Animal experiences are a big draw for tourists, especially when we are talking about close encounters with exotic and wild animals. This creates an opportunity for organisations around the world to create conservation projects; however, it also creates issues as many businesses will seek to gain profit at the expense of animal exploitation, for example, the infamous pet cafes in Japan. This can have a very negative impact on the animals without us travellers even realising, that’s why it is important to apply the principles of ecotourism and search for ethical animal experiences that actively protect animals, and their environment, and raise awareness.
I have spoken to other travel bloggers who have been around the world and have shared their best ethical animal experiences in different countries on the 5 continents. Find your next ecofriendly animal encounter on this list.
Beware, this is a lengthy list, make sure to browse the table of contents to check what location you would like to explore.
Ethical animal experiences in Africa
Safari in Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve
One of the best ethical animal experiences in Africa is a visit to the magnificent Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa’s eastern coastal province of KwaZulu Natal. As South Africa’s oldest game reserve, Hluhluwe Imfolozi’s 96000 hectares of wilderness is one of the best places to see Africa’s coveted Big 5 animals: Africa Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Rhino and African Buffalo.
Ethical travelers can visit South Africa’s game reserves with good conscious, knowing they exist to preserve Africa’s wild animals, especially from the danger of illegal poaching. Hluhluwe Imfolozi itself is especially known for White Rhino conservation.
For visitors to South Africa, the easiest way to see Hluhluwe Imfolozi’s wildlife is to book a safari tour. Certainly, this is considered the safest way to explore the park, and with the help of a guide you likely have the best chance of spotting wildlife.
And yet it’s also possible – and more daring, to say the least – to self-drive through this awesome park. Without the direction of a ranger or guide, you are left to your own judgement in how to approach dangerous wildlife, and even a car cannot guarantee safety.
I have experienced the tension of a rhino’s stare down and the exhilaration of tracking down a pack of lions judging by the vultures overhead. I’ve also read the shocking story of a tourist’s car being sat on by an elephant. A self-guided safari in South Africa’s wilderness is not for the faint of heart, but certainly for the adventure seeker looking for an ethical and authentic encounter with nature.
Guided safari tours range from $100 USD to multiple hundreds for multiday tours. Remember that Africa’s wild animals are truly wild and demand respect. Follow the posted rules and always stay in your car when driving through the park.
For a truly incredible ethical encounter with the African wild, take a drive through Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Reserve and let nature amaze you.
Horseback safari and wine tasting tour
Horse Rides at Pete’s offers a unique experience to ride through a game reserve and a vineyard and end your ride with a beautiful wine tasting at Villera Estate. This ride is 3 hours long, and we started by meeting the horses we’d been paired with, Boerperds. These domesticated (native to South Africa) horses are quiet and sturdy and are great for riders of any level. They are well taken care of and were all matched with a rider based on experience, temperament, and size. The game reserve that we rode through was created as an animal sanctuary for a variety of African animals to promote conservation efforts, and it covers over 500 acres. After leaving the reserve, we headed through the vineyards to continue the ride towards our wine tasting, where we hopped off the horses to let them relax in the shade of the trees and enjoy the grass while we enjoyed the wine. We learned all about the conservation and sustainability initiatives this vineyard is making to preserve the natural flora and fauna of the area. This three hour tour was R1200 (around $70 USD) including the cost of the wine tasting. For me, this was a bucket list activity and the best way to experience one of the Best Vineyards in South Africa!
If you’re going to ride, wear long pants and closed toe shoes, be sure to pay attention to the guides, and definitely bring a camera!
African penguins’ colony in Betty’s Bay, Cape Town
Stony Point Nature Reserve occupies 3 kilometers of coastline on the Atlantic Coast near the small town of Betty’s Bay, 90 km east of Cape Town. The reserve is home to one of the largest mainland colonies of African penguins. The Stony Point Natural Reserve is a part of the marine protected areas of South Africa. It was founded in 1982 and since then the population of penguins has been increasing year over year, with an estimated population of 2000 seasoned breeding pairs. Besides the African penguin, the reserve’s conservation program includes three endemic species of cormorant.
As an ethical animal encounter, there are no fences or any other ways of limiting animals’ movement. A wide network of boardwalks and platforms is built throughout the reserve on which visitors must stay on at all times ensuring animals are not disturbed by people while we get to enjoy a close-up look at the penguins in their natural habitat. March and May are are the best months to visit the reserve which is the peak of the breeding season for the South African colonies of penguins and allows you to see tiny baby penguins sitting in their nests.
