Written by Caroline Higney, ESLLC 2018-2019
Over the past few years, a hot topic has been regarding the idea of “eco-tourism,” defined as the “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of local people.” As someone who loves to travel, I have found myself considering the environmental impacts that go along with tourism and people entering ecosystems they are relatively unknowledgeable about. This has been a topic on my mind after the recent trip I took to the Dominican Republic. It was there I experienced on numerous occasions the exploitation of animals for the chance to make quick cash. While, overall, the trip was amazing and one I will never forget, I still cannot shake the uneasiness of the animal tourist traps. But more specifically, the fact I have seen situations like these so many times before and just turned a blind eye to it.
Digging a little more into the topic, one can find that in tourism, interactions with wildlife make up anywhere from 20-40% of the industry. A study done by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Union revealed that a couple million people give their money to attractions that are harmful to animals and their conservation. The worst of these would be street performances or attractions, followed by captive animal interactions, and wild attractions. Some of those big culprits involve elephant rides, sloth selfies, tiger interactions, and swimming with dolphins. But the list is much longer and ranges more than just these few. Many times, the animals involved are torn from their natural habitats and placed into less-than-exceptional cages or habitats where they will typically experience high levels of stress and become sick from lack of proper care. Eventually this stress and illness can lead to death which in turn leads to another animal being captured and the cycle repeating itself
While I know all of this can be heavy to take in and process (especially if you find yourself remembering a time you took a selfie with a parrot) there is a lot you can do to be proactive in alleviating the negative effects of animal tourism. The first is quite obviously to avoid any animal attractions offered wherever you are visiting. A lot of times though, people do like to immerse themselves in wildlife, so if you do decide on including animals in your travels, make sure a good amount of research is done before participating. It is also best to avoid places that use animals that are endangered or rare, as they are typically taken from the wild and are improperly cared for. The director of Oxford’s wildlife unit, David MacDonald, says, “avoid any wildlife attraction that scores under 80 percent on TripAdvisor.” But even better would be to dig even deeper than that as many tourists tend to take the selfish road in considering how their time was rather than the treatment of the animals while rating an attraction. When in doubt, its best to stay on the safe side and stay away from questionable practices. Eco-tourism is gaining momentum and will hopefully lend itself to preserving wildlife in tourism-dependent countries. So when it comes time to jet set off to your next adventure, just remember to be a mindful tourist and respect the local animals.