Tourists often encounter wild animals in a variety of unnatural settings, so seeing animals in their natural habitat seems like a great alternative. Visitors can see animals interacting with each other as part of their ecosystem. Their behaviours are natural and by being responsible and respectful, your presence should have minimal negative impact. Plus, by visiting national parks and reserves your money can influence conservation efforts.

However, it’s important to tread carefully and remember that you’re entering the animal’s habitat and that your presence can disrupt an animal’s normal behaviour. If poorly managed, viewing in the wild can be just as harmful to the animals and their environments as the impact of captive animals.

Lion safari

Why it’s a concern

Chasing wildlife, following the animals too closely, or crowding the animals with too many people can cause distress and can disrupt their normal behaviour. Family groups are easily separated, leaving younger animals vulnerable to predators.

Loud or unnatural noise — shouting and laughing, or the sound of engines — is also disruptive. Exhaust, litter and other forms of pollution can kill wildlife, and vehicles driving off-road can damage habitats and nests. This is why many conservation groups are putting time limits on how long tourists can spend with the animals. For example, treks to see mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda specify that visitors will only spend an hour with habituated gorillas.

Some operators attract wildlife with food which disrupts their normal foraging and hunting. This can be controversial — orangutan rehabilitation centres in Borneo often place feeding stations in the jungle to attract the primates for visitors.

Direct contact with wildlife is potentially life-threatening and risks transmitting dangerous diseases between humans and animals. You should never visit wildlife when sick.

What you should know

Wildlife viewing has become a hugely popular holiday activity. It can either be the sole focus of a trip, or be a shorter excursion or day out. Travellers love to see fascinating, colourful and charismatic animals in the wild.

The variety of opportunities on offer is astounding, from the exotic and thrilling: diving with whale sharks in Australia, trekking to see orangutans in Borneo, spotting tigers on safari in India, or observing the wildebeest migration in Kenya and Tanzania, to specialist trips such as birdwatching holidays, whale watching or citizen-science expeditions in support of research.

If managed well, these trips can provide important support for wildlife conservation and protection. As the popularity of wildlife viewing holidays grow, it’s essential that visitors check before they buy and make sure their chosen operator follows best conservation guidelines.

Tourists observing a female leopard South Africa

Tourists observing a female leopard on safari in South Africa

Book responsibly

Always book your trip with a responsible tour operator, or through a responsible travel agency. Remember that travel agencies often sell trips on behalf of another provider. Try to find out who the actual supplier is and ask about their approach to animal welfare and conservation.

Avoid operators that endorse an irresponsible attitude to animal welfare. Some obvious warning signs: Do their marketing materials show tourists getting too close to – or holding – animals? Do they offer activities like trips to sea-life centres or animal performance shows? Does the cost of their tour seem too good to be true? All these can be signs that the operator doesn’t have the welfare of animals as a priority.

Keep a safe distance

Getting too close to wildlife, approaching animals head-on or pursuing and encircling them can cause distress. Try to approach wildlife at an angle, which is less threatening than coming at them head-on and make your movements steady and predictable.

How far you should stay away from an animal depends on the species, but in general your presence shouldn’t alarm the animals, cause them to flee, or change their normal behaviour. If the animals seem disturbed, you should move away immediately.

Noise, such as the sound of engines, and laughter or shouting, should be kept to a minimum. Engines should be switched off when stationary and vehicle horns or fog horns on boats should never be used.

Bright lights and flash photography will startle an animal, costing it a meal or even its life. Imagine being a zebra, unaware of a pride of lions nearby, and then being blinded by a white flashlight. Where night drives are legally permissible, the use of naked searchlights should be replaced with red filtered lamps. Many animals are partially colour-blind, so red light has a lower impact on their vision.

Philippines Whale shark snorkelling landscape

Leave only footprints

Litter, including plastic bags, batteries and cigarette butts, can be ingested by wildlife, causing injury or even death. Make sure you don’t drop anything and dispose of your rubbish properly.

Avoid causing unnecessary damage to the environment. For example, scuba divers should never touch corals, which are easily broken and killed, and should avoid smothering marine life with clouds of sand or silt.

Don’t interfere

Absolutely no direct contact should be made between wild animals and people, including by guides. This can be highly stressful for the animals and runs the risk of transmitting diseases, and can, potentially, cause injury or even death. If you are observing wildlife from a vehicle, never get out of the car unless instructed to do so by your guide – for both your safety and the animals.

The skin of certain marine and reptile species is sensitive and easily damaged by human contact. Poisonous chemicals such as mosquito repellent can cause serious harm.

All animals have very specific diets and feeding them different foods could make them ill. Feeding wildlife can also change their social and feeding behaviour, encouraging begging, causing conflict between other animals, and increasing the likelihood of aggression towards humans.

Chumming or luring sharks with fish and blood has been shown to cause significant changes in shark behaviour, causing them to spend more time closer to the surface and increasing the likelihood of shark attacks on people. Shark cage diving is controversial, even when responsibly operated, and those who use chumming techniques should be avoided as well as those operators who advertise their trips as an “adrenaline-rush adventure” rather than an ecotourism experience.

Luring wildlife by playing tapes of animal noises and mating calls can displace them from their natural territories or cause aggression between animals.

If travelling in a group, don’t be shy. If you see or experience unacceptable human behaviour that has a negative impact on wild animals, be sure to speak out. If you cannot prevent the behaviour at the time by voicing your concerns, contact your tour operator and register your disapproval.

Conversely, if you have a great experience, thank and reward your guide appropriately and let your tour company or agent know that you appreciate their conscientious approach.

Manage expectations

Part of the joy of seeing animals in the wild is that you’re visiting them in their own environments and witnessing their natural behaviour. Inevitably, there will be times when the animals are less active or visible, depending on the location, the season, or even just the time of day.

Do your research before you travel and find out the best time of year to view the wildlife you wish to see. If the animals aren’t active when you visit, don’t be disappointed: this is not a zoo. It’s all a part of a respectful approach to the natural world that you’re visiting. It’s important that tourists don’t pressure their tour guides into manipulating the situation to make viewing the animals easier, or to set up that once in a lifetime photo opportunity.

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