We’ve visited the Stony Point Reserve several times as a day trip from Cape Town and every time we enjoyed spending time there. It’s an amazing experience to see cute African penguins walking around freely not limited by fences or cages.
The entrance fee to the reserve is ZAR 25/US$1,5 for adults and ZAR 15/US$1 for children. The reserve is open daily from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm.
Wild Safari in Kruger National Park
Wild safari in Kruger National Park (KNP) is one of the most popular safari locations across Africa, if not, the world. KNP is located on the east side of South Africa near the land border with Mozambique. Most visitors will rent a car and drive on their own while some people would sign up on a tour with a guide to help spot the wild animals that thrive in Kruger National Park. The top animals to see in KNP are lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, and buffalo. Although you’ll see lot of other animals, I personally saw over 150 species during my visit.
This is an amazing and ethical animal encounter because all the animals are freely roaming the massive 19,485 km² national park. Visitors are not allowed to touch, feed, or get close to these stunning animals. Hunting is not allowed, the local committee is in charge of making sure that the population of the animals is balanced and healthy, although they do not interfere in natural activities between the animals. There are also human made waterholes around which are very helpful, especially during the dry season.
To enter Kruger Park, visitors must pay a daily entrance fee which are used in its enteritety to maintain the park and improve the infrastructure both for the animals, workers, and visitors. The daily cost of doing a wild safari at Kruger National Park depends on many things. You can either sign up for a one-day tour or stay inside the park for multiple nights. The cost can easily run from $30 up to $200 a day including a rented car. If you have 2 weeks in South Africa, plan to spend about 3-5 days in KNP to enjoy the wild safari.
Other countries in Africa
Visit N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary in Windhoek, Namibia
N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary is an ethical sanctuary in the southern African country of Namibia, renowned throughout the country for its contribution to improving human and wildlife conflict.
Over the years the sanctuary has rescued thousands of injured and orphaned animals. Many of them have successfully been released back into the wild, some fitted with GPS collars to help keep track of their location and to ensure they don’t come into contact with farmers. One of the major threats that wildlife in Namibia faces is coming too close to farmland. With the location of these animals known as a result of the collars, if an animal strays too close to farmland, the sanctuary can intervene and help prevent any conflict. However, some animals which have had too much contact with humans can never be released into the wild.
You can visit the sanctuary either as a day trip, volunteer or by staying in one of the sanctuary’s accommodation options. It’s a worthwhile experience and you can be confident that you are supporting a good cause. The sanctuary is a non-profit organisation so all your money is going towards the upkeep of the sanctuary and conservation.
One of the many activities the sanctuary offers is a carnivore feeding tour which costs N$780 (£39) per person. A full list of activities and rates can be viewed here.
Giraffe Centre in Nairobi, Kenya
The Giraffe Centre is a nature sanctuary whose main purpose is to educate visitors and give them an opportunity to interact with Rothschild Giraffes, an endangered subspecies of giraffes found in East Africa. Visiting the sanctuary is a great opportunity to have a unique ethical animal encounter and contribute to their conservation efforts.
After discovering a herd that had lost its habitat, the late Jock Leslie-Melville and his wife, Betty, brought two young giraffes to their home in southwest Nairobi. Here, they raised and bred the calves, hoping to save the subspecies. In 1983, through the foundation and fundraising of a non-profit organization, the couple created the 60-acre Giraffe Centre sanctuary, and since then, more than 300 Rothschild Giraffes have been reintroduced back into the wild.
When we entered the Giraffe Centre, we received a cup of pellets and stepped up to the feeding platform where we (and many others) got to interact with and feed these magnificent creatures. We even saw some folks trying to get a kiss from one of the giraffes! After that, we headed back to an open area closer to the entrance where we were able to admire and interact with some more giraffes.
A visit to the Giraffe Centre is a great way to spend one day in Nairobi. For non-residents, the admission cost is 1500 KES for adults and 750 for children. For residents, it’s 400 KES for adults and 200 for children. The centre includes a nature trail, a tea house that serves refreshments; and a gift shop, where each purchase supports the cause. We recommend visiting on a weekday or calling ahead of time to see which days may be less crowded, as it’s a popular spot and was very crowded when we visited.
