Intrepid Travel Is Rethinking Responsible Animal Encounters

One of the largest tour operators has eliminated several tours that failed to meet wildlife protection standards and replaced them with new tours.

Humpback whale mother and baby swimming

Humpback whales are among the animals travelers can see in Comoros.

Photo by Shutterstock

The Comoros Islands off the eastern coast of Africa are arguably best known for their UNESCO biosphere reserve, Mwali, one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. Visitors there can find rich coastal and marine environments, with animals ranging from lemurs and Livingston flying foxes to sea turtles and humpback whales.

It’s also where Intrepid Travel, a tour operator with trips in more than 120 countries and all seven continents, will be taking guests for the first time in August 2023. The nine-day Comoros Wildlife Expedition is one of 16 new wildlife-focused itineraries the brand is launching this year, including a nine-day trip to Rwanda and Uganda for a gorilla naming ceremony and an 11-day adventure to Borneo to see orangutans and sun bears.

For Matt Berna, Intrepid’s Americas travel president, the trips are exciting for two reasons: They bring travelers to little-traveled destinations, and they represent Intrepid’s mission to give its guests ethical wildlife adventures.

Creating more responsible tours

Recently, Intrepid audited all of the 140-plus wildlife experiences in its portfolio and removed those that didn’t meet the standards of the Animal Welfare Policy (AWP) that the brand created in collaboration with World Animal Protection, an organization that fights cruelty to animals, in 2020.

One of the experiences Intrepid removed included visits to the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, a wildlife habitat in Tasmania, because it offered showtime feedings that did not adhere to the AWP guideline that ensures species are able to live in natural habits with limited impact from human interaction. Also deleted: stops at the Pereyas Private Reserve in Adasibe National Park in Madagascar. Berna said Intrepid decided to end support of the reserve after doing “our own study and finding that the animals weren’t particularly treated well and were there purely for entertainment versus rehabilitation.” Neither reserve has publicly spoken out about the ruling.

This isn’t the first time Intrepid has audited itself and removed animal experiences that didn’t fit the brand ethos.

Berna said that back in the early aughts, the front cover of Intrepid’s brochures often had pictures of people riding elephants in Thailand.

“We started getting feedback that it wasn’t good for the animals,” Berna said. With World Animal Protection, Intrepid commissioned a panel of experts to go through Thailand and look at different sites offering elephant rides and shows. It became apparent that most of the sanctuaries weren’t what they claimed to be, and travelers weren’t benefiting the elephants by visiting them.

“Our management team got together and decided that even though it was our most popular trip, we were going to stop doing it because that is the right thing to do,” Berna said. In 2014, the brand became the first tour operator to ban elephant riding on trips. Today, trips involving elephants are based more on observation, such as seeing the animals on a safari or watching them from a distance in certified rehabilitation centers.

Helping to build awareness

Now, Berna said, Intrepid uses the AWP (which the brand has made open-source, should any other travel groups want to use it) to guide future itineraries, referencing it during discussions about where it makes sense to ride horseback, say, or how to identify reputable operators. It’s also used to help educate those they work with.

“Sometimes the suppliers and the customers aren’t aware that if they support those activities, it’s going to continue that behavior,” Berna said. “It’s about having these important conversations and teaching people that travel can be a force for good.”

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at AFAR. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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