Conservation groups from around the globe have called on the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to phase out close-contact wildlife encounters.

The call for action is to help build a more sustainable future for wildlife tourism, according to conservation writer, Louzel Lombard Steyn, writing on behalf of Blood Lions, an organisation against canned hunting.

“As a country dependent on tourism for economic stability and employment, South Africa's tourism industry simply won't survive another catastrophic zoonotic disease spill-over,” wrote Steyn, referring to the impact of COVID-19.

To this end, about 240 international organisations have called on UNWTO’s Global Tourism Crisis Committee to rethink wildlife and tourism.

While animal interactions are an integral part of tourism, the industry is also a potential breeding ground for new zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 to develop.

There has been an increase in social media posts involving hugging or close contact with wild animals. Global Head of Wildlife Campaigns for World Animal Protection, Nick Stewart, said with interactions like these “the risk of transmitting potential zoonosis must be considered a significant public health risk”.

“In reality, the practice romanticises close physical contact with wildlife and jeopardises all ethical and well-being regulations aimed at keeping humans and wildlife safe,” wrote Steyn.

In South Africa, SATSA has already begun addressing issues about animal interaction by drawing up a charter of animal interactions that are safe for both the tourist and the animal.

Cape Town's official destination marketing organisation, Cape Town Tourism, already opposes all human-wildlife interactions. However, says Mayoral Committee Member for Economic Opportunities and Tourism in Cape Town, James Vos, it is out of their hands to stop such facilities from operating. "It's clear that cub petting and other wildlife entertainment practices will continue, despite the controversy, unless they are banned for good." 

An open letter has been sent to UNWTO representing a co-ordinated global effort asking for animal encounters to be rethought for the sake of both animals and humans.