The Dark Side of Animal Tourism • 10 Unethical Animal Encounters to Avoid

In the last two years of our travels, we’ve found ourselves in many places famed for their wildlife like Africa and Asia. The travels on these two continents have been incredible; however, we’ve noticed a reoccurring theme of questionable animals encounters specifically designed for tourists.

Recently it was promotions for elephant rides in Thailand, and before that donkeys and camels whipped into submission to haul fat tourists around Jordan. Then there were the instances of caged civets in Bali for Luwak coffee or lion walks in South Africa.

To be fair I understand why people want to do things like pet a lion, ride on the back of a dolphin or sit like a prince on top of an elephant. Travelers are very curious and the chance to get up close and personal with another species is appealing.

The truth is that many of these animals are kept in appalling conditions, beaten to submission, caged, and looked after by (most of the time) inexperienced and poor locals just trying to put food on the table, not a zoologist or scientist. Wildlife interactions are inherently questionable as forces the wild animal to act in an unnatural way, elephants weren’t made for rides.

The World Animal Protection believes at least 550,000 wild animals are suffering in unethical tourist attractions globally and that 110 million people will still visit these attractions per year.

It’s pretty obvious we have a problem here.

Of course, I don’t believe that all 110 million of these people have the intention to harm animals. Most people that engage in these activities have no idea that they are wrong. I’d wager that most love animals and want the best for them, but we love them so much that we are inherently causing them pain, suffering, and even death.

Yes, our desire to be close to wild animals could be killing them. 

Leopard On Bank Of Kafue River
Leopard On Bank Of Kafue River

A vast majority of these tourism businesses are just that business and they’re interest lies in the bottom line, not the animal (outside of its ability to produce income). If all of us took more time to research ethical establishments and seek out animal conservation projects rather than animal entertainment facilities we could put these places out of businesses.

Truth be told, I’m at fault too. I’ve ridden an elephant and walked with lions in the past. I didn’t know any better then, I hadn’t done my research, and the internet and social media were not as prevalent then.

I also had locals or the operators telling me that it was all okay to do. “Yes, we take care of the elephants,” or “these animals are rescued,” or that “human interaction is good for them.” The list of things people will say to get you to hand them money goes on and on, they don’t care if they lie to you, or they may know no better themselves.

We want to preserve animal well being through conservation, and there is nothing more magical than seeing an animal in its wild habitat. The first time I saw a sea turtle in the ocean, a hyena on the savannah, or an eagle flying high above in a wild forest left me speechless and made for a much more meaningful encounter. A large part lies in the fact that it is unexpected.

If you find yourself somewhere when you are guaranteed you can ride, hug, or take a selfie with wild animals you are likely aiding to that animals suffering. There are many, many, animal tourism projects to avoid, but I wanted to list some of the most common to dodge. Although these have specific locations where the problem is particularly bad you can apply the scenario to anywhere in the world when using your best judgment.

costa rica

Unethical Animal Tourism Encounters

Don’t Ride Donkeys in Petra, Jordan

Petra was relatively unknown before 1989 until Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released. Overnight, the movie put Petra on the “bucket list” of millions, and tourism has continued to boom ever since. Petra at its peak was a massive city, so the site ancient site stretches over several miles and stretches out in different directions. A visit here involves a lot of walking and a long day because there is just so much.

Animal rides, which include camel, donkey and horse carriages, were originally introduced to assist disabled individuals in traversing these long distances. Over time that has changed to include anyone, many of the animals are abused and some even worked to death.

The owners often have them carry as many tourists as possible in a day while being whipped if they can not perform well. Animal welfare is not a cause for concern for many of the independent owners who work at the site. Sadly, it a part of their culture, but not all feel that way.

Jordan’s Princess Alia Foundation (PAF) was established to promote compassion and respect for all creations, including the working animals of Petra. It is designed to guarantee the welfare of the animals by providing them protection, such as new stables, lighter carriages, and animal-friendly harnesses. But is it enough?

When we visited Petra, animal abuse was rampant. We witnessed horse carriages carrying far too many people down the Siq, and donkeys being whipped to the point of bleeding if they weren’t moving fast enough. An average-sized donkey should carry about 50kgs on their back. We saw donkeys carrying overweight people easily twice their capacity under the hot sun up steep steps.

You will no doubt be asked to ride a donkey numerous times throughout your day. Often by children younger than 10, meaning these kids are being kept from school and education in order to turn a profit from tourists. Riding these poor donkeys in Petra should be avoided at all costs, and especially if they are being led by children.

