It was the moment I’d dreamed about since booking a puma-tracking safari in Patagonia: Two playful cubs and their mother, mere specks on the hill, inching toward us. If we were lucky, they would soon be in plain sight.
I grabbed my binoculars, eager to watch their movements from afar—a good 400 feet away—but my heart dropped at the scene unfolding. Camera-toting tourists weren’t even disguising their attempts to walk closer to the animals; the mother puma, now on high alert with ears perked, was visibly upset. My guide, local puma tracker and photographer Miguel Fuentealba, shook his head in disgust. “That—that’s not good,” he said, noting that such behavior, sadly, is condoned by outfitters in the private land outside Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. He mentors young guides, however, in the hope that one day ethical puma tracking becomes the norm.
The experience as a whole was gut-wrenching. Sure, I wasn’t on that irresponsible wildlife tour, but watching those travelers approach the animals without qualms, perhaps not realizing they were in the wrong, reminded me just how critical it is to research an experience like this before booking.
Finding an ethical wildlife-travel experience requires research, analysis, and a B.S. meter for greenwashing jargon, not to mention a solid understanding of the dos and don’ts of animal encounters in the wild. Here’s advice from conservation and wildlife-travel experts on how to find responsible wildlife-tour outfitters, plus common red flags that signal companies to avoid.
Research Companies Thoroughly
Before reserving any wildlife experience, spend time on various tour-operator websites and their social media. Dig beyond the “eco-friendly” marketing messaging. Are they protecting the animals they take travelers to see?
“Do they have a sustainability or conservation section [on their site]? What do they do across the spectrum—do they have sustainability behaviors, like giving back to the community?” says Jim Sano, vice president of travel, tourism, and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “If you see those things, it’s a good indication they made a commitment and more likely than not follow the rules of the protected area.”
Ask the Right Questions
Not all tour operators can have a fleshed-out website and multimillion-dollar wildlife-conservation campaign—especially local outfitters, like the one I traveled with. That doesn’t mean they don’t take conservation seriously. Plus, exploring with a local or native guide is one of the best ways to help the community you’re visiting. So how do you determine which run ethical wildlife tours?
“When selecting an operator, ask questions about [the tourism] approach, the species, the location, and the process,” says Jack Fishman, community and conservation officer for the Professional Association of Dive Instructors’ PADI Aware Foundation. If you can’t find this information on the guide’s website or social media, get in touch via email or phone to inquire before booking. Also, take some time to browse the review sites; are there reports of poor behavior in the one- or two-star reviews? David MacDonald, director of the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, recommends avoiding any wildlife activity with an outfitter whose TripAdvisor score dips below 80 percent.
Another hint that a tour operator may not be responsible? A 100 percent guarantee of wildlife sightings. That assurance could result from an outfitter feeding the animals, a practice known as provisioning, which conservation biologists say is “dangerous to the health and safety of wild animals,” according to The New York Times.
Beyond seeking out red flags, you can also proactively find a responsible tour operator by referencing regional conservation associations to see their suggestions. (For example, the Galapagos Conservation Trust lists its recommended tourism partners; many financially support the trust, a sign that they walk the walk and give back to conservation research.)
Be Sanctuary Savvy
Sanctuaries are one of the biggest marketing scams in the world of wildlife tourism. Yes, some legitimately try to help at-risk animals, but perhaps an even greater portion of them falsely use the label to sound ethical and appeal to travelers. Those photos of travelers feeding adorable lion cubs or taking selfies with sloths are a major red flag.
According to PETA, reputable animal sanctuaries don’t allow hands-on interactions with wildlife. That includes the common practice of bathing with elephants. This experience is marketed as more responsible than riding an elephant (which you should never do), but sadly, the training to get them ready for safe bathing with humans is equally as traumatizing.
“Tourists need to know the truth—any elephant that you can get close enough to touch is an elephant that’s been subjected to horrific abuse for this use,” Audrey Mealia, global head of wildlife at World Animal Protection, said in a company blog post.
For guidance when choosing whether or not to visit one, use the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries’ Find a Sanctuary map. The federation examines and accredits responsible organizations around the world, giving you peace of mind that a specific facility puts their animals first.
