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  • Writer's pictureKaren Buffier

Animal Tourism for Responsible Travellers

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

The World really is one massive National Geographic documentary and my favourite travel itineraries include marvelling at the unique and amazing animals or wildlife that can be found in different countries. Kids especially love any travel activities with animals and will be entranced by different species.

Rhino South Africa
Rhino South Africa

Over the years I have become more and more concerned with the environmental impacts of travel and in particular the effect mass human tourism has on wildlife. I am often left a little bewildered by camera-toting people who crowd animals just to get the perfect shot to load to their instagram feed without consideration for the effect this has on the species. I implore would-be travellers to think about how we can best support the sustainability of wildlife for the future and encourage you to check out some of the animal tourism options below that integrate conservation and return to the wild programs for our most diverse animals.

Find a little inspiration with my top ten most wondrous and responsible animal encounters on the planet.

1. Volunteering in Africa - Walk with Lions

Antelope Park, Gweru Zimbabwe

Africa is the place to be if you want to experience the beauty and wonder of a safari where you can witness some of the most extraordinary wildlife. Experience an amazingly awesome conservation experience by becoming an animal volunteer in Africa.

Antelope Park in Gweru, Zimbabwe, winner of the 2016 World Travel Award for Zimbabwe’s best Private Game Reserve offers a range of volunteer opportunities from wildlife conservation through to community initiatives such as volunteering with local schools.

Of significant mention is the chance to ‘walk with lions’ as part of their Lion Rehabilitation and Release into the Wild program. Interact with tiny lion cubs in the nursery, walk with adolescent lions as they are slowly expanded back out into expanded wild environments and then observe feed time for the adult lions as part of short stay activities. Longer term volunteers also assist with community education programs on the importance of the lion conservation.

The 3000 acre savannah of the Antelope Park property offers game drives, horse rides through the property (past all the wildlife) and boat trips as well for regular travellers. All proceeds from the lodge, camping and activities goes back into the program.

There are a range of accommodation options from camping right through to private bungalows to cater for all budgets and comfort levels.

Walk with Lions, Antelope Park Zimbabwe
Walk with lions, Antelope Park Zimbabwe

Next time you get bombarded in Thailand with offers for elephant rides or treks you really should consider a less impactful option for interacting with elephants in Thailand.

Located just 60 kilometres from Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north, the Elephant Nature Park is a refuge for rescued Asian elephants as well as a designated rainforest regeneration area. Unbeknown to many tourists the trade of elephants for tourist entertainment is pretty rife throughout Thailand and doesn’t always mean that the elephants are treated humanely or with due care.

Operating completely from donations and the commitment of hard working volunteers, the Elephant Nature Park provides a sanctuary for mistreated elephants in a completely serene environment. With such a strong need for volunteers the park opens its gates to tourists to improve education and advocacy on elephant welfare.

Guests to the park have the opportunity to help buy the food for the elephants (lots and lots of bananas the day we visited!), feed the elephants and wash them in the river.

It’s a truly inspirational place to visit and kids will absolutely love this activity.

Thankfully many other elephant tourism operators throughout Thailand are now following the lead from the original Elephant Nature Park and banning rides in response to better educated travellers looking for a different experience. Whilst they offer vastly more responsible experiences some still allow very close contact and interactions that are not natural to the elephants. Take the time to read up on what is included so you can make an informed decision.

For more cool experiences in Thailand with kids read here for the full story.

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai

Turtles are synonymous with Hawaii and there is no other place that you will find them in such plentiful numbers and such serene locations. One of my absolute favourite trips I have ever taken was a catamaran tour to turtle cove on the main island Oahu.

Mooring the boat in the middle of the ocean where an ocean shelf is the perfect destination for green sea turtles to play and feed we spent a blissful couple of hours snorkelling to watch these amazing creatures super close up.

If younger kids come along for this trip they are able to drift along with a life-jacket or our tour operator actually had a surfboard that my four year old snorkelled from as you are a long way from shore.

The numbers accessing this location are strictly monitored so the experience is a lot less damaging than what you will find at Hamauma Bay and other popular snorkelling locations in Hawaii. Just make sure you don't chase the turtles as a few people tried to do and were warned away from. :-(

For an authentic swimming with turtles experience without the cost of a tour, Poipu Beach on the island of Kauai allows you the chance to witness Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles at close range as they head into the beach for a sunny rest on the sand.

It was truly amazing to be swimming at the beach with our kids and discovering large turtles cruising past us on their way for a sun bake on the sand. For the full story on the wonderful things to see and do in Kauai click here.

Hawaiian Monk Seals on Poipu Beach Kauai
Hawaiian Monk Seals on Poipu Beach Kauai

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary
Sepilok Orangutan carer with orphaned baby orangutan

Facing severe threats to their survival due to habitat destruction, visiting the orangutans of Borneo is an experience not to miss. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is located near Kota Kinabalu and allows visitors to see the cheeky orangutans up close in their natural habitat during twice daily feeds.

With a focus on raising orphaned baby orangutans this wildlife park is unique in that the orangutans are not kept in captivity. With the money raised from visitor entry fees the wildlife carers provide food and medical care to assist the orangutans to grow strong and independent enough to transition themselves back into the wild.

Tickets to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary can be purchased directly via this link.

Like the Elephant Nature Park this sanctuary relies heavily on the efforts of volunteers, researchers and donations in order to carry out the important conservation work.

Notably, since our visit to Borneo there is also now a sun bear sanctuary very close to the orangutans which looks well worth a visit as well. Check out this 2 day tour including a night in the rainforest allowing you to visit both the Sun Bears and the Orangutan Sanctuary.