Instead: Petra is best experienced by foot, where you can spend the whole day exploring and taking your time to admire this majestic site. If you walk slowly take a few days to properly explore and move slowly. It’s a massive site and hard to cover in one day without getting tired. If you want to ride a camel head to Wadi Rum and trek through the desert sand.

Don’t Encourage Snake Charmers or Monkey Handlers in Morocco (or ANYWHERE)

While visiting Morocco, we were astonished at the number of tourists trying to get photos with the monkey handlers and snake charmers in the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakech. They clearly weren’t aware of the suffering inflicted on these animals.

The so-called ‘snake charmers’ go out into the wild and illegally catch the snakes. They then sew their mouths shut so that they’re unable to bite, but this means the snakes only last 2-3 days as they’re also unable to eat. The snakes are then disposed of and the vicious cycle begins again.

As for the monkeys, they’re usually captured in the wild and taken from their mothers at a young age, in order to spend their lives in small cages, in chains and posing for photographs. Their teeth, and only method for self-defense, are ripped out of their mouth or filed down so they are unable to bite and defend themselves against the chains and abuse.

While some tourists willingly pose for photos, others can sometimes be tricked into it. We were on our way to explore the souks when one of the monkeys was nearly thrust onto my shoulder. Once the animals are on you then the handlers will extort you for money.

Thankfully, we managed to ‘shoo’ the handler away as we were aware of the dangers behind supporting this type of experience. This may also happen to you, so I would encourage you to be firm with the handlers and decline the experience.

My suggestion is when you see the handlers getting close to you, maintain at least a two-meter distance so they can’t throw the animals on you or you could end up like this guy and get salmonella poisoning.

Instead: If you are intent on experiencing some great wildlife in Morocco, then I’d highly recommend taking day trips to either the Atlas Mountains where you’re able to see Barbary Macaques in their natural habitat or Souss-Massa National Park where marine animals and seabirds await.

Never Ride an Elephant ANYWHERE

Elephants Ngorongoro
There is nothing that feels as good as seeing wild elephants – Ngorongoro Crater

Elephants around the world are sadly exploited for tourists who wish to ride one. Popular places where you can ride elephants include Thailand, Bali, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and a few countries in Southern Africa.

I know that many people who absolutely love elephants mean no harm in riding them. However, the truth of the matter is that the elephants are trained to transport people are usually taken from their mother at a very young age and are then doomed to a life of sadness.

They are beaten hard in order to break their spirit and make them easier to train. It’s a process that hurts elephants deeply, both physically and emotionally. Elephants are also very intelligent creatures and this kind of stress and abuse can lead to mental harm.

It’s also important to keep in mind that elephants are wild and dangerous creatures. Their sheer size is daunting, and in captivity, they can become aggressive and even kill making elephant rides a very dangerous activity.

There are many places in Southeast Asia that promote “elephant sanctuaries,” but many of these are cruel money making establishments in disguise so do your due diligence and research before supporting any. Anywhere that has elephants in chains or living in small spaces is usually a dead giveaway that something is wrong. Here is an example of what the Thai government has to say about elephant excursions in Thailand.

Instead:  If you are venturing around Africa, an African safari is an out of this world experience where you can see animals in their true home. Our favorite places for elephants include Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia.

Don’t Buy Luwak Coffee in Bali

Unethical Tourism
Yes, he is as sad as he looks

When we recently arrived in Bali we hired a local driver to take us to our Airbnb in Ubud. It was going to be about a two-hour drive from the airport, and I was honestly just ready to pass out. Until he asked us if we wanted to stop for coffee.

Never one to turn down coffee I happily agreed, but I should have done my research first as this is just a typical tourist stops for drivers to make in Bali. What he brought us to was a tourist hell and NOT a coffee shop. Instead, we found caged civets looking miserable and lonely in the middle of the jungle.

Kopi Luwak is said to be the most expensive coffee in the world. It comes from the civet cat eating cherries and then passing the seeds without digesting them. The seeds are the coffee beans, and once washed they become high dollar items. Yes, Kopi Luwak coffee is literally cat shit. The real Kopi Luwak will set you back $200-400 per kilo, or if you are in Indonesia where it originated from a cup can be had for about $4.

