The Ethics of Wildlife Interactions

Boundaries; not everyone likes them, but they’re an important part of our friendship with wild animals, and in turn, tourism.

Despite efforts advocating for responsible wildlife viewing, there has been a parallel action by both the general pubic (ie. tourists) and indeed professionals in their field (ie. tour guides, photographers and filmmakers), that requires debate and genuine ethical changes before it’s too late.

What is ethical and isn’t ethical can certainly be open to interpretation, but what we can agree on is that boundaries with wild animals are being pushed to breaking points, resulting in increased endangerment to wild animals, conservation efforts and even injury (and death) to perpetrating humans.

Responsible game drives at Splash Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta

We can point to specific examples of human behaviours affecting wild animals; from Steve Irwin’s constant badgering of animals for TV entertainment and avoidable death from a Sting Ray, to local tour guides dangerously corralling wild cheetah in the Masai Mara and the ever dangerous feeding of wild animals that can lead to wild animals seeking out humans and communities for food, thus leading to conflict – such as what we have seen in Canada with one member of the public being prosecuted for feeding wild coyotes and bears.

These unfortunate examples should be a thing of the past and yet they exist in 2023 when we should be better connected with and understanding of our natural world.

There’s also the allure of human emotion that we can mistakenly place upon wild animals, with both the general pubic and professionals being guilty of promoting actions that can be dangerous towards wild animals.

In recent weeks we’ve seen respected filmmakers such as Paul Nicklen suggest that wild whales want humans to hug and kiss them. Paul and his organisation Sea Legacy do some amazing work and they are people we wholeheartedly support, but it’s extremely dangerous to cast assumption and human thought on to wild animals. The unique position many professional photographers, scientists and filmmakers find themselves in is tremendously luxurious, a chance to have those unique interactions that the general public can only dream of.

However, this implementation of human thought, emotion (and love) on wild animals further conditions people to interact with wild animals in the same way – and this is dangerous. If we don’t consider interactions with wild animals from a psychological standpoint, then we will see more foolish incidents such as Reckless Tourist Tries to Pat Wild Lion While On Safari, or The shocking moment a tourist ‘killed’ a baby dolphin for selfies and with the countless swimming with dolphin charades and lion cub petting scams we see visitors partake in because others have promoted interactions with animals.

To our horror, it really makes no sense for recent articles such as Kate Ahmad’s Befriending a wild animal will make you a better human to be published without considering this vital issue of consequence and responsibility.

Interacting with nature is a true healer and spending time with wild animals is genuinely a soul touching experience that goes far to helping one connect with our natural world, but how far we take that connection, both mentally and physically should be assessed.

Indeed, showing affection and love towards nature is welcomed and shouldn’t be negated, but understanding boundaries is so important.

Ensuring responsible distances on safari at Governors’ Camp in Kenya’s Masai Mara

Demand. As with any product or service we buy, demand typically derives from a need for that product or service, alternatively a person or company promoting something that engages and motivates the public to buy, use or mimic what they see advertised. For example, people may purchase an Apple iPhone because they simply need a phone or they see a celebrity endorsing Apple iPhone and they too wish to mimic their favourite celebrity and own the same product.

How we market our natural world and wildlife tourism can be described in the same way; promoting interactions and especially asserting human emotions such as hugging and kissing wild animals, can only be seen as being detrimental.

This may be so in the below ways;

Risk of injury and/or death to people by getting too close to wild animals

Risk of injury and/or death to animals as a result of humans interacting with them

Placing wild animals at risk with increased human interactions leading to further increases in human wildlife conflict

Negative impacts on wildlife conservation and increase in the need for intervention by wildlife charities and Park officials

Are all wildlife interactions bad?


But there are boundaries that must be considered. A game drive vehicle on safari being a safe distance away and not getting in the way of animals is a good example of ethical tourism. But, a game drive vehicle pushing animals out of the way or obstructing a wild animal’s natural path is certainty unethical. People approaching too close to a tortoise on a beach and touching it, is 100% unethical and to be discouraged. Or when swimming alongside whales, dolphins/sharks in their natural environment and avoiding that ghastly desire to touch.

The only exception to this is when an animal may be injured, at risk or in need of help, such as when Tourists rush to help exhausted dolphins stranded on beach – in most cases, professional charities and park services should be called to assist.

We can be better for animals and there are ethical wildlife viewing options out there, we simply need to respect boundaries and respect nature.

Wild animals will respect people when respectable distances are kept. On safari at kaingo Camp, South Luangwa, Zambia
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The Ethics of Wildlife Interactions … via @bettersafaris #ecotourism #conservation #ethics #wildlife

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