagatahama Beach is closed to regular visitors at night from May to August. However, you can reserve a spot for observation (paid/limited spaces) and if there is some activity and it won’t disturb the turtles, trained local guides will take you to the beach, allowing you to quietly observe this amazing natural phenomenon.
Beforehand, you must attend a lecture that educates visitors about the sea turtles, why conservation is so important and rules for observation. The turtles are not touched during this process, even by the guides. In addition, no photography or videography of any kind is allowed as even small lights emitted from electronic devices may disturb them.
Sea turtles in the area weren’t always protected and in fact eggs used to be taken for local cuisine. Now, thanks to greater awareness and the dedication of local volunteers, these official and ethical observation tours have turned the fate of these creatures around. In fact, since the beach has been protected in this way, the number of sea turtles being born on Yakushima has more than doubled.
Seeing those tiny hatchlings making their way to the water for the first time is one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed and I can highly recommend this activity and the wonderful work being done by this passionate group of local conservationists.
Reservations can be made through the Nagata Sea Turtle Liaison Council. If you don’t speak Japanese, simply visit the Tourist Information Center near the ferry port and they can make the reservation for you.
19. Whale Watching in Baie-Sainte-Catherine
If you visit Quebec City in Canada, then I recommend that you take the day trip to Baie-Sainte-Catherine for whale-watching in the Atlantic Ocean. You can either drive there by yourself or take a bus tour with Croisieres AML from Quebec City. The driver who drove us from Baie-Sainte-Catherine was very knowledgeable about the whales and the surrounding area. Even before reaching the destination, I felt I had gained a far better understanding of the whales I was about to see.
When purchasing the tickets, you have the option of choosing the big boat or the Zodiac. The Zodiac takes you closer to the whales. However, both the Zodiacs and the boat practice ethical whale watching and always maintain a respectful distance from the whales.
The tour guides on the boats and Zodiacs are certified, naturalists. They will keep you informed and entertained throughout the tour. Since the tour is in a natural environment, there’s no guarantee of what you will see.
During the first hour of my tour, it was very quiet, and I hardly saw anything. However, as the boat went further into the ocean I was able to spot many Minke whales which look like Dolphins, Belugas, and Seals. The joy I felt when I spotted a whale is indescribable. I hope you get a chance to experience it too.
20. Liberty Bear Sanctuary in Brasov, Romania
Have you ever wanted to come face to face with a brown bear? Probably not in the wild, right? But what if you could do it in a safe, environmentally-friendly and ethical way? At the Libearty Bear Sanctuary near Brasov, Romania, you can visit over 80 different brown bears in their natural habitat. But the best part? Each and every bear has been rescued and saved from a not-so-nice past life.
The 70-hectare enclosure houses numerous bears who were either held captive as an attraction, the circus, zoos, or even just outside a restaurant for some tourist photos. On a guided tour, you’ll learn about how many of the bears were saved, the dangers of keeping bears in captivity, what you can do to prevent it, and how the bear sanctuary is a complete non-profit with only one goal — to rescue brown bears and give them a better home. Not only that, you get a sneak peek into the bears’ lives — from afar of course!
As you walk around the massive grounds, peeking in through the tall fence, you can watch the bears splash around in the ponds, adventurously climb trees, playfully wrestle with one another, and roam freely as they have absolutely nothing to worry about! Although these bears now have a life that’s free of harm and torture, their past still lingers.
Many of them are mentally and physically scarred from their previous life, as you’ll notice some continuously walk the same path over and over again. But it’s comforting to know they’re safe from what they once went through and you can be reassured each and every penny you spend at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary goes towards making their lives better!
21. Observing Elephants in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
The most ethical way to enjoy wild animals is to observe them when they are in their natural environment, without any sort of human interference. And one of the best places to observe elephants in the wild is Khao Yai National Park in Thailand.
Khao Yai National Park was the first designated national park in Thailand and, being a couple of hours by train from Bangkok, it is the most visited in the country. Within the park itself, you can spot all sorts of animals – gibbons, great hornbills, monitor lizards… even crocodiles! But the highlight of the park is the elephants. Of course, like with all wild animals, there is never a guarantee that you will see them, but the population of elephants in Kaoh Yai is becoming healthier, so the chances are high.
