Riding elephants and manta rays, petting tiger cubs, and watching caged bears dance: These are among the most unethical animal encounters in the tourism realm that have widely become considered taboo. But there are some grayer areas when it comes to wildlife tourism, like exactly how close is too close for whale-watching boats? And if your whale-watching operator keeps a safe distance from migrating whales, does it even matter if a swarm of other boats doesn’t abide by the same rules and hounds the humpbacks?
While awareness about ethical animal encounters is growing, the desire to experience up-close interactions with wildlife hasn’t really dissipated, making it more of a challenge than ever for the travel industry to establish and enforce sustainable experiences with animals in the wild. A new global initiative to designate wildlife-friendly tourism destinations is hoping to change that, however, and make it easier to identify animal experiences that are not only humane but also deeply connected to the heritage of destinations.
Born out of the success of the Whale Heritage Sites program, which recognizes places with sustainable whale-watching practices, the concept of Wildlife Heritage Areas was developed in a partnership between the nonprofits World Animal Protection and the World Cetacean Alliance. Launching in Europe, North America, South America, Australia, and South Africa, the designation program seeks to make it easier for travelers to find extraordinary and ethical wildlife experiences around the world that also support the needs of local communities.
“These are places where people live and coexist with wildlife and nature in a respectful way, and where local wildlife is connected to their culture, heritage, economy and woven through the fabric of their society,” says Dylan Walker, program manager for Wildlife Heritage Areas.
An ecologist and marine biologist who’s worked in wildlife tourism for 25 years, Walker has seen firsthand the damage exploitative tourism can cause for both for the animals and communities that live in their midst. Communities can apply for Wildlife Heritage Areas designation at no cost, and the selection process is led by the expertise of wildlife NGOs. The guiding principles for designation include helping to combat biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, holding a zero tolerance for wildlife suffering in tourism, championing local solutions, and respecting traditional knowledge and academic research.
“When people go [to Wildlife Heritage Areas], they will know that they’re supporting nature conservation and investing in local communities,” says Walker. “But even better than that, from a tourist perspective, these are places where you’re going to get the best experiences seeing nature, and really feel like you’ve got under the skin of the local community because you’ll be with people who are as passionate about it as you might be as a tourist.”
New designated areas include the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area in California, which is along one of the most important migration routes for gray whales and humpback whales on the U.S. West Coast, and the Madeira Whale Heritage Area in Portugal. Madeira, an island between the Azores and the Canaries, has evolved from its former whaling days to a destination with strong cetacean conservation efforts.
The wildlife areas consist of more than marine environments, of course; there are also several land candidates for Wildlife Heritage Areas. Areas that are “candidates” means the applicants have reached level two of three of the designation process; once they reach level three, they become officially designated. Here’s the full list.
Wildlife Heritage Areas
- Amazon Night Monkey Heritage Area (candidate), Peru/Colombia
- Amazon Uakari Heritage Area (candidate), Brazil
- Apennines Marsican Bear Heritage Area (candidate), Italy
- Whitsundays Whale Heritage Area (candidate), Australia
- Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area (new designation), USA
- Madeira Whale Heritage Area (new designation), Portugal
- Plettenberg Bay Whale Heritage Area (designated), South Africa
- Algoa Bay Whale Heritage Area (designated), South Africa
How to choose responsible wildlife experiences
When choosing responsible wildlife-watching experiences—whether they are among the designated new Wildlife Heritage Areas or not—what are the top things to look for? Walker advises that travelers first find out if the tour operator is following guidelines, such as keeping a safe distance from wildlife and avoiding sharing the locations of vulnerable species, which he adds are more prevalent in whale-watching and other marine encounters than in terrestrial environments.
“If you haven’t got a set of principles by which you go out and view wildlife and try to minimize your impact, then you’re not a responsible wildlife tourism operator.” If there isn’t a bare minimum of guidelines, tourists should be asking for them, he says. ”Even if an operator doesn’t have [guidelines], if tourists are asking for them, then it’s setting that in motion.“
Another key thing to look for in wildlife experiences? Managed expectations. If a tour operator is promising you’ll definitely encounter leopard cubs or whale sharks, this should be a red flag.
“There’s a group of whale-watching companies up in Vancouver Island that even writes on their imagery, ‘This image was taken with a telephoto lens, this is not what you see on the boat,’” notes Walker. “That’s a very high standard, but it sets the right tone.”
Travelers shouldn’t think they’re getting any less of an experience with guidelines and managed expectations. When animals aren’t being bothered or aware that there’s a gaggle of peering camera lenses focused on them, they can relax and act natural. That is why we’ve traveled across the world, after all—to see them in their natural habitat.
Perhaps you’ll be lucky to see the unique trait of the Musmuki monkey father carrying its new offspring on its back or the sperm whale’s brief surface after a typical hour-long dive.
“Whether it’s the great apes or whales, the ultimate goal is they don’t even notice we’re there,” says Walker. “That’s when we see their incredible natural behaviors.”