Ngorongoro safari, Tanzania
Ngorongoro Crater is one of the most spectacular safari destinations in Tanzania. Here you will find all of the “big five”, plus a diverse ecosystem with so much wildlife. I visited Tanzania a few years ago, and Ngorongoro Crater was included as a stop in the safari I booked. I used an ethical company to go on safari with, Tanzania Scenic Safaris, who pays their staff a fair wage and employs local people.
Ngorongoro Crater is a national park, which means that its landscape and wildlife are protected by the government. Each jeep received a permit for half a day only, so you can’t stay longer inside the crater. We started our visit early in the morning before the sun rose. The weather was rainy and muddy, but just as we finished our descent into the crater, we stumbled upon a pair of lionesses walking alongside the road.
Until midday, we managed to see all the “big five”, including many rhinos – which are endangered. Our guide told us that the winter months are the best time to spot rhinos, as this is when they come down from the slopes in search of water and food. They mingle with buffalos and sometimes are hard to spot among them, as they stay away from the road.
The safari jeep doesn’t approach nor bait the animals to come near the tourists. They only observe from a distance. Sometimes, the lions do approach, and this happened to us. We witnessed a lion killing a zebra, but soon, a pack of hyenas came and chased it away. The lion retreated just behind our jeep, visibly irritated.
If you choose a safari in Tanzania, make sure that it is ethical and that it includes Ngorongoro Crater. It’s such a special experience!
Wild chimpanzee tracking in Uganda
Uganda is one of the best places in the world to see wild chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Large numbers of chimpanzees live in the Kibale Forest National Park near Fort Portal and you have a 90% chance of seeing them roaming wild in the forest. The chimpanzees that you’ll visit in Kibale Forest are habituated and this means they are used to having people around for a short time each day. Our ranger guide, Annette, found a family of chimps after only half an hour of hiking through the dense undergrowth, and we were able to watch them feeding, grooming each other and swinging through the trees. It was a truly delightful experience and the wild chimps were quite cheeky and playful.
Chimpanzee tracking in Uganda is a real travel adventure and an ethical experience which is strictly controlled by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). To protect the wildlife, only a limited number of permits are issued so it’s best to buy your permit in advance. Chimpanzee tracking permits cost US$200 and this includes National Park entry fees and a UWA Ranger Guide. It may seem expensive but the money raised helps to preserve the forest and protect the chimpanzees. Uganda is also the home of endangered mountain gorillas and gorilla tracking costs around US$700 in Uganda and even more in Rwanda. But Uganda has one of the world’s most successful primate conservation programs funded mostly by tourist dollars.
Ethical animal encounters in the Americas
Swimming with whale sharks
I had always wanted to swim with whale sharks. The idea of getting close to these very gentle giants had always appealed to me. So when I had the opportunity to do it with my family in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, I didn’t hesitate for a second.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. They can grow up to 40 feet long and weigh more than 20,000 pounds! Despite their size, they are gentle creatures, and swimming with them is an unforgettable experience.
The whale sharks in Isla Mujeres frequent a huge protected preserve. The government has rangers patrolling on site to enforce the various rules set to protect the whale sharks. Guides explain them all to you before departing from shore. If anyone breaks the preserve rules, there are big penalties.
The cost of a whale shark swimming experience usually runs anywhere from $100-$200 depending on what’s included. A portion of the cost goes toward the national park entrance fee, which helps pay for the rangers to safeguard all the marine life living there.
Swimming with whale sharks is such a fantastic ethical experience. It’s a chance to see these beautiful creatures up close and learn more about them. It’s also an opportunity to help protect them and ensure their future.
If you’re thinking about snorkeling with whale sharks, I highly recommend it! Just be sure to follow all of the rules so that we can all continue enjoying this amazing experience for years to come.
Visit Bird sanctuary in Isla Contoy, Quintana Roo
With a limit of 200 people visiting Isla Contoy every day, this national park in Mexico is protected from an excessive amount of tourists that could damage one of the most important bird sanctuaries in the Caribbean Sea.
This incredible island is just off the Yucatan Peninsula which is abundant in amazing places to visit including many nature reserves. To protect the island’s fauna and flora, only a small part of the island is open to tourists. However, relaxing on a pristine beach while admiring starfishes and unique birds such as Yellow-Crowned Night Heron is an amazing experience that I will never forget. Another protective measure is that visitors are not allowed to use sunscreens in order to protect marine ecosystems. Also, never touch plants and marine life that will be so close to you during the visit to Isla Contoy.