I would recommend hiring a local guide that knows and understands the park and the habits of the animals that live within it. I went with a company called Greenleaf, based just outside the park near Pak Chong. John, my guide, was very passionate about the conservation of the park and its fauna, and he had a wealth of knowledge that really helped us track a few animals.
The local guides do work and collaborate with each other. At one point, while in the middle of the jungle looking for a great hornbill, John received a message that a group of elephants had been spotted bathing in a pond so we rushed back to the jeep and headed to where they were. We were able to see quite a sizeable group that included a bull, and several females and babies doing what they do best – enjoying their freedom. It was something I’ll never forget.
22. Visit the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi
Falconry is an important traditional sport of the Arabian Gulf. From ancient times the emirs, chieftains and nobles are known to be practicing hawking. The falcon is the national bird of UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and several other countries. The importance of falconry in their tradition and culture is very evident. And so they need medical care as well from time to time. Their eyesight and fractures in wings or limbs are the common reason for them to visit the hospital.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) is the world’s largest and most advanced falcon hospital. It was started in 1999 and has developed as one of the most reputed falcon hospitals in the Gulf region. It is also a leading center for falcon medicine worldwide. Over the years, with its dedication to medical support, the hospital has become a loyal and a wide patient-base not just in the UAE, but also in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the facilities for our feathered friends at this hospital. The hospital has air-conditioned individual rooms and wards and ICU for over 250 birds. More than 7,000 Falcons are received here for examinations and treatment annually. The Falcon Hospital has an X-ray room, Operation Theaters, ophthalmology unit, pox unit and an OPD section as well! Advanced endoscopy, complex orthopedic surgery for fractures, laser surgery are part of its regular activities. There are special times for tourists to visit – hours can be found on their website.
23. The Gibbon Experience in Northern Laos
The Nam Kan National Park in Northern Laos is the only place in the world to see the critically endangered Laotian black crested gibbons. The only way to see them is by being trucked to the edge of the National Park, then hiking and zip lining in. Your visit will be providing funds that support the survival of the environment in which the gibbons live. All the guides who trek with you and teach you how to use the zip lines are locals employed by the Gibbon Experience.
At the Gibbon Experience, you stay in zip line connected treehouses that can’t be accessed from the ground. They’re basic, and you sleep in a mosquito-proof tent, with all your food, coffee and water flew in by those zip lines that you arrived on. The best time to hear and see the gibbons is at dawn when you’ll likely wake to the sound of the gibbons singing.
It’s an amazing way to see the Laos jungle while supporting conservation and an organization that provides much-needed work for locals and provides for the ongoing survival of the Black Gibbon in a completely ethical and safe way for all.
24. Tiger Safari in Ranthambore National Park, India
Tigers are magnificent, beautiful, and powerful creatures so who wouldn’t want an encounter with them? With colorful, striking markings, they are the real Kings of the Jungle. This is where their beauty is exploited in countries like Thailand. People are sucked into believing tigers are looked after when they have a “tiger selfie”. Tourists are often told they are not drugged, that those chains are there for your protection, not knowing that they are often starved of food “conditioned” to behave. If you truly love animals and tigers, your conscience should be telling you this is not right.
The only ethical tiger encounter is on safari, where tigers roam free. My best wildlife safari was in Ranthambore National Park, India. We had the most incredible experience with tigers, but it was on their terms, not ours. That is how it should be.
Like in Africa, you jump into a safari vehicle and start your quest to view wild animals. Tigers are solitary creatures; they see you but they don’t want you to see them. When you are lucky enough to see a tiger walk in front of you, sit and pose in a majestic Sphinx-like manner, or lean into a puddle for a drink of water, you know they are happy, relaxed and free.
Ranthambore National Park has reported it has a thriving tiger population of 70, which is a huge jump from there 48 in 2013. If you want an authentic, ethical, Jungle Book experience, a Tiger Safari is the only way.
