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Animal Encounter Tourism



When in South Africa recently we felt woo-ed by all the options to get up close and personal with wild animals. This is afterall the thing to do these days isn't it? Surely if we turned down the chance to walk with a cheetah or ride on an elephant we would be missing out... wouldn't we?

These animal enounters are being offered as a safe and rational experience, something to do with your children even, that will make your holiday complete. But are they safe and is it fair on the animals themselves? Of course not. The animals have to be dominated and trapped and sometimes drugged to make it possible for us to get close to them. More and more we are hearing stories about elephants stabbing riders with a tusk or tigers turning on the tourist attempting to stroke them...but still we don't learn. In fact after our safari drive in Addo Elephant Park in SA we saw a 'shaming' display of many photos with people getting out of their vehicles to be photographed near the wild animals there. Are they crazy? Or are all the animal 'encounter' experiences lulling people into thinking that these creatures aren't that dangerous?

Obviously I have only thought this through properly after the event so I'm not being smug here. As you can see from the photos above, my family and I did get up close to the crocodile and cheetah cubs in Oudtshoorn - one of the many options available to do this kind of thing in South Africa. But I came away feeling like I had done the wrong thing.

When we visited Cango Wildlife Ranch there was much talk about conservation, adopting an animal and the Cheetah Breeding Programme. The money raised from our visits/encounters would be supporting this. But in fact elephantrideweren't we supporting these animals being trapped in small spaces? We were told the animals have been rescued, but I didn't feel that they were now saved. Having said this the wildlife here didn't appear to be mistreated, but I can't say the same for every place I have been.

In fact in Koh Samui, Thailand, the place where a tourist was recently stabbed to death by a tusk, we had decided we didn't feel comfortable with the treatment of the elephants. We rode the zip-wire instead. When I first moved to Spain I saw bulls being taunted and abused at locals fiestas but quickly realised this form of 'entertainment' was not for me. When given the opportunity to meet wildlife we should stop to evaluate whether it is the right thing to do, and if its not - don't support it. If more people did this the market for these activities would go into decline.

I have made a personal decision to not get sucked into animal encounter tourism again. I have swum with sting ray in Grand Cayman and ridden an elephant in Sri Lanka and now stroked a cheetah in South Africa. But I have never felt really good about what I was doing when the animal didn't have an option. Even if it has been enticed to the spot by food you are taking their independence away. I have found it much more thrilling when I have been on safari or diving - when you are observing the wildlife or sealife doing their own thing. I'll stick with that in future.