Admire from Afar
When you embark on a wildlife experience, you’re entering an animal’s home. It’s critical to be a passive bystander, Fishman says. Watch the magical kingdom unfold, but don’t put yourself in the center of it—even when a creature approaches you.
“Yes, the animal may touch you, but that isn’t always a sign that the animal is looking for a physical-touch response,” he says. “Our touch can be destructive to marine species, from introducing bacteria to destroying protective layers of skin. And our touch can be extremely stressful.”
Such up-close encounters are more frequent underwater—that’s why PADI dive instructors share responsible guidelines before each outing—but, as I found on my Patagonia puma-tracking tour, some land-based operators are known to get too close as well. Important responsible-wildlife-tourism ground rules from the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association include: don’t disturb animals with noises, flashing lights, or by getting too close to get a rise out of them; stay on approved roadways; and don’t get closer than roughly 65 feet. (Similar to Fuentealba’s approach in Patagonia, it’s important to let the wild animals roam. If they come toward you, great. If not, watch with binoculars.)
When in doubt, be a fly on the wall—and if you end up on a tour where the guide doesn’t follow these rules, speak up. Your guide, or the tour-company owner, may have an explanation for the behavior that you’re unaware of. If the response still doesn’t sound right, get in touch with a wildlife-conservation organization for a gut check. If it turns out the actions are detrimental to the animals, Sano says the best way to report them is to write reviews on sites like TripAdvisor; this will help future travelers redirect their funds to more responsible outfitters.
Remember: Wildlife Tourism Can Do Good
Negative actions from some tour operators stain the entire industry, unfortunately. Responsible wildlife tourism can and has done wonders for saving at-risk species by offering locals a better financial incentive than poaching, hunting, and mining. “Shark tourism around the world has made sharks more valuable alive than dead, leading to their protection,” says Fishman.
And Sano points to Namibia, the first African country to adopt environmental protection into its constitution in 1990, as a case study on the positive effects of ethical wildlife tourism. When the government gave Namibians the right to manage their natural resources through communal conservancies, once decimated populations of lions, cheetahs, and black rhinos rebounded—and eco-tourism is now one of the leading income models to support these communities.
Book with Responsible Wildlife-Tour Outfitters
Here are three examples of international outfitters that embody the above criteria. You can find other responsible wildlife-tour leaders, including local and regional guides, via the aforementioned steps or by using the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and B Corp directories.
Abercrombie and Kent: For decades, travel outfitter Abercrombie and Kent has prioritized animal welfare over epic photo ops. In 1982, two decades after launching the company, leader Geoffrey Kent cofounded Friends of Conservation, one of the first community-conservation initiatives on the planet. In the decades to follow, his company helped introduce a wildlife-safe driver-education curriculum and safari code of conduct in Kenya. More recently, the operator has started a handful of innovative preservation programs, including a partnership with Rhino Conservation Botswana to translocate more than 70 rhinos from high poaching regions to the Moremi Game Reserve, where official “rhino monitors” keep an observant eye on them 24/7. Guests are invited to see and learn about this rhino-conservation strategy on several of the company’s Botswana trips.
Intrepid: A certified B Corp, Intrepid was the first global tour outfitter to ban elephant riding in 2014, well before the adverse effects of the practice were widely shared. The company has a robust animal welfare policy, starting with the golden rule: watch them from a distance. On the conservation side, Intrepid also runs reforestation projects, promotes carbon offsetting, and leads efforts like the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund, a program designed to help this Patagonia park preserve its biodiversity as crowds continue to grow.
Natural Habitat Adventures: Backed by the WWF, Natural Habitat Adventures (NatHab) hosts trips from the Arctic to Africa and has long been an innovator when it comes to sustainable travel offerings. In 2019, it debuted the world’s first entirely zero-waste adventure, a Yellowstone excursion focused on composting, recycling, and upcycling in the wild. The company also supports grassroots conservation initiatives within communities it visits. This includes the Great Bear Rainforest Conservation project in British Columbia, where NatHab helped fund and protect terrain critical to grizzly bears, and Hope for Madagascar, a project designed to help locals across the country minimize poverty via education and conservation.