This tiny environmentally friendly island is also a great example of sustainability, where rainwater, solar, and wind power are used. All in all, Isla Contoy is an iconic example of protecting the coral reef and over 150 bird species in one of the most popular destinations in Mexico. If you want to get close up to incredible wildlife in an ethical manner definitely book a tour to Isla Contoy, which costs around US$ 100.
Gray Whale watching, Mexico
Seeing Grey Whales in Magdalena Bay is not your usual whale watching experience. For reasons unknown to scientists, the Grey Whales of Magdalena Bay are known for their playful interactions with humans. Touching animals in the wild is usually a no-no in any ethical wildlife encounter, but the rules change in Magdalena Bay.
A whale watching tour becomes more like a whale playing tour, and seeing these giant creatures willingly interact with me was like nothing I have ever experienced before. The whales have complete control to approach or swim away depending on their mood and can spend hours playing with passengers, spy hopping in front of them to try to get a kiss. I felt that the whole experience was very ethical, and boats in the area follow strict regulations on approaching the whales and keeping a safe distance. It’s important to avoid wearing any sunscreen or other body lotions if you plan to touch the whales, which can add harmful chemicals to the ocean and the whale’s skin.
It is remarkable that the whales are confident to approach humans, considering the troubled history between the two species.
A simple one-day whale watching experience starts from US$100. Or you can opt for a package including camping on an island inside the bay, and multiple whale watching tours from US$700. Local tour company Magdalena Bay Whales is the original whale watching expert, and I highly recommend them.
Canoeing with crocodiles, Oaxaca
In January 2022, I had the opportunity to visit La Ventanilla Ecotourism Community, a small-but-mighty town about 3 kilometres from the popular beach town of Mazunte, Oaxaca. While unsuspecting and off-the-beaten-path, in the early ’90s the residents saw the destruction that was happening to the mangrove forests that surrounded the town and decided that if no one else was going to save the lagoon, they would!
First, our guide gave us a brief history on the area. Then, myself and my group (about 8 people total) were led down the path to the lagoon where we clambered into a little rowboat and paddle into the lagoon. In the Ventanilla Lagoon you will see iguanas, many different kinds of birds, and…crocodiles! Yes, I paddled around with crocs! It was incredible to see these massive creatures up close.
After about an hour, we headed to the beach for the last part of the tour: releasing baby turtles into the wild! The turtle species in Oaxaca are endangered and the eggs are at risk from natural predators and humans who still consume turtle eggs as a delicacy. Therefore, Ventanilla Ecotourism Community has a baby turtle realease program in which visitor can participate.
There are a few ways to experience the La Ventanilla Ecotourism Community; I purchased our tickets from someone on the beach in Mazunte because that ensured they would give transportation there and back. It cost about MX$500 per person. But, if you go to the town yourself, you can join the tours directly for about MX$100 for the crocodile tour and MX$150 for the turtle release. 100% of your payment goes towards the project.
While the cost might be a bit higher, I recommend booking in advance to ensure you get a full educational experience with a tour in your language.
Hang out with the cool cats at Orlando Cat Cafe
My husband and I recently stumbled upon this cool thing to do in Clermont because we finished sightseeing early. It wasn’t time for dinner, so we decided to explore the shops at Cagan’s Crossing. That’s how we spotted The Orlando Cat Cafe, an ethical pet cafe, located at 532 Cagan Park Avenue. We entered through Minch Coffee Shop. The barista explained that visits to the cat cafe are timed on the hour. We each ordered a coffee and paid for our tickets, which were $10 each. Then we watched the cute fur balls through the window while awaiting our turn.
Inside, a 1000 square foot playroom houses cats sneaking around ready to play. We chose a comfy couch to sit on and waited for a cat to approach us. One curious black and white kitten came over to us. However, she was more interested in my coffee than in playing! There were a few other people in there at the same time as us dangling toys or rolling balls for the cats. The cats’ caregiver supervised the visit and was available to answer questions.
The caregiver explained that The Orlando Cat Cafe teamed up with SPCA Florida to provide a temporary home for rescue cats where they live until they are adopted. All the cats are spayed or neutered. The cafe gives prospective cat parents and kitties a chance to meet and see if they are a good match for each other. The cats also benefit from socializing with other cats and humans. Merchandise sold at the cat cafe along with admission fees goes towards caring for these cuties.
