With the great reception to my science-y post on the evolution of human sexuality last month, I’ve decided to make this a somewhat regular things with a new bit I’m going to call Science Sunday. I hope to make this a concise and easy to follow bit to inform my readers of conservation issues I find important or interesting.

At university, we have weekly guest seminars given by researchers from non-government organizations or other universities about their work. My favorite so far was given to us by Tom Moorhouse from WildCRU (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit) on wildlife tourism. This talk was given in November and still resonates with me. I love travelling, I love animals and I love conservation: is there a way to marry the three?

Wildlife tourism attractions may account for 20% to 40% of global tourism and rake in millions to the local economy and provide employment. However, animal attractions may not always be what they seem: the infamous Tiger Temple in Thailand had a TripAdvisor certificate of excellence but was raided by the government and shut down in 2016 under the premise of illegally breeding and killing tigers to sell their body parts.

Moorhouse and company assessed trade-offs between conservation and animal welfare for non-consumptive (where no animal loses its life directly such as in hunting and fishing) and non-zoo attractions. Broadly, conservation issues regard the long-term preservation of the species and its habitat while animal welfare regards the quality of life and freedom the population or individuals experience.

The graph below shows the following “scores” (conservation vs. welfare) of several wildlife attractions from +/-3 for both categories. The green quadrant represents the “best” attractions for both conservation and welfare, the yellow quadrants represent attractions that are good for welfare, but not great for conservation and vice versa, and the red quadrant represents attractions that are bad for both conservation and animal welfare.


BD = Bear dancing, BF = Bear bile farms, BP = Bear parks, BS = Bear sanctuary, CC = Civet coffee, CF = Crocodile farms, DC = Captive dolphin interactions, DM = Dancing macaques, DS = Dolphin sanctuary, DW = Wild dolphin interactions, EP = Elephant parks, ES = Elephant sanctuary, GT = Gorilla trekking, GW =Gibbon watching, HM = Hyena men (Nigeria), LE = Lion encounters, LS = Lion sanctuary, OS = Orang-utan sanctuary, PW = Polar bear watching, SC = Snake charming, SD = Shark cage diving, SF = Sea turtle
farm, TF = Tiger farms, TI = Tiger interactions.

Of all the animal attractions considered, the best for both conservation and welfare are sanctuaries and gibbon watching while some cases of animal welfare sacrifices could be made for the conservation benefits of gorilla trekking. However, all the other attractions, including shark cage diving, snake charming and tiger interactions are neither good for conservation nor good for animal welfare.

But, there is hope: the study goes on to find out how we can fix this lack of understanding through a series of surveys. “Good” and “bad” fake wildlife tourism attraction names with factual descriptions were used to assess people’s understanding of animal welfare issues:

  • With the first survey, not many people could recognize the “good” attractions from the “bad” attractions based on the name alone.
  • Then, priming questions were asked about animal welfare (e.g. “Should animals over 50 kilograms be kept in captivity?”), but the rankings remained largely unchanged.
  • For the final survey, more information about the attraction was given and the results were promising to show that people can distinguish what’s not good for animal welfare.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I live and die by TripAdvisor and may not think twice if it has a high rating or certificate of excellence. I also fancy myself pretty in touch with animal welfare issues, but had no idea even wild dolphin encounters (such as the one I had on my LiveAbroad trip) and cage diving (which I’ve already booked for my South African field course trip) could be so damaging.

Simply taking time to think about the impacts of your holidays on the local environment and the lives the animals behind the selfie lead can be an important step to conservation marketing. The burden of regulation falls on us tourists and we must take responsibility to uphold animal welfare and the integrity of the habitats wherever we go.


TripAdvisor: Improving Animal Welfare in Tourism

TripAdvisor: The Impacts of Wildlife Tourist Attractions

Moorhouse, T. P., Dahlsjö, C. A., Baker, S. E., D’Cruze, N. C., & Macdonald, D. W. (2015). The customer isn’t always right—conservation and animal welfare implications of the increasing demand for wildlife tourismPloS One10(10), e0138939.

Moorhouse, T., D’Cruze, N. C., & Macdonald, D. W. (2017). Unethical use of wildlife in tourism: what’s the problem, who is responsible, and what can be done?. Journal of Sustainable Tourism25(4), 505-516.

Photo by jinsu Park.

Please leave feedback on this post, especially those who are unfamiliar with the topic, so I can gauge audience interest and understanding of this bit for future posts.