Thanks to the wonderful work of Mother Nature, we are fortunate enough to have a world of incredibly diverse wildlife to explore. If you’re an animal lover, as well as a travel-fan, combining your two passions can take you to some incredible places to indulge your affinity with the local inhabitants, be they furry, feathered or finned. But how can you be sure that your money and participation is contributing to positive animal welfare activities?
Animal tourism has long been a source of concern - and rightly so. However, fortunately now for the majority, awareness of wildlife welfare and education among tour operators and attraction operators means that it’s easier to get close to nature on your travels, and in a more ethical way, so you can be assured that your impact is a positive one for generations of animal lovers to come.
When deciding on your itinerary, look for venues and tours carrying animal welfare organisation logos. Those who operate with welfare and education at their core will be proud of their accreditation so you should be able to find this information readily available on their site. Don’t be afraid to ask tour companies what the welfare standards are like and how the tours or activities are conducted. If the venues are genuine, they will be all too happy to share information with you. Be confident enough to walk away if you don’t get a good feeling when you arrive at a venue. If you go ahead, against your better judgment and visit anyway, you are perpetuating the demand that will keep the attraction open and in operation.
Read reviews before you book. Photographs and comments from those who have recently been should give you a fair perspective on whether to visit. Thankfully, an understanding of the importance of animal welfare and conservation means that there is no shortage of attractions to visit in most places around the world. Getting up close with creatures from far-flung lands is a privilege - and even more so when you can see them in their natural environment.
With World Wildlife Day taking place on Tuesday, 3 March, to celebrate and raise awareness of the world's wild fauna and flora, we’ve chosen some of our favourite ethical animal encounters to help your inner Doctor Doolittle decide on your next holiday.
Look for the bear necessities in North America
Finding a tour which lets you get close enough to safely observe wild bears and wolves without being intrusive is no easy feat, with just a select handful of operators and National Park visitor centres being in a position to offer these experiences. The reason why tours of this nature are so scarce is to ensure wild bears and wolves do not become acclimatised to human presence, in order to safeguard them in the wild.
Therefore, if you do manage to clinch a place on such a tour, you could find yourself waiting in hides and tracking trails from afar, with no guarantee of seeing the coveted four-legged prizes. However, if you are lucky, you may be privileged enough to be able to participate in the humbling experience of watching these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
Tours are mainly led by experts from National Park visitor centres, or some parks offer self-guided information once you have completed a responsible bear-viewing technique orientation.
One such park offering the latter is Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary: the first park in Canada created to safeguard these majestic bears and their natural habitat. Sharing the huge area of biodiversity with fellow native wildlife, the ecosystem includes coastline and a large river estuary with sources of food for the park's grizzlies to forage for. The park can be found in Skeena-Queen Charlotte, British Columbia, occupying the territory of the Coast Tsimshian First Nation people, who provide education to visitors about their relationship with the area. So you could learn more than just about the bears in a visit to this historical, eco-diverse area.
For a more guaranteed encounter with bears and wolves, you could visit a rehabilitation centre or sanctuary. There are several across the United States and Canada, including Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary in Cochrane, Alberta, just outside Calgary. The sanctuary offers tours focusing on education and conservation, with the chance to see some of their current inhabitants.
However, there are many more rehabilitation organisations which don’t allow visitors due to the importance of retaining wild behaviours and minimal human interaction. Some do open their doors for guided tours on special event days throughout the year; it’s best to search online or email the local tourist office or National Park visitor centres before you travel.
Marine-life magic in Tenerife
We’re lucky to have so many affiliated resorts in Tenerife for RCI members - which happens to be one of Europe’s top spots for whale and dolphin watching. The Canary Islands offer the right environment for whales and dolphins to live in all year round, or as a stop over during their migration, with around a third of known species logged in the area over the past 30 years.
Many operators take daily boat trips from Playa de las Americas and Los Cristianos, but the best places are in the south west of the island: Depart from Costa Adeje’s Puerto Colón or Los Gigantes for the ultimate sea safari. You may be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Bottlenose dolphins, Pilot whales, Minke or Sperm whales in the island's surrounding waters - or if you’re extra-lucky, Orcas have been regularly spotted at certain times of year.
Some boat trips are more ethical than others in terms of their conduct and operation. Whalewise Eco Tours use vessels with propeller guards for marine animal safety and electric engines which make them quieter and generate less pollution - and are therefore able to get closer to the action. Trips include one-, two- and three-hour tours, with a sunset and wine option so you can whale-watch in style and toast your experience.
Waterworld wildlife at Montego Bay
Cool off in Jamaica and take to the sea for a diving or snorkelling experience rich in marine diversity. With more than 600 miles of coastline, the island offers a varied underwater environment to explore for those of you willing to pull on a wet suit and SCUBA pack, or simply rent a snorkel. With an abundance of coral and clear waters, even snorkelling close to the shore should give you a taste of what lies beneath the surface of Montego Bay.
Doctor’s Cave Beach can be found within the bay and is tipped as a great snorkelling spot for first timers and families due to its calm waters. Conservation of the area is managed closely by the Montego Bay Marine Park Trust to restore and maintain the coral reef, while raising awareness of its importance. You will also find boat trips which sail further out to sea for the more experienced divers.
