The Sunday Times article on captive animal tourism has reignited a healthy debate in the Steppes office and has made us review our own code of conduct.

Our clients entrust us to provide wildlife experiences that do not compromise or harm the animals with which they come into contact. This does not rule out captive animal attractions per se, but it means we stringently check all of the wildlife encounters we arrange on behalf of our clients, to ensure they comply with ethical best practice. To help us do this we work closely with our partners in country, many of whom are at the forefront of wildlife tourism and conservation. We also work the guidelines set up by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) who analyse wildlife encounters based on welfare and conservation criteria. Here is an outline of how they work:


WildCRU assess a wildlife attraction by how it fulfils the “five freedoms”, a system used by scientists to measure the welfare of animals. These freedoms are:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom to behave normally
  • Freedom from fear and distress


The conservation element is measured by giving a positive or negative score, according to whether a wildlife tourist attraction is deemed to be placing the survival of wild populations at high risk of extinction or deemed to be greatly aiding existing efforts to save wild populations from extinction.

Measured against this criteria, World Animal Protection (in conjunction with WildCRU) launched a campaign called “Wildlife. Not Entertainers” and issued a list of ten of the world’s cruellest wildlife attractions.

Are all “captive animal tourist attractions” unethical?

A wild animal kept in captivity to provide entertainment for paying tourists, purely for the commercial gain of its “keeper” is morally indefensible. It can be dangerous too, as the tourist recently gored to death by a captive elephant in Ko Samui, tragically illustrates. This incident has led to the charity, World Animal Protection advising visitors to South East Asia to avoid such activities, with the statement:

“If you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with a wild animal, then the chances are it is cruel and the animal is suffering. Now you know, vote with your feet and don’t go.”

A powerful press release and at first glance, a statement that few with serious concerns for animal welfare, would dispute. But does this mean that we should avoid all captive animal attractions? Thanks to films like Blackfish, there is universal condemnation of the likes of SeaWorld for its “live orca shows” and dolphin swimming tours, where the animals have been shown to suffer. With the exception of SeaWorld’s shareholders, few will shed a tear that the writing’s on the wall for the anachronistic subjugation of wildlife to provide entertainment.

There is a big difference however between keeping dolphins in an aquarium for the amusement of tourists and trying to rehabilitate cheetahs on a fenced reserve in southern Africa; both are captive animals but the moral contexts within which they are held captive are worlds apart.

AfriCat raise the cash they need to conserve Namibia’s predators, through providing an exhilarating and sustainable tourist experience at their private, enclosed reserve at Okonjima. Clients can go out on foot and track radio-collared cheetahs and wild dogs, getting remarkably close to these ‘captive’ animals in a wild, albeit enclosed, environment. This could all be labelled as a ‘captive animal tourism’ but is it immoral? We do not believe so, as the motivation for keeping these animals is not greed or vanity but conservation and if we apply WildCRU’s criteria for analysis, AfriCat come out with a high positive score. Their aim is to rehabilitate the leopards and cheetahs that call Okonjima their temporary home, with a view to releasing them into the wild. This can only be achieved through funding and this is where tourism plays a crucial role.

Shades of grey.

An experience that requires careful analysis is the elephant encounters offered by Abu Camp in Botswana. For over 20 years, Abu Camp has offered clients the opportunity to “become a member of the elephant herd” at their private concession in the Okavango Delta. Clients can walk with elephants, give the animals mud baths and take elephant-back safaris. Selfies are a daily occurrence. These animals are allowed to roam freely by day in Abu’s private concession but at night time they are bought in to the protective enclosure of a boma, to avoid conflict with predators and other wild elephants.

The animal’s physiological and psychological health is closely monitored and veterinary care is always at hand when required. The camp works with Elephants Without Borders and Elephants for Africa, two NGOs in Botswana that promote elephant conservation and assist Abu with returning previously captive elephants to the wild. This reintroduction program allows researchers to gain valuable information about elephant movements in the Okavango Delta, through fitting the released elephants with satellite tracking collars. While WildCRU would not condone the direct contact with wildlife at Abu, what underpins the enterprise is conservation of a species through the support of tourism in an environment where the animals are well looked after.

While the abuse inherent in some animal attractions is self-evident, there are other activities that use a veneer of conservation to hide their iniquity. Wherever there is a grey area there is room for exploitation and this is exactly what has happened in the case of some organisations offering the opportunity to walk with lions in southern Africa. On the face of it, this promises to be an exhilarating experience and when clients are told their money goes towards a project aimed at rewilding the lions, most clients will be asking where they can sign up. Unfortunately, key players in the walking with lions industry have been exposed as fraudulent, as no adult lions are released into the wild and the ‘excess’ animals produced through overbreeding often end up in lion breeding farms that serve canned lion hunting operations.

It is critical to seek advice when booking a wildlife holiday to ensure you are not inadvertently supporting irresponsible operations. While I would naturally suggest you contact Steppes to ensure you are booking something fun, poignant and thrilling that also scores positively in the framework laid down by WildCRU, you should also look at World Animal Protection’s Animal Friendly Tourism Guide before making a decision.

Tiger selfie or a wild encounter?

While Steppes is guided by a strong moral imperative when vetting wildlife experiences, we also know that our clients will find authentic and wild encounters with animals far more exhilarating than a canned, fake experience. Once you have enjoyed a walking safari in South Luangwa, tracked orang-utans in Indonesian Borneo or taken a boat safari along the Amazon looking for giant otters, the thought of visiting a staged animal performance or taking a tiger selfie is an anathema. There is no substitute for seeing animals in their natural environment safe in the knowledge that the experience is not detrimental to the wildlife that is providing such pleasure. To provide anything less would be short changing you, our clients.

Thanks for reading

Jarrod Kyte

Author: Jarrod Kyte