Responsible tourism on big cat safaris

Of nearly 40 species of wild cat, some 80 percent of them are known to be in decline, with around 16 considered to be either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. And no prizes for guessing that the main threat is human activity: loss of habitat due to deforestation and farming; falling numbers of prey species as growing human populations compete for them; the wildlife trade, in particular the market for traditional medicines; and global warming, too, an increasing threat to some cats such as snow leopards. There are now more captive tigers in the United States (and not all of them in zoos!) than there are left in the wild.

As materialistic as it sounds, the main challenge with big cat conservation is simply in persuading governments and local communities that these majestic animals are worth more to them alive than dead. And in that, responsible tourism is playing an increasingly important role: providing an economic argument against poaching and deforestation; assisting with research; earning funds for conservation efforts and perhaps above all, raising awareness among people from many different backgrounds about the threats that big cats face.

There’s a long way to go, and no way of telling yet whether it will be a happy ending. But we see encouraging signs. Growing numbers of vacation companies, many of them with tours on our own site, are insisting on a responsible approach to big cat tourism. In 2021, South Africa announced that it would end its controversial lion-breeding programme that has for years supplied cubs for trophy hunting, and bones for traditional medicine. In 2018 China reversed a decision to relax restrictions on trading in tiger and rhinoceros parts after a huge global outcry. And we know, at least in some countries such as Russia, that the presence of tourists is now acting as a deterrent against poaching and an incentive for local people to become more involved in conservation. Find out more below.

Conservation & wildlife

How responsible tourism benefits conservation

When the interests of big cats conflict with those of big business, it’s never a fair contest. Historically, safaris involved slaughtering wild animals, often scores of them at a time, by nobility and wealthy hunters, driving many species to the edge of extinction. Nowadays safari-goers are far more likely to brandish a zoom lens than a rifle, but big cat populations are still struggling to recover.

The main reason is habitat loss. A male tiger requires a territory of 100km2, while in Africa some leopards will range for several times that. And that need for space to hunt and breed is in direct conflict with the urge by humans to expand our own territory. In Malaysian Borneo unsustainable logging for huge palm oil plantations has proved devastating for forest dwelling wildlife. In Russia, large scale illegal logging has resulted in tumbling tiger numbers. And lions worldwide have lost some 92 percent of their territory. Like all big cats they only rarely pose a threat to human life, but losing space to roam and the ability to find prey they inevitably turn to livestock, and you can guess how that normally turns out. Some predator compensation schemes do exist which have had success in reducing ‘revenge hunting’ but humans and big cats still have an edgy coexistence in parts of the world. The greatest concern is India, where conservation success has resulted in growing conflicts between villagers and ‘man-eating’ tigers.
Then there is the problem of traditional medicines which to this day are still often made with the body parts of endangered animals. There remains a thriving and extremely valuable black market in wildlife; which drives high rates of poaching and may even contribute to terrorism. Efforts to change mindsets are up against centuries of misguided beliefs. This is, sadly, a battle that is a long way from being over.

But if simple economics is the root cause of big cats being wiped out, it is also a way to prevent it. We need to convince people that there is a serious financial incentive in conservation, and that is where responsible tourism comes in. When communities can see a direct benefit to them from big cat tourism, they will act to protect the animals. In Borneo, wildlife tourism is keeping families employed that might otherwise have become involved in the palm oil industry – one of the greatest threats to the island’s rainforests. Sustainable logging practices in Borneo’s Deramakot Nature Reserve have led to dramatic increases in many species, and profitable tourism there will hopefully encourage other reserves to take a similar approach. In the Russian Far East, tiger and leopard numbers are on the rise, as the presence of tourists keeps poachers and illegal loggers away, and drawing guides from local communities means people become more aware of the need to scale down poaching of big cat prey species.

What you can do
Whenever buying any timber product, look for the FSC mark showing that the wood has been sourced sustainably. Support organisations such as Trees for Tigers seeking to restore safe, sustainable habitat for big cats, and WWF in their fight against the illegal wildlife trade. Above all, if you’re considering taking a big cat safari then look at going with a responsible operator, as they will very often provide employment to local people, help with research projects, and donate some of their profits to conservation initiatives.

Responsible big cat safaris

Diamonds, truffles, a Hollywood movie with no superheroes in sight; the rarer something is, the more value we ascribe to it. That’s certainly the case with big cats such as tigers, snow leopards and jaguars. Seeing them in the wild isn’t cheap, but a hefty price tag isn’t always a mark of quality. Irresponsible big cat tourism is a particular problem with tigers in India, with concerns that badly trained guides in places such as Bandhavgarh National Park are exceeding the 20mph speed limit and getting too close to the tigers, and that the noise from disrespectful tourists disturbs the wildlife as well as degrading the experience for other visitors.

What you can do
Tourism can potentially raise vital funds for conservation, but a sustainable balance needs to be struck between visitor numbers and the ability of the natural environment to cope with them. When you book a big cat safari through our site you can be confident you’re booking with a responsible operator, but not all companies are as principled. If you witness drivers, guides or tourists acting in ways detrimental to the wildlife or the environment, confront them about it or, if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, then report them to park authorities and contact your vacation company. You don’t need to be a trained zoologist to recognise inappropriate activities, and only by tackling this behaviour head-on can we hope to change it. Our guide to responsible tiger safaris in India goes into more detail.

Time to can canned hunting

So-called ‘canned hunting’ is the practice of keeping animals, usually lions, in confined areas, making it much easier for trophy hunters to get their kill. There are clear links with another controversial wildlife industry – cub petting experiences. The thought of cuddling a baby lion, or walking alongside an older cat, is naturally very appealing. But the lions you’re stroking may well grow up with a target on their backs, as they’re not only likely to be used for canned hunting, but they’re also losing their natural fear of humans. The Born Free Foundation estimates that in South Africa alone there are around 8,000 captive-bred lions and other predators held in canned hunting facilities, waiting for their number to be up.
On the subject of big cats being unnaturally confined we can’t not mention Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple, which was thankfully shut down in 2016. Responsible Travel campaigned against it because it seemed that the tigers were being poorly cared for by the monks, possibly drugged to keep them relaxed while visitors posed for selfies with them, and that visitor safety was not at all assured. It later turned out that tiger cubs were appallingly being bred at the temple to be used in the wildlife trade. The tiger temple is gone, for now at least, but worrying there are reports that a new zoo may be opening shortly. The use of poorly treated wild animals for tourism, entertainment and sport continues around the world, and so will the fight against it. We’ll be in the front line.

What you can do
Any time you see wild animals such as big cats behaving unnaturally, it should raise suspicions. Quite often they will have been bred in captivity, separated from their mothers at a very early age, and trained harshly. If your vacation includes a visit to a center where you will have encounters with wildlife, find out as much as you can about the place and if your questions aren’t answered satisfactorily, insist it’s removed from the itinerary.

While on vacation, avoid any facility that breeds big cats, has a ready supply of cubs for petting, and doesn’t appear to support any external conservation initiatives. In Southern Africa, these animals may well be involved in canned hunting, while around the world they may simply have been bred for a life of captivity to entertain tourists. Instead look at supporting places such as Cheetah Outreach in Cape Town, which is open all year round for educational tours. Learn more about the canned hunting industry and how you can take action against it.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: flowcomm] [Deforestation: Aidenvironment] [Lion: Kevin Pluck]