25. Viewing Rescued Elephants in Rural Thailand
Seeing elephants in Thailand has become a rite of passage for tourists, yet I knew before we visited in 2017 that most of the opportunities to see them were not ethical. We travel as a family with young kids, and it is very important for us to seek experiences which support people, animals and the environment. Therefore, we took considerable time to research whether a truly ethical encounter with elephants was possible.
We were very pleased to find The Mahouts Elephant Foundation as they are an organization created in conjunction with rural communities, to bring elephants out of abusive work camps and return them to their natural environment. Their program supports elephants living in the forest, foraging for their real diets and living happily together. It also supports their mahouts with a decent wage, to live in their home village and not have to leave to work for minimal pay in work camps. And it supports their whole community by incorporating homestays for guests with interested families.
Having the chance to see healthy elephants living in their natural home was truly amazing. They move constantly, with ears and tails flapping as they graze and graze and graze. We were not allowed to get too close to them, and neither were they allowed to get too close to us. Patting, hugging, bathing and other activities that are often advertised with rescued elephants are not a part of this experience. The elephants are wild animals, and our role was just to observe them. We were safe and able to do so due to the expert knowledge of the mahouts and foundation staff and it was more than enough.
The other activities that reduce elephants to photo props are not necessary and get in the way of really getting to know them. We learned so much about their natural behaviors and their different personalities in just a few hours. We got to see what these magnificent creatures are like in the wild; happy, relaxed and healthy as they go about their lives without having to perform or do anything unnatural. We also got to support a whole community in the process, with a model for tourism which protects their culture, connects people from all over the world, and protects the environment for elephants and people to continue to inhabit too.
26. Sea Turtle Nesting on Lankayan Island
I recently visited Lankayan Island, off the eastern coast of Malaysian Borneo. It is not only home to an eco-conscious resort but also serves as a turtle sanctuary and hatchery. Located inside the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area, it is privately owned, but the owner, Pulau Sipadan Resort and Tours, provides facilities and financial support to the sanctuary.
Lankayan Island’s turtle protection efforts are two-pronged: offering safe nesting for green turtles and hawksbill turtles and also ensuring that as many of the turtle babies as a possible hatch and return to the ocean. On this 2½-hectare island, the chalets that serve as accommodations are raised on stilts, leaving the beaches untouched: perfect for turtles to lay their eggs.
Spotters patrol the island daily looking for trails of any turtles climbing the beaches to nest. They watch as the turtle builds a nest and lays eggs. Once it returns to the water, employees dig up and count the eggs, placing them in a hatchery.
The hatchery protects the eggs from predators and other natural dangers such as flooding. When the babies are born two months later, employees help them dig their way out of their buried nests, count them, then take them to the beach. There, they release them some distance away from the water. The babies need to walk on their own down to the water’s edge in order to imprint on the location. Hopefully, some of them will survive to adulthood to return to this same island.
As for the tourists like me who come here to enjoy this remote getaway or to go diving, we were allowed to observe the sanctuary’s activities and learn about the turtles. When a nesting or release happened, we could come and watch if we wanted to. We were strictly forbidden to touch either the turtle mothers while they were laying or the babies when they were released. We got the same warning when we went diving: no touching the turtles!
I was impressed by this private-public cooperation between Lankayan Island’s owner and the sanctuary effort. It struck me as a model of how nature and tourism can coexist and thrive.
27. Musical Shark Cage Diving in Port Lincoln, Australia
One of my travel dreams for a long time was cage diving with great white sharks. Places like South Africa are very popular for that, but as a responsible traveler, I want to be sure at all times that I only take part in activities that are not harming animals – and sadly, shark cage diving is a bit of a blurry area. In most cases, sharks are attracted to the boat with chum, a foul-smelling mixture of blood and fish entrails.
This may cause the sharks to alter their natural behavior and may also lead to an increase in shark attacks on humans since sharks learn to associate the image of humans with the idea of food. I was about to give up on the idea altogether when I found out that there’s a company in Port Lincoln, South Australia, that offers ethical shark diving tours.
