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News Article

Do wildlife tourists understand animal welfare aspects of attractions?

Tourists don’t always recognise ill effects on animals

Wildlife tourism represents a significant proportion of the global tourism industry, which accounts for 9% of global GDP and now generates over one billion international tourists annually. Most visitors to wildlife areas and attractions like to believe that the wildlife attractions, and the money they are contributing as tourists, are beneficial to animals and conservation. A number of media reports in recent years, however, from the Blackfish documentary about orcas in Seaworld to news stories about such diverse attractions as elephant rides and walking with lions, have raised concerns about the treatment of animals in some parts of the tourism industry. A new study published in PLoS One attempts to quantify possible negative conservation and welfare impacts of wildlife tourism on animals, and the extent to which tourists recognise this potential harm. The research suggests that millions of people who visit wildlife attractions each year don’t seem to realize that places they’re visiting have ill effects on animals. 

Led by conservation biologist Tom Moorhouse, the researchers – funded by World Animal Protection - compared 24 types of wildlife tourist attractions (WTAs) to thousands of evaluations on the travel review website TripAdvisor. They grouped wildlife tourist attractions into five categories: interactions with captive animals (such as elephant treks and encounters with big cats); sanctuaries, whose main purpose is to help and protect wild animals; wildlife farms where tourists observe animals bred for other purposes, such as crocodiles for meat and leather and bears whose gallbladders are “milked” for bile for traditional medicines); street performances; and wild attractions such as gorilla trekking and polar bear sightseeing. 

The researchers rated each type of attraction on animal welfare and conservation. Animal welfare scores were based on factors such as adequate food and water, freedom from pain and injury, ability to behave normally, and level of stress. Conservation scores were based on, for instance, where the animals came from and whether proceeds help preserve the species through habitat protection, anti-poaching efforts, and so on. The attractions were then also assessed for feedback on TripAdvisor, quantifying positive and negative reviews, and searching for reviews which contained comments on animal welfare and conservation aspects of the attraction. 

Of the 24 selected WTA types, only five had positive scores for both the conservation and welfare impacts on the subject taxa and individuals, and all five were sanctuaries (WTAs that source animals from other captive institutions with the aim of improving their welfare and/or conservation status). Of the remaining 19 WTA types, five had positive scores for the subject animals’ conservation status (gorilla trekking, gibbon watching, sea turtle farming, crocodile farms, lion encounters), but four of these had negative welfare scores (gorilla trekking, sea turtle farms, crocodile farms, lion encounters), and the remaining 14 had negative scores for both conservation and welfare. The researchers estimated that between 230,000 and 550,000 animals are being held in attractions that negatively affect their welfare. By comparison, only six types of attraction, involving 1,500 - 13,000 animals, were judged likely to have net positive effects on welfare and conservation. 

But only a minority of WTAs (8%, 15 of the 188 analysed) had tourist dissatisfaction scores exceeding 30%, and only two (both elephant parks) had tourist dissatisfaction scores exceeding 70%. The study suggests that each year, around two to four million tourists financially support attractions that aren’t good for animal welfare or conservation.

“Some of the most concerning types of wildlife attractions...received overwhelmingly positive reviews from tourists,” said Neil D’Cruze, one of the study’s authors and the head of research at World Animal Protection, an animal welfare nonprofit based in London, in a press release. 

For example, only 18 percent of reviews for tiger attractions, which received the lowest possible animal welfare rating, mentioned concerns about the welfare of the animals. The other 82 percent of reviewers rated the tiger attractions as “excellent” or “very good.” 

David Macdonald, Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU)’s Director, said, “How sad it is that tourists, often no doubt lured in as a result of a well-intentioned interest in animals, thereby support attractions that not only keep wild animals in bad conditions, but also damage their conservation”. He added, “That double whammy could be rectified by tougher regulation, better enforcement and by following our rule of thumb: avoid any wildlife attraction that scores under 80% on TripAdvisor.” 

TripAdvisor currently has a program called GreenLeaders, in which eco-friendly hotels that meet certain sustainability standards get an icon of a green leaf on their review page. The researchers of this study would like to see TripAdvisor do something similar with wildlife tourist attractions. 

“There is a great opportunity for TripAdvisor to improve its service to the visiting public by including in its evaluations a score for animal welfare and conservation,” D’Cruze said. 


Moorhouse, T.P.; Dahlsjo, C.A.L.; Baker, S.A.; D’Cruze, N.C.; MacDonald, D.W. The Customer Isn't Always Right—Conservation and Animal Welfare Implications of the Increasing Demand for Wildlife Tourism. PLoS One, published 21 October 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0138939

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • David Simpson
  • Date
  • 29 October 2015
  • Source
  • World Animal Protection
  • Subject(s)
  • Tourism