Photograph by Tuul & Bruno Morandi, Corbis
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A new study says that elephant rides, such as this one in Sri Lanka, and other wildlife tourist attractions, are not good for animals’ welfare.

Photograph by Tuul & Bruno Morandi, Corbis

Visitors Can’t Tell If a Tourist Attraction Is Bad for Animals

A new study ranks wildlife tourist attractions around the world based on how they treat their animals and whether they help save species.

In the first major study of wildlife tourism around the world, researchers at the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit—the same group that had been studying Cecil the Lion before he was shot in July—found that the millions of people who visit wildlife attractions each year don’t seem to realize that places they’re visiting have ill effects on animals.

Wildlife attractions account for between 20 and 40 percent of all tourism worldwide, with 3.6 to six million people visiting these sites annually. The study found that every year two to four million tourists financially support attractions that aren’t good for animal welfare or conservation. And it found that 80 percent of reviewers didn’t recognize that certain wildlife attractions weren’t good for the animals.

Led by conservation biologist Tom Moorhouse, the researchers compared 24 types of wildlife tourist attractions to thousands of evaluations on TripAdvisor, a travel review and ratings website.

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.

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Wildlife sanctuaries are among the few wildlife tourist attractions that receive good marks on animal welfare. At the Buddhist Tiger Temple in Thailand, however, advocates have raised questions about the cats’ well-being, and it is under investigation by local authorities.

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.

Not surprisingly, animal sanctuaries received positive scores for both animal welfare and conservation. Street performances—dancing macaques and snake charming, for example—received negative scores on both.

Swim-with-the-dolphin interactions, elephant rides, shark cage diving, and crocodile, sea turtle, and bear bile farms get the highest number of visitors each year (more than 500,000 visitors), and they all have negative impacts on animal welfare.

On the other hand, bear sanctuaries also receive a high number of tourists each year, and they rate well both in terms of welfare and 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.”

“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 damage their conservation,” said David Macdonald, the director of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. “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 percent 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.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to