With the growth of social media, news of unethical wildlife practices has spread faster and to a larger audience than ever before. This has served to both discredit unethical members of the industry and, educate an increasing number of consumers.

Simon Stobbs, Wilderness Safaris’ Business Manager North America, says the demand for ethical wildlife experiences is on the rise. “We have definitely seen a growing trend where travellers question whether or not a wildlife experience is ethical. Travellers are increasingly educated and do not want their money to support unethical practices.”

Adine Roode, Owner of Camp Jabulani in Kapama Game Reserve, confirms this trend. “Our own experience was a minimal impact on tourist numbers following our decision to phase out elephant-back safaris. I am of the opinion that, by offering a different way to interact with elephants, we are attracting a different segment of the market, and not necessarily those that would have preferred to ride on an elephant.”

However, agreement on a universally accepted definition of an ethical wildlife experience is a challenge.

Roode elaborates: “Many facilities claim to offer an ethical experience, but when you look closer, it becomes clear that what’s on offer differs substantially between facilities. This needs to be addressed by improved regulation.”

Further complicating the issue is significant variance with regard to different species, and the manner in which they interact with humans. Elephants, gorillas and predators can engage at a more advanced level, for example, when compared with other species.

Inge Altona-de Klerk, head of marketing at White Sharks Projects, says: “When it comes to shark cage diving with Great Whites, it is ethical because they are nomadic. This means that we don’t interact with a residential shark population that identifies with a territory, so it is rare for us to encounter the same shark repeatedly. It is very hard to condition a shark that you don’t see on a daily basis. In order to negatively condition a Great White shark, you would have to see the same shark on a daily basis, over an extended period of time, coupled with a caloric reward at each visit.”

“In an ideal world, one would simply view wildlife in their natural habitat, behaving as they normally would,” comments Stobbs. “While we all know that this is not possible in today’s world, when putting together an ethical wildlife experience the focus should be on the welfare of the animal in question.

“Added to this is the preservation of the integrity of the environment in which the wildlife experience takes place, as well as the fact that communities in these areas should ideally also experience a socio-economic benefit, through both improved education and job opportunities.”

A number of non-profit organisations attempt to regulate the industry and address these issues. According to the ethical review processes outlined by the South African National Standard, each organisation should appoint its own ethics committee and access advice from other competent sources, as well as institute review processes.

Key areas to pay attention to include sources and methods of acquisition of institutionalised animals; loan practices and the disposal, transfer and sale of institutionalised animals; euthanasia practices and policies; surgical mutilations; human-animal interaction programmes; the design and appropriateness of enclosures for animals; research projects; and education and conservation functions.

“The most important aspect of fulfilling the educational function is to enhance your visitors’ understanding of the issues regarding ethical wildlife experiences and environmental conservation,” says Roode.

“An on-going emphasis of these issues, by the tourism industry, will create a change in mind-set, and awareness of the importance of species survival and conservation in general.  This will eventually have enough of an impact to influence policy change and result in improved industry regulation.”