Buying or drinking Luwak coffee should be avoided at all costs as the civets are caged and force-fed coffee cherries all day. It’s a sad unnatural life for them and should not be encouraged. If you are asked to go drink Kopi Luwak coffee politely decline and asked to have a cup of joe somewhere else.

Instead: Stick to the regular coffee shops in Bali – which you will find everywhere.

Reconsider Whale Watching in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka
Our only photographic result from chasing whales for seven hours.

I’m not going to say don’t go whale watching in Sri Lanka, but I will say to do your research and be very careful with the tour operator you choose. Make sure they are utilizing sustainable practices and care about the animals. On a group trip last year we, unfortunately, found ourselves on a seven-hour long agonizing whale watching experience which I would never in my wildest dreams recommend to anyone.

We never knew that we would be on a boat for seven hours for the chance to see a whale tail, but that is exactly what happened. The organizers want to make sure that you see a whale and will drive hours out to sea until it happens. Personally, I would have preferred not waking up before sunrise to spend so long on a rocking boat.

There are many whale watching operators departing from Mirissa, where whale watching is very popular. When one of these boats sees a whale they radio to all the other boats about the sighting. When you finally do lay your eyes on a whale you will do so with many other boats of tourists, generally just hoarding and crowding the one or two whales in the area.

The whales are then chased around by the many boats in the area which left us all feeling very uncomfortable. I’m sure none of us would like to be chased around the ocean by hundreds of people, so of course, a whale doesn’t either. It certainly was a bit of circus causing distress to the whales and I would strongly advise against it.

Instead: If you want to see whales there are many places around the world that do so ethically. In places like Tofo, Mozambique, Alaska, British Columbia, and so many more you can often see whales breaching right from shore and don’t even have to pay for a tour.

Don’t Visit a Tiger Temple

Unethical Animal Encounters Tiger
Don’t ever encourage animals in chains

The infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand was seized in 2016 after over 40 tiger cubs were found in the freezer. I remember when this story broke and it made me sick. Although this particular Tiger Temple has been shut down I figured I would still mention avoiding any sort of tiger temple or tiger/predator selfie tourist attraction you may come across.

In case you missed it, the notorious tiger temple in Kanchanaburi was a “Buddhist temple” that was marketed as a “sanctuary” for wild animals, mainly Indochinese tigers. The Tiger Temple charged an admission fee and it is reported it was making more than $4 million a year in ticket sales. Essentially tourists could go in, take photos, even cuddle up on real live tigers. Sounds unnatural, doesn’t it? That’s because it is!

These tigers were drugged and chained so that they could tolerate the hundreds of people that walked in every day. Tigers are like any other cat .- solitary and hunters.

It’s completely unnatural for them to be around so many people in a small space. If they are in this scenario they may be seen pacing bag and forth which is a sign of stress.

If you come across attractions where you can get close and take selfies with large predators like a tiger or lion avoid at all costs.

Instead: Take ethical safaris with companies such as World Expeditions, whose Tigers, Temple and Taj tour in India takes travelers to the Bandhavgarh National Park.

Don’t Ride an Ostrich in South Africa

Ostriches in Ruaha
The best part about seeing ostriches are watching them run! – Ruaha National Park

Yes, in the town of Oudtshoorn, South Africa you can actually ride an ostrich. Oudtshoorn is the ostrich capital of the world and you can find many ostrich farms around. For years ostriches have sadly been used for their meat or skin, but nowadays it’s also possible to ride them.

I know it may sound funny or kitschy, but ostriches are not meant for riding and cannot support the weight of full-grown humans on their back. Unlike a camel or horse, they simply don’t have the skeletal structure to support such large loads on their back.

The whole process even looks unnatural and uncomfortable for humans and the bird. Yes – even though ostriches can weigh 120kg pounds they are still birds. Have you ever dreamed about riding a bird? I know I sure haven’t (besides a Pteranodon – those look pretty cool).

A few farms have recently stopped ostrich riding as more and more visitors seek out sustainable tourism practices. However, it’s still possible at many other privately owned farms and I would recommend avoiding them.

Instead: If you want to ride an animal a horseback ride is never a bad idea. The Drakensberg mountains provide stunning views and offer guided horseback safaris. We went horseback riding with Montusi Lodge and it was fantastic. If your goal is to see an ostrich join a safari in Kruger National Park or Gondwana Game Reserve.

