In 2015, a 43-year-old woman from Mississippi was the fifth person that year to be injured by a bison in Yellowstone National Park after attempting to get a selfie with the animal, only to be literally flung by the animal. Two years later and thousands of miles away, a baby dolphin died off the coast of Spain after tourists picked it out of the water to take photographs of and with it. In 2022, a walrus, nicknamed Freya, had to be euthanized after becoming habituated to people when tourists repeatedly ignored warnings to keep their distance. These stories, and many others like them, share the darker and often deadly side of wildlife tourism.

Simply put, wildlife tourism is the interaction with and watching of wild animals, usually in their natural habitats or simulated areas. It can involve travel to new countries and areas but can also be done near one’s home as well. This type of tourism can include activities like going on a safari or guided tour, bird watching, photography tours, visiting zoos or wildlife parks, and going to areas where you can feed or ride wild animals. Overall, tourism is an industry worth billions of dollars with millions of jobs and businesses directly tied to the sector.

Wildlife tourism can be a lot of fun. It can include some incredibly unique experiences, like riding an elephant, getting a selfie with a lion, tickling a slow loris, or holding a koala. While these experiences are often remarkable for humans, they can be incredibly stressful and dangerous for the animals involved. Even places that seem to be kind and ethical in their treatment of animals can have a dark side and perpetuate animal abuse. In an article for National Geographic on the dark truth behind wildlife tourism, Natasha Daly writes that in order to have unique hands-on experiences with animals, a certain level of abuse has to happen behind the scenes:

Most tourists who enjoy these encounters don’t know that the adult tigers may be declawed, drugged, or both. Or that there are always cubs for tourists to snuggle with because the cats are speed bred and the cubs are taken from their mothers just days after birth. Or that the elephants give rides and perform tricks without harming people only because they’ve been “broken” as babies and taught to fear the bullhook. Or that the Amazonian sloths taken illegally from the jungle often die within weeks of being put in captivity.

Social Media’s Role

With the rise of social media platforms and accessibility to technology like smartphones and high-quality cameras, it’s easy to see how we got here. Anna Lembke, an MD, psychiatry professor, and Chief of the Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford, spoke with Teen Vogue in late 2021 about social media’s hold on our mental health, saying that the platforms can mimic real-life connections and prompt dopamine releases when we get likes or comments. The more we post and get feedback (like views or likes), the more dopamine is released in our brains; similarly, the more we scroll, the more we can compare ourselves to others.

That sort of dopamine rush and comparison we get from social media can result in people doing more and more things that could put them, other people, or animals in harm’s way. Because of that mental boost that we can get from social media posts that do well and the inherent cuteness of some wild animals, it isn’t hard to see how wildlife selfies got to be so popular. 

While selfies are fun and it can be exciting to get a selfie with wild animals, selfies are starting to affect the health and well-being of wild animals, causing issues like increased and prolonged stress, interrupted feeding and breeding habits, and lower birth rates. The 2017 International Penguin Conference in New Zealand even included conversations about experts’ concerns with wildlife selfies. And with the continuously growing threat of climate change affecting wildlife populations, the added stress of human interaction can literally be life or death for animals.

Direct Interaction and Habituation

Most wild animals tend to naturally avoid direct human interaction, which is why working with wild animals in areas like wildlife rehabilitation, zoology, veterinary medicine, or even wildlife photography typically involves a lot of training, space, specialized equipment, and/or experience to make sure that the people and animals involved are safe and experience the least amount of stress possible. Wildlife rehabilitators are typically licensed and permitted to work with wildlife and use equipment like ghillie suits, heavy gloves, catch poles, and guillotine pens for safety. 

Responsible Wildlife Tourism

As mentioned, there are some companies that cash in on wildlife tourism but rely on exploitative practices that ultimately harm the animals. However, there are ways to ethically participate in wildlife tourism but to do so requires a lot more work on your part. First and foremost, support organizations and companies that uplift local communities and rely on safe, sustainable practices. These practices include not allowing direct human interaction, animals not performing tricks, the companies being accredited by appropriate places (like the AZA), researching the experiences/companies (beyond just a quick Google search), and better understanding how to safely interact with wild animals.

There are many communities around the world that depend on many different types of tourism to survive and there are ways to have a wonderful travel experience and sustainably support these communities without exploiting animals or people. But this type of travel will take work in order to happen. The good news is that organizations like National Geographic and the World Bank do have plenty of tips to help those looking into ethical and sustainable wildlife tourism. 

Ultimately, there are still ways to have unique and fun experiences without further exploiting animals or other people!