Kayaking with Manatees in Florida
I think one of the best and most ethical animal experiences around the world is kayaking with manatees in Florida. In particular, Crystal River is an excellent spot to kayak with manatees since this place is home to one of the largest populations in the world. We also found it really cheap to rent a kayak in the area since they start at around $30 each with a 3-hour minimum. Prices do vary based on where you rent a kayak but Captain Tim’s Family Adventure Charters is a great place to rent one.
You’ll love checking out some of the best places to kayak with manatees in Florida because you are in a non-motorized vehicle and can get super close to the manatees without hurting them or disturbing them in any way. Plus, because the US Fish and Wildlife Service does research in the area to keep this threatened species safe, many protective regulations are in place to ensure the population remains safe and undisturbed by kayakers.
We found them easiest to spot in springs becasue the water there is clear and also because manatees tend to migrate to there during the winter. So, you’ll find them congregated in many springs across Florida between December and February. However, we’ve definitely seen manatees any time between November and March.
Manatees are known for being very inquisitive creatures so they may come up to your boat. In fact, we’ve had them come up to us a few times. If this is the case never touch them and do not kayak over a manatee. Instead, kayak around them and use shallow paddles to keep your disturbance of the creature minimal.
Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay State Park in Oahu, Hawaii
Hanauma Bay State Park offers some of the best snorkeling in Oahu, with 400 species of fish and other sea creatures, like turtles and spinner dolphins, calling this former volcanic crater home.
Beyond allowing visitors to explore a beautiful underwater world, though, it’s also one of the most ethical snorkeling experiences you can find on Oahu. First of all, entry to the park is limited, allowing only 1400 visitors to enter the park per day, Wednesdays through Sundays, to protect the fragile coral reef from overtourism. Further, in order to snorkel at the bay, visitors are required to watch a short educational film in the park’s Marine Education Center, which explains the importance of the coral reefs and how best to protect them and the creatures that call the reefs home.
For non-Hawaii residents 13 years and older, it costs $25 per person to snorkel here, as well as a $3 parking fee per vehicle. Per Honolulu city ordinance, the funds collected here must be used for the operation and maintenance of the Hanauma Bay, its education programs, or scientific studies, with only two other Honolulu parks eligible to receive any leftover funding. So by snorkeling here, you do not only learn about the coral reefs (both in the Marine Education Center and by snorkeling!), but you’re also helping to make the bay a better place!
Reservations can be made online up to two days in advance, starting at 7 AM HST. Tickets generally sell out fast, so be sure to set your alarm so you can snag one!
Diving with Manta Rays in Big Island, Hawaii
Years ago a hotel on the Big Island put up lights so the guests could see the waves crashing into the lava rock cliffs. They didn’t realize the lights would draw plankton which would draw the manta rays that feed on the plankton. Now, you can take a tour out into the water to watch the mantas feeding each night.
The tours taking you won’t guarantee that you’ll see manta rays but you can come on a trip on a different day if you miss out. The manta rays are wild and can come and go as they please. You’ll swim out and hold on to a special platform with a pool noodle under your feet so you aren’t at risk of kicking a manta ray on accident. Guides take very seriously that you don’t touch the mantas; they’ll ask you to get out of the water if they feel you are endangering the manta rays.
The cost depends on the tour you go with but expect around $130 per person. The trip will last around an hour and a half. You’re in a cove and not in the boat for long but since you’re floating on the water for your snorkel motion sick medicine isn’t a bad plan. The Manta Rays get very close and may even bump you (you just can’t touch them) and an underwater camera can really help you capture the experience. Someone on the boat with me had come on the tour multiple times during their trip. I definitely understand why. This is an activity that should definitely be on your Hawaii ethical experiences bucket list!
Beach Buddies Program in Maui, Hawaii
Visiting the Hawaiian island of Maui might sound like a tropical getaway where you will be spending all of your time with your toes in the sand and a drink in your hand. But it’s really so much more than that with all of the active things to do on Maui.
The best way you can spend a day on the island is by picking up a pup from the Maui Humane Society. If you book it in advance and make a donation of $50, then you can pick up a foster dog from the shelter to spend 4 hours with them exploring the island.
You can take your pup on a hike, to the beach, or even out to lunch! What’s better than exploring the gorgeous Hawaiian islands than doing so with a sweet fur baby at your side?
