Wildlife tourism allows visitors to enjoy animals up close, in their natural habitats. But what happens when you take an even closer look at the industry?
National Geographic’s Natasha Daly investigated it for a recent cover story.
The wildlife tourism industry caters to people’s love of animals but often seeks to maximize profits by exploiting animals from birth to death. The industry’s economy depends largely on people believing that the animals they’re paying to watch or ride or feed are having fun too.
It succeeds partly because tourists—in unfamiliar settings and eager to have a positive experience—typically don’t consider the possibility that they’re helping to hurt animals. Social media adds to the confusion: Oblivious endorsements from friends and trendsetters legitimize attractions before a traveler ever gets near an animal.
Another person Daly spoke to in her reporting was a woman named Katie, who had a lifelong desire to swim with dolphins. When someone close to her brought up “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary about the mistreatment of orcas at Sea World, and how it might parallel with swimming with dolphins, she said, “stop making my dream a horrible thing!”
Tigers are in particularly high demand.
And the danger for tigers doesn’t just come from someone who wants to cuddle with a cub and post the photo on Instagram.
Karl Ammann is a conservationist, working on fighting the proliferation of illegal tiger farms. He self-funds his investigations and was recently profiled by The Washington Post.
Over the past century or so, the tiger population has plunged in the wild, dropping from an estimated 100,000 to fewer than 4,000, while the number in captivity has exploded to more than 12,500. Nowhere else is the animal’s commodification more complete than in tiger farming, where it is raised, butchered for parts and sold for tens of thousands of dollars. And nowhere else have these farms operated with greater impunity than in Laos, an obscure communist nation whose own wild tigers have nearly all been killed. Ammann was one of the few people who’d seen inside the country’s farms.
Can there ever be safe interactions between people and coveted species? How pervasive is this mistreatment? We speak with both Daly and Ammann about it.
Produced by Kathryn Fink.