So, student loans are in and you might be thinking about booking your next holiday. Or maybe you have already booked your flights? Whether it’ll be 3 months backpacking in south east Asia or a two-week holiday in Spain, it is likely you will be faced with the opportunity to interact with wild animals. Perhaps you have seen elephant rides on Instagram and are fantasizing about getting up close to wild animals…But think twice before pursuing these ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences and consider the negative impact that these activities can have on the wildlife, as well as the risk they pose to your safety.


It is estimated that around 110 million people visit wild animal tourist attractions annually, often unaware of the cruel and harmful practices involved. In 2016 over one million visitors from the U.K visited Thailand according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), although a beautiful and diverse destination, it is renowned for their cruel animal attractions. Elephant riding, bear shows and tiger sanctuaries being some of the worst for animal welfare.


Elephant riding is often not the glamorous, mystical and charming venture that it is perceived to be. Elephants are wild animals and they are not domesticated like horses. Any elephant used in the industry has undergone the cruel process of ‘the crush’ as a baby in which they are beaten and starved into submission. Once elephants have been scared into submission and are used for entertainment they will still be in extreme pain. Elephants that give rides will be in physical agony as their backs are not suitable to be sat on, weight is better distributed on the neck. Furthermore, they are controlled by bull hooks and often they are given amphetamines to quash their appetite, so they can work for longer. Aside from the extreme harm to the elephants, interacting with elephants can be extremely dangerous, a British national and other tourists have been killed and seriously injured when handlers have lost control of their elephants.


Other dangerous and cruel attractions include ‘tiger temples’, consuming civet coffee, swimming with dolphins, visiting crocodile farms, watching bear shows, or even simply taking pictures with a koala. These animals don’t perform tricks or comply with human interaction because they want to, it is a result of abuse. Yet despite the cruelty of these attractions,  80% of people that visited rated them positively on Trip Advisor, highlighting the ignorance surrounding wild animal tourism. Therefore, as a student in a position of privilege to travel and with an ability to influence, it is important that you support ethical animal wildlife attractions and encourage other people to do so using your social media platforms to raise awareness. If you wish to do more, volunteering in conservation projects or fundraising both can be rewarding experiences with effective outcomes.


Yet unfortunately as long as the demand for these attractions exist so will the cruelty. Change within all elements of the consumer process will be the only way for things to improve. Tourists, including students must be conscious of their impact, travel companies should support ethical enterprises and governments should advocate and enforce responsible travel. In making informed choices you can help change the wild animal tourist industry to one of conservation and not of exploitation. Use that student loan for good.


Remember to …


  • Do your research- It will probably take a bit longer but charities and trusts such as the Wildlife Conservation Trust or World Animal Protection can be a great place to look for reliable info about where to go and where to avoid.
  • Ask Questions –If you are unsure about a certain company ask people who have been before, or email them directly.
  • Think about the impact of the food you eat, is it endangered? Is it harming the local environment?
  • Respect the cultural differences of the countries you visit, they may have very different customs and ideas to you, but be understanding of this. Visit the Foreign Commonwealth Office advice pages for more information.
  • Be conscience of gifts that you buy, such as animal souvenirs which can be extremely damaging to the environment. Also in some countries like India there is a strong legal framework for participating in the illegal wildlife trade

Download this guide written by the World Animal Protection charity that advises on ethical wild animal tourism.


Text by Eve Willis

Picture research by Donna Darafshian; featured image from Daily Beast.