Adventure Bay Charters uses music to attract sharks, an alternative that is far less invasive and more eco-friendly than chum. Sharks are attracted to the bass vibrations that occur when playing music like rock or heavy metal, and we had three great sightings when I went on the tour – which was one of the greatest experiences of my life!
28. Meet a Wolfpack in British Columbia, Canada
Casey and Shelley Black run the Northern Lights Wildlife Wolf Centre in Golden, British Columbia. They initially trained animals for Hollywood and soon after adopted their first wolf-dog called Aspen.
Aspen was soon followed by more wolves creating the Black wolf pack tucked away in the Canadian Rockies. The main goal of the Wolf Centre is to educate the public that it is inhumane to kill wolves in the hope that you will help them convince the government that the national and regional policy is wrong.
When you visit you will take part in a 25-minute talk and get to meet the wolves (Scrappy Dave, Flora, Murphy, Wiley, Mack, Farley, Kheeta and Uno) who are in a large enclosed setting. If you are lucky they will be vocal when they meet you. I defy the necks on your hair not to stand on end when they sing in unison.
Photography fans can also walk with the wolves as part of the Blackwolf photography hike. I would love to say that things have changed since I visited the Wolf Centre but wolf-kill programmes are still used today in many Canadian states – every more reason for you to support the cause.
29. See Sea Lions on Kangaroo Island, Australia
There are many wildlife sanctuaries where you can learn about endangered animals in Australia. Among all wildlife tours, getting to see the sea lions on Kangaroo Island was one of the top educational experience I have ever had in many years of travels. If you plan a road trip around Kangaroo Island, in South Australia, it is the perfect occasion to go on a Seal Bay guided tour and learn about these unique creatures.
This is a 45-minute walking tour in a small group of people. You walk down to the beach through a boardwalk and sand dunes. You are allowed to stand at an appropriate distance of 10 meters from the sea lions and their pups so as not to interfere with their environment and make sure that they don’t feel threatened. The tour guide rangers are very knowledgeable about these animals and tell you about how these animals spend their day hunting, surfing, and resting. And also how they look after their pups.
The breeding season is in March. Most of the puppies are microchipped to enable deep monitoring of the young animals, from behavioral patterns to mortality and development of the population within the seal bay colony. Typically a sea lion mum spends 15 months teaching their pups all that they need to know to be independent adults.
Only 3 out of 10 puppies will reach full maturity though. Sea lions’ lifespan is between 15 and 20 years. When they feed their pups, they spend up to 3 days in the ocean and travel as far as 100 km from their breeding colony. These are just a few exciting things that you will learn from the Seal Bay guided tour. There is an entrance fee of 35 dollars that help fund the valuable conservation work of the national park and all rangers who spend their life studying the marvelous sea lions.
Keep in mind…
We understand that you want to see animals on your trip. I mean – who doesn’t love animals? Just please make sure you are doing so in a responsible way. It’s always important to read reviews of any tour operator, sanctuary, or project you are considering. Research their website and see if they note or pride themselves on being ethical.
Typically bad reviews or when something is too cheap to seem legit means there is an issue. Anyplace that has chains or ropes to restrain an animal is a red flag and should be avoided. Do extra research on places labeling themselves a “sanctuary” as sometimes this is just a marketing tool to trick you into thinking they are legitimate.
Often these “sanctuaries” don’t care about the animals well being and only have their eyes on the money. A true sanctuary or rehabilitation center should aim to release animals back into the wild after rehabilitation. The infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand was a “Buddhist Temple,” which sounds a lot better than Tiger Prison where you can get selfies, doesn’t it? Ask questions, any reputable sanctuary or rehabilitation center should be more than happy to share all information and be completely transparent.
Just a few activities that you should never engage in are riding elephants, taking photos with chained monkeys (or chained anything), dolphin or whale shows, and taking selfies with apex predators. See 10 unethical animal encounters to avoid here!
Do you have any ethical wildlife tourism experiences you can recommend? I’m always happy to update this list!
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