While you may be tempted to take bread from your hotel to feed the fish you might encounter when snorkelling in the bay, it’s worth thinking about whether you really want to do so. Feeding bread to fish disrupts the marine ecosystem and encourages them to become less wary of humans. Surely it’s better to witness uninterrupted nature from a distance as a privileged observer, safe in the knowledge that you’re contributing to the health of the ecosystem and all who swim in it!
Warm up with huskies in Finland!
A trip to snowy Lapland is simply not complete without an adrenaline-fuelled ride behind a team of willing huskies. You’ll be surprised at their power as they pull you along by sledge, cracking the squeaky snow underneath the sledge runners. Some kennels will offer tours and let you take part in hitching up the dogs so you can learn more about this centuries-old partnership between humans and canines.
Although there is no formal accreditation for working sleddog farms at present, most Scandinavian kennels must be visited annually by vets to ensure minimum welfare standards are being met. However, to be sure that you book with a company operating at the higher end of the welfare scale, do some online homework before you book. Those with awards for welfare will show this prominently on their website and will be pleased to give information about how their dogs are looked after. Taking the time to do this before you book should ensure an amazing experience with healthy, happy dogs when you arrive.
You will find sleddog kennels offering anything from an hour's ride to a full-day experience, or even a sunset trail to enjoy a traditional Finnish meal, before heading back in darkness. You may even be lucky enough to catch the Northern Lights on your night-time ride back!
Zoos of the future
Most ethical animal encounters focus on seeing the wildlife in its natural environment. However, there are several zoos which have committed to a superior level of animal welfare, making it possible for visitors to see a variety of mammals and more which wouldn’t usually be found geographically close to each other. Stringent guidelines and accreditation of zoological parks means that many partner with educational and conservation initiatives, as well as being committed to providing their residents with enclosures which have all the elements of their natural habitats.
For anyone travelling ‘down under’ to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a day trip to Australia Zoo is a must. The centre is the legacy of wildlife conservationist, Steve Irwin, and his family still play an integral role in the daily operation of the zoo and its related conservation projects. Australia Zoo lets you get safely close to the resident crocodiles and alligators, including in its famous daily Wildlife Warriors show which takes place in the ‘Crocoseum'. You’ll also find countless animals native to Australia and beyond, as well as several educational talks throughout the day, which are all included in your entry ticket.
As someone who is sceptical about animals in captivity, I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged following my visit to Australia Zoo two years ago, after not being sure if I was doing the right thing by visiting. The staff’s commitment to education and animal welfare was apparent, and by visiting, you’re helping to fund these activities worldwide.
I was even lucky enough to find a staff member familiarising a young orphaned koala bear to the outside world in a less busy part of the site. They were happy to chat briefly with me about the koala, how he had found his way there and what the future plans were for him.
San Diego Zoo has won many accolades as one of the world's most thoughtful zoos, with a commitment to welfare, especially for its empathetic enclosures. The zoo was one of the pioneers of open-air, cage-less environments and now houses more than 3,500 animals in recreations of their natural habitat. You can step aboard the ‘Skyfari’ cable car to observe the enclosures from above, plus there are many additional experiences you can add to your day to learn more and get close to the zoo's residents.
If you’re lucky enough to travel to Singapore, you should make a trip to Singapore Zoo’s Night Safari one of your priorities. By day, Singapore Zoo tops the world’s ethical zoo rankings with no cages - instead using moats and glass to separate residents from visitors. The site occupies a stunning natural rainforest location on the banks of the Upper Seletar Reservoir in the north of the island and you may even encounter wild monkeys wandering around inside the zoo, alongside the legitimate inhabitants!
You can choose to visit one, or all three, separate parks: Singapore Zoo, the River Safari or the incredible Night Safari, which is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.
The Night Safari is a truly special experience, which allows you to walk through and past enclosures housing nocturnal animals. With many animals more active at dusk, make sure you arrive as soon as the park opens to see the most activity. The icing on the zoological cake here is the 40-minute guided educational tram ride, which takes you right through the enclosures and truly up close to nocturnal animals. I was lucky enough to be just inches from two friendly tapirs on my visit, with nothing but the tram barrier separating us. The bat cave is also an incredible experience, as you walk through in almost darkness, with dozens of fruit bats coming to life as the sun goes down, flying around your head!
As the Night Safari is so popular with visitors and locals alike, the best way to visit is by booking a tour which includes travel pick up from your hotel. The zoo is not easily reached by public transport, plus tours skip the long queues both at the entrance and to board the tram.
Don’t leave your pets at home!
Finally, if one of your family members has a wagging tail and wet nose, why not include them in your holiday plans? Most dogs absolutely love going away on an adventure with their humans and adapt to the change in surroundings surprisingly well. Taking your dog on holiday is increasingly easier than you may think, plus it means you save on kennel fees and the worry of whether they’re coping whilst you’re away.
Some of our UK resorts are happy to accommodate dogs and other pets, and it’s even possible to take your pet by car to some European countries thanks to animal passports. Many of our pet-friendly affiliated resorts are located in areas perfect for you and your pooch to share some quality time together, so don’t forget to include them in your holiday plans.
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