Choose your Safari in Yala National Park Accordingly

This is another activity I would never tell anyone not to do, but like many places in Sri Lanka, you need to do your due diligence before committing to a safari operator. I personally will never do a safari in Yala National Park again.  If you’ve ever been on an African safari you’ll know the whole experience is…well, it’s an experience. Usually an all day, all week affair, or in our case a whole four-month affair. The safari starts at sunrise where your African guide will take you to see the majestic wildlife, with coffee in the bush in the morning, and gin and tonics at sunset. The nights are usually complete with dinner and long talks by the fire.

We thought this may be the case in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, but our safari there was more like a short excursion and a very big disappointment. We found the “guides” to act more as a bad driver providing little to no information besides saying “bird” or “deer” when we saw wildlife. The drivers in Yala drove at incredibly unsafe speeds which could have harmed guests or the animals. In just the few hours we were in our vehicle our driver almost rear-ended the vehicle in front because he was not paying attention, which would have sent everyone flying.

We also found there is no cap for visitors meaning a huge jeep mafia operates around the park, and the park and government officials seem oblivious to the pollution and damage the number of guests and vehicles are doing to the park. When there is a leopard sighting it is engines on and mass crowds begin to hoard the poor lone leopard. Sri Lanka is a very affordable and accessible country to travel through, and entrance into Yala National Park is just $15. When compared to some expensive parts in Africa, it’s no wonder Yala is suffering from over tourism.

I wish I could tell you the name of the company we went with so you could avoid them, but unfortunately, we did not handle the booking on this particular trip. If you want a good experience in Yala National Park be sure to do your research, look at reviews, and choose an ethical tour company. If you go with the cheapest and easiest option I can almost guarantee a mediocre and poor experience.

Instead: If you truly want an out of this world wildlife experience save up for an African safari. There is truly nothing that compares to seeing leopards roam freely across the savannah. See our full African safari guide here.  If your heart is set on a safari in Yala National Park Jetwing Hotels are a reputable company to start with.

Don’t Participate in Dolphin Shows or Swim with Dolphins

Unethical Animal Encounters

Dolphin shows are becoming more phased out, thanks to the slow demise of SeaWorld and the documentary, Blackfish. However, if you stumble upon a live dolphin show where dolphins are asked to do tricks and flips keep in mind how the dolphin end up there. Dolphins living in captivity are often captured in the wild at a young age by poachers who snatched them out of their pods. Typically dolphin pods are captured by nets, and the young and females are picked out as they are more trainable.

This not only disrupts their natural breeding cycle, but it also causes great stress on a dolphin and the mother sometimes leading to death. From there they will spend their lives living in small tanks. And no matter how large the tanks are they are never as big as the ocean where the dolphins were built to swim for endless miles. Cetaceans in captivity can develop severe health problems, including psychosis, from swimming in small enclosures and having to perform the same motions for the entertainment of humans day after day.

The same exact thing goes for swimming with dolphins. I’m not talking about scuba diving or freediving among free dolphins, but rather the guarantee of being photographed with a dolphin, pulled through the water by a dolphin dorsal tow, kissing a dolphin, or any activity where the dolphin is clearly trained.

Instead: Dolphins are highly intelligent and social animals, and I definitely understand the want to see them, but in the wild or at reputable aquariums with the intention to release only. If you want to delve deeper into marine life and have the chance to naturally swim with dolphins consider getting dive certified or freediving.

We also had a fantastic and natural dolphin sighting in the Maldives, where boats will take you out at sunset to watch spinner dolphins dance around in the water. 

Don’t Walk With Lions in Africa

When we were invited to walk with rare white lions outside of Kruger National Park in South Africa we were skeptical. Not only was I terrified of being that person who wore the wrong color shirt and triggered a lion to attack, but I was unsure of the ethics of it. Nevertheless, we were convinced by local conservationist that the lions were rescued after their mother died and they were saved from being a trophy.

They were now acting as ambassadors to educate people on lion conservation. Seemed very convenient, and it could be true at this particular small operation, but I still would never recommend walking with lions in Africa to anyone, and won’t be doing it again.

We personally walked with adult female white lions, but many operations use cubs for their walking and may even charge more if you want to pet or hold the cubs. It may seem cute, but as soon as these cubs become too old to be around all the humans they are then sent off to later be killed as a prized trophy. Many times these cubs are essentially stolen from their mothers at a young age so that they can live under human control and be prepped for tourists.