It is fun for you to spend the day with a dog, but it is also hugely important for them. Shelter dogs need lots of attention and exercise to help keep them in their best mental and physical state as they wait to find their perfect forever home! If nothing else, think of how much good you are serving to the local community, by spending time with the animals and giving a small part of your vacation fund to a good cause.
The Humane Society will provide you with everything you need for your outing, all you need is a car. The dog’s backpack is filled with maps, suggested adventure and lunch destinations, water, a bowl, poop bags, treats and even a doggie seatbelt!
Other countries in America
Orca watching, Canada
Orca watching is an activity that can be enjoyed in many different ways, but one of the most ethical and impactful ways to do so is through a company like Orca Spirit Adventures or Prince of Whales.
Located in Victoria, British Columbia,these ethical tours offer both boat-based and kayak-based tours of the local waters in search of orcas, humpback whales, and other marine life.
The Johnstone Strait in Victoria is one of the best places in the world to see orcas in the wild. It’s a natural habitat of these wild whales, with protected waters that encourage their conservation. Year-round, you can see 200+ wild orcas enjoying these safe waters.
What makes the experience even more amazing is that a portion of the tour cost goes towards research and conservation projects for these orcas. There are also caps on the number of boats allowed out, to minimize disturbance to the orcas.
On top of that, the guides are incredibly knowledgeable about the local ecosystem, and are passionate about educating their guests on the importance of marine life conservation. In fact, many are trained, marine naturalists!
A whale watching tour in Victoria, BC ranges from CAN$150-550 (depending on if you need a transfer from mainland Vancouver).
Don’t forget to layer up! Victoria may be warm on land, but it’s about 10 degrees colder on the open water, especially as you wait for the whales to breach.
Sloth watching tour in Arenal, Costa Rica
Sloths are tree-dwelling animals that typically live in Costa Rica’s rainforests and sloth watching tours are definitely one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. Although they are very slow, they camouflage themselves well by blending with the trees which helps them to survive that’s why they are difficult to spot.
Sloths in Costa Rica face many threats such as deforestation, poaching, electric wires (which is the main source of injury for sloths), and inadequate protection laws. While you can find sloths in sanctuaries around the country, you can also spot them in the wild in the tropical part of the country.
There are several organizations in Costa Rica like The Sloth Institute in Manuel Antonio working protect sloths by rescuing and rehabilitatin them. They also have education programs. After learning about some of the challenges that sloths face in the wild, some visitors feel encouraged to help them by volunteering or donating money to those organizations that work with them.
Sloth watching can become an ethical experience if you choose a tour that will not allow to interfere with the sloth habitat and only watching them from a distance. This tours have a positive impact because as more tourists get educated about sloths, they learn about the many challenges that these animals face today, and support local guides who are instrumental in sharing information about ethical encounters with these animals. A typical sloth watching tour costs between US$30 and US$50 depending on the type of a tour and activities.
Jungle Walks in the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador
For unforgettable animal encounters, head to the Amazon in Ecuador, where visitors can take part in jungle walks, kayaking and canoeing trips, and countless excursions to experience wildlife from a respectful distance.
While the Amazon Rainforest extends through areas of several countries in South America, Ecuador tends to be a bit overlooked as a destination for exploring the Amazon, despite having some of the most untouched and well-preserved areas of the jungle, home to some of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world.
Visitors looking for a chance to get up close and personal with wildlife while respecting habitats and endangered species will have countless opportunities. Jungle walks led by trained guides are the most popular excursions, lasting from a few hours to full days in length. While you’re not guaranteed to see any particular animals, most travelers get a chance to see countless species of animals, including birds, insects, frogs, fish, and other animals endemic to this area of the Amazon Rainforest.
Another way to travel ethically is to ensure that jungle walks respect local indigenous populations. Napo Cultural Center and Napo Wildlife Center are some of the leaders in Ecuador in providing sustainable and culturally sensitive jungle walks and other tours, which help support indigenous populations in the process. Though these excursions tend to be on the pricier end of those you find in Ecuador, they are among the most sustainable and beneficial for flora and fauna, as well as indigenous groups.
Ethical animal experiences in Asia
Tiger Safari in Ranthambore National Park, Rajastan
Located near two of India’s most popular cities, New Delhi and Jaipur, Ranthambore National Park and Tiger Reserve is one of the world’s best-renowned wilderness areas. Home to around 70 tigers and other species like Sambar deers and leopards, it is an exciting place to sit back and encounter wildlife in their natural habitat.