Borneo Orangutans
Borneo Orangutans

5. Howler monkeys and terrifying tarantulas in Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal Guatemala
Tikal Guatemala

Tikal National Park, in Guatemala is the site for some significant Mayan ruins which draws travellers from all over the world. As you stroll through the ruins however you become incredibly aware of the presence of the resident howler monkeys as their haunting calls through the treetops carry across great distances.

Along with the howler monkeys Tikal is also a fabulous place to see the spider monkeys expertly swinging from the canopy of tall trees.

Tip: Be warned that if you your guide starts to poke a large stick down a sizeable hole in the ground that you might want to look away or take a little walk if you have the same phobia as me! I was intrigued as our guide was doing this but my intrigue and interest changed to sheer petrified terror as an exceptionally large tarantula made an appearance.

As a complete and utter arachnophobe this was absolutely terrifying for me but no doubt some of you would be fascinated to see these amazing spiders up close. Sorry, but there are definitely no photos from me of the tarantula as I was out of there!

6. African Animals in Chobe and the Okavango National Park, Botswana

Everyone heads to Africa for jaw dropping wildlife encounters and Chobe combined with the Okavango Delta is the heart of safari opportunities in Botswana and a great place to search for Africa's most elusive and stunning wild animals. If you are looking for wildlife, classic African scenery and show stopping sunsets all wrapped nicely in a place that isn’t overrun with other tourists then you should make the effort to visit Botswana.

The Chobe National Park is a favourite African destination featuring a plethora of crocodiles and hippos along the river with elephants and other land based animals dwelling on the edges. For an even more off the beaten path adventure, head deep into the wild via mokoro boats hollowed out from large logs to camp under the stars completely surrounded by the sounds of the wild. During daylight hours get sneakily personal with herds of elephants, giraffes, hippos and leopards.

Travel in this region is intrepid and the style of travel (mokoros, by foot, local boats) is as low impact travel as you can do. Just keep one eye open as you move about as you never know what might be around the next corner.

Chobe National Park Hippos
Chobe National Park Hippos

7. Bears in Canada

Wildlife in Canada is a prime motivator for many travellers to hit the road for a scenic Canadian road trip. Taking in the superb landscapes of the Canadian Rockies also places you in the heart of grizzly bear territory.

Often you can spot grizzly bears from the car when driving in Western Canada particularly in the Rockies and many of the highways have now had wildlife fences introduced to protect them from traffic but also to keep the barrier between humans wanting to get too close.

Of course, there are black bears in Canada as well and we were super fortunate to take the trip of a lifetime from Tofino on Vancouver Island with Adventure Tofino recently to observe the black bears in their natural habitat. Catching a high speed zodiac boat we zoomed to the Clayoquot Sound to spend a couple of hours watching over 10 bears on that morning come down to the rocky shores to find crabs and food. We were lucky to also see some juvenile cubs with their mothers which is pretty special.

These tours have a strong conservation focus and never venture too closely to the bears. In addition to the bears on this tour we also saw some fur seals and a really large sea lion right beside the boat which is pretty cool.

Grizzly Bears
Grizzly Bears

If you want to view dolphins frolicking in pods or riding the bows of boats then there aren’t many better places to do this than at Port Stephens, in Australia. An easy commute from Sydney, Port Stephens is one the most family friendly beach destinations you will find in Australia. With pristine beaches, delightfully pretty National Parks and awesome dolphin and whale watching opportunities. Port Stephens is a wonderful place to take a family trip.

There are a number of dolphin cruises which can all be booked online or through the tourist information at the Nelson Bay Marina. My kids never tire of these trips as they watch enthusiastically for their next sighting from the boat.

New to Port Stephens is a Koala Sanctuary as well for those seeking some up close time with this native Australian mammal. Aimed at bringing koala populations back up from endangered levels particularly following the horror of the 2020 bushfire season in Australia.

Dolphin Cruise Port Stephens
Dolphin watching Port Stephens

9. Whale watching Hermanus, South Africa

South Africa is better known for its land based animals however if you take a road trip from Cape Town to Hermanus on the South African southern peninsula you are lucky enough to stumble across a place where you can watch whales up close from the shoreline of the beach. We visited in September which is the peak of the whale watch season and there were literally dozens of Southern Right Whales all swimming close to shore.

Of course, if you want you can also take a boat trip or an adventurous kayak to get even closer but for us we could see them so clearly and easily from the shoreline that this wasn’t even necessary.

Hermanus is a fantastic stopping point if you take a road trip to explore the famous winelands region in South Africa. Alternately book a day trip from Cape Town to see these spectacular creatures.

10. Husky Love and dog sledding at Canmore, Canada

If you love dogs then you can’t go past the opportunity to smooch and play with some pure- bred huskies in Canada.

The place we visited in Canmore doesn’t appear to be open anymore (or has been renamed) however there are a number of dog sledding companies in the Canmore area still which allows you to have a very hands on adventure with these beautiful animals.

Definitely on my bucket list still is to re-visit Canada during the winter months to be able to go dog sledding!

Canadian Husky

There are so many amazing animal experiences and if we all travel responsibly they will be around for generations to come and appreciate. Here is my shortlist of next places and animals I want to see in the wild…. comment below and let me know what your favourite animal experiences have been!

  • Experience the migration in the Masai Mara

  • Visiting the polar bears of Churchill

  • See the pandas in China

  • Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

  • Visit the giant tortoises in the Galapagos

  • Witness the beauty of the Toucans in Brazil

  • Dog sledding!

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