LionAid suggests that Africa’s lion population has dwindled from 200,000 to 15,000 just in the last 50 years. With over 40% of those lions living in Tanzania, other countries are on the brink of losing their lions. Unethical lion breeding, taking the cubs, and forcing older lions into cages to be used for canned hunting is affecting their gene pool and hierarchy, ultimately helping to lead to their extinction.

Instead: Head out on an African safari in search of the Big Five. Once you find your lion in the wild you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishments. Seeing a lion kill is a highly coveted sighting as well. If you want to get up close to lions ethically get to Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center near Hoedspruit. Moholoholo takes in injured, poisoned, or abandoned animals that cannot be returned back into the wild. As a result, they have many Kruger National Park permanently residing there and are used as champions of their species.  I also loved that they encourage local people to not harm problem animals and will instead take them and relocate them to places where they are welcome.

General Animal Tourism Tips to Live By

  • Always do your research and read reviews before booking with any company offering a wildlife experience.
  • If something seems unnatural, it is. Animals should be either eating, drinking, playing, sleeping, or mating. Anything other than that is a red flag.
  • Ignore “100% Guarantees,” as nothing wild can ever be a guarantee and any conservationist or ethical provider will tell you this. If something is guaranteed then it is likely a staged event with captive animals.
  • Consider a trip based around a wildlife conservation holiday. Biosphere Expeditions offers trips like these around the world.
  • It’s estimated that 110 million people visit cruel animal attractions a year. If your goal is a selfie, reconsider your goals. Enjoy the wildlife for the experience, not the photo.
  • Animal attractions around the world label themselves as “sanctuaries,” but don’t be duped by the marketing word. Make sure that these are reputable companies practicing sustainable tourism.
  • Responsible zoos and aquariums exist and can still be a great place to see animals for the first time – especially for children. How else are young people supposed to care for and respect animals if they have never been introduced to them? Many zoos around the world fund and facilitate countless initiatives, including breeding and reintroduction programs, and have been linked to saving and protecting critical species. That being said there are still many “bad zoos” around the world where animals are kept in terrible conditions and exists only for profit. Do your research about every zoo you are considering visiting. My personal favorites are the Bronx Zoo and the Australia Zoo.

A few of our favorite operators doing GREAT conservation work are

Want to check out where you can have ethical wildlife experiences?

The World Pursuit seeing gorillas!
About Natasha Alden

Natasha is the co-founder of The World Pursuit. She is an expert in travel, budgeting, and finding unique experiences. She loves to be outside, hiking in the mountains, playing in the snow on her snowboard, and biking. She has been traveling for over 10 years, across 7 continents, experiencing unique cultures, new food, and meeting fantastic people. She strives to make travel planning and traveling easier for all. Her advice about international travel, outdoor sports, and African safari has been featured on Lonely Planet, Business Insider, and Reader’s Digest.

Learn more about Natasha Alden on The World Pursuit About Us Page.

5 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Animal Tourism • 10 Unethical Animal Encounters to Avoid”

  1. This arricle should be digested by everyone, yes we love animals. But we do so much harm to them. We are a violent species on earth and should follow animals ethics , live in caring family groups do no harm unless threatened , protect!, help one another, . To enslave and damage the creatures of the word is barbaric. We should all be re-educated.

  2. A Pteranodon is not a bird…

    Also the problem most of these articles present about elephant riding is the backstory of the elephant rather than the riding itself being physically harkfull to the elephant, so would an ethical elephant ride be possible provided that the elephants were tamed and trained humanely?

  3. This made me sad just reading it but I’m so glad that someone else cares enough! I’ve also realized that even ‘bathing elephant tours’ is incredibly unethical but you see people doing it all the time. In reality we shouldn’t be doing anything that would put an animal in an unnatural situation.

  4. I am very guilty of most of these, in fact, 4 out of 10 of them I have done.
    I visited a Luwak coffee place in Bali, I swam with dolphins in SeaWorld, I visited Tiger Kingdom in Thailand, I rode elephants and took pictures with orangutans in Bali, plus I visited a horrible small zoo and an unethical snake farm in Thailand. I did most of these with the belief that I loved animals as a justification for why I wanted to get up close to them and take pictures. However now I know when you truly love and want justice for an animal, you have to give up your desire to have close encounters with them or try exotic meals.
    I did most of these activities when I was very young, travelling with my family. After learning the terrible things that have happened here and even strengthening my own morality. I have decided to take action against all injustice towards animals and I have a vegan approach to my lifestyle.

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