Animal Friendly Tourism
When I first walked into the sanctuary I was interning at in Central America, I had no idea what to expect. Throughout my first week I watched anxiously for my turn as other alum interns cared for and carried baby howlers. We provided all meals, carried them into the forest, and played with them throughout the day. It was everyone’s dream, right? To play with baby monkeys?
I waited and waited until I was finally approached by one of the juveniles. She was afraid of a wild primate juvenile male that was interested in her, and often sought out protection from us interns.
It was an amazing feeling, having her trust me to protect her from harm. I knew at that moment this was the beginning of being a surrogate mother for her and the other juveniles we were rehabilitating. It was so new and exciting.
A couple weeks later we began “eco-tours” through a contract with a tourism company to bring visitors to the sanctuary. Contact with the animals was encouraged and we would bring up to 30 visitors in a single day through the site. The monkeys began exhibiting stress behaviors during the presence of these strangers and it became extremely difficult to witness and be a part of. I felt helpless as I exposed these poor animals to strangers, especially being someone that they had put their trust in. Educating the people was something I was happy to do, but having the animals treated improperly was a great concern for me.
Also, it became apparent later that the sanctuary was drowning in debt and the tourism, as well as us interns, were funding the survival of the site. While I don’t feel that the people running the site initially had bad intentions, money became a significant aspect to their decision-making processes, usually at the expense of the welfare of the monkeys and other animals.
As a result of my experience, I felt it important to share information about eco-tourism and proper animal handling.
Here are some things to note when traveling, visiting, and donating to eco-tourist destinations. As a visitor and someone trying to benefit the animals, you should be educated about the proper way to support sustainability and the well-being of the animals.
The opportunity to play with animals, such as monkeys in South America, is offered by various tour operators, alongside claims that the fees paid will benefit the species in the wild. Unfortunately, these animals used rarely, if ever, are set free. They are treated similar to pets or as entertainment and will never be able to develop the proper behaviors that would be exhibited in the wild. It’s an industry designed to make money for its owners and operators. It exploits animals for profit, and contributes little or nothing to the conservation of species.
Responsible facilities that hold wild animals will house them in enclosures designed to replicate their wild habitat, and will only allow visitors to view the animals from a safe distance in a way that does not disturb or stress the animals. Also, they will be extremely strict about rules and safety to ensure the well-being of their animals.
Contact and encounters can create dependency and habituation to humans, which can also lead to health issues and disease. Monkeys, and other primates, do not have the same immune system we have and can contract at least 50% of the diseases (and even the common cold) that we carry and do not have the defense to protect themselves.
Working directly with sick or displaced animals prepared for release benefit the most from limited human contact. Therefore, it requires extensive training and practice. You should be careful to choose volunteer work that has more indirect ways (such as data collection and habitat enrichment) to assist the livelihood of these animals.
Before donating to, volunteering for, or interning at a sanctuary, rehabilitation center, or other wildlife site, be sure to do your homework.
Potential Negative Impacts of Tourism on Wildlife:
- Transmission of Diseases
- Disruption of Normal Behaviors
- Harm to Animals
- Replacement of Natural Diet with Artificial Diet
- Careless Handling
Ask questions, research the site, and look for red flags. Funding and donations should be able to be given to centers that are providing proper care to animals.
Sources: Right Tourism