When visiting Ranthambore a few months ago, I was glad to learn that there is a control on the maximum number of vehicles allowed for safaris per zone per day. If slots are available, visitors can opt to go to any of the ten zones where tourists are permitted to go on a safari.
The timings and duration of the tiger safari are also pre-decided, and tourists cannot stay on the premises otherwise. Additionally, there is a marked track made with sand, and none of the vehicles are authorized to go beyond that.
The naturalists at Ranthambore care about the environment immensely, and by speaking with them, I learned that multiple measures are taken every day for the conservation of tigers and their habitat. In fact, the population of tigers in Ranthambore has increased drastically since the establishment of the reserve.
The cost of the tiger safari in Ranthambore for Indian nationals is INR1700 per person for a jeep and INR1200 per person for a canter. For foreigners, the prices are INR 3500 per person for a jeep and INR 2500 per person for a canter. Jeeps are shared between 6 passengers while the canter is for 20.
Watching endangered red pandas in Singalila National Park, West Bengal
Red pandas are native to the eastern Himalayan Mountain Range of India. The reddish-brown fur, white-lined ears, and the ringed tail of red pandas are attractive to many animal lovers. As their population has declined to 5000-6000 over the decade, red pandas are now declared endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
I was lucky to witness a group of 2-3 red pandas playing in their wild habitat of Singalila National Park while trekking to Sandakphu. Earlier, tourists were not aware of how important they were. But now, the government has taken the necessary steps to conserve these animals in their natural habitat and spread awareness. Local villagers are also now fully aware of treating these animals ethically. WWF India works with West Bengal and Sikkim state governments to research and implement conservation measures of red pandas.
When I last visited, I had to register myself and produce the necessary documents to enter the national park. The entry fee to Singalila National Park is ₹100 for Indian citizens and ₹200 for foreign nationals. If you carry a still camera or video cam, you need to purchase tickets for ₹100 and ₹400 separately. Also, after getting the permit, hiring a guide is made mandatory to enter the forest so that red pandas and other wild animals and resources do not get exploited. All these measures made this animal encounter an ethical activity woth experiencing.
Other countries in Asia
Orangutan rehabilitation centre in Borneo
Sepilok Orangutans Rescue Centre is in the heart of the rainforest near the town of Sandakan, Malaysia. It was founded in 1981 to help save the endangered species. Walking along the wooden jungle paths, you’ll feel totally immersed in the wilderness and eager to discover more about this amazing environment.
This rescue centre is an ethical way to see animals rescued from cruelty, exploitation or endangerment in their natural habitat. The centre consists of three sections; the main area, the nursery and the release section. Many of the orangutans can roam freely into the wider jungle, coming and going as they please. Others need more rehabilitation and care and therefore many never get released back into the wild.
The conservation effort has resulted in over 600 orangutans being released into the wild, while over 1,200 have been successfully rehabilitated.
Admission to the park costs 30RM per person, plus another 10RM if you want to take photos. There’s also a souvenir shop and a conservation center where visitors can learn about the orangutans they currently have in the rescue, their history and even their unique personalities.
During your visit be sure to catch the morning or afternoon feed to watch the orangutans casually dine while other wild monkeys try and steal a free lunch.
I left the rescue centre with a full heart and memories that will last a lifetime. It truly is a unique experience being up close with such magnificent creatures.
Seeing Komodo dragons at Komodo National Park, Indonesia
One of our favourite ethical animal experiences was when we visited Komodo National Park and spent the day in search of the elusive Komodo dragon. We walked around Komodo Island looking for the giant lizard on a guided tour while being shown their nesting grounds and watering holes. Finally, we spotted one basking in the afternoon sun down by the beach. It was amazing!
Komodo National Park is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is managed by the Indonesian Central Government. They have a specific ecotourism plan to promote and ensure the sustainability of tourism activities. As the park is the only natural habitat in the world for the endangered Komodo dragon, visiting it and seeing them first hand was an incredible experience!
The Indonesian Government has enforced strict anti-poaching and illegal fishing laws to further help protect the park and the wildlife within it. Additionally, community awareness and empowerment programs have been implemented to engage the local communities in regard to the sustainable use of natural resources and park conservation.
The local park rangers, who are employed to guide tours around the park, have a very hands on approach and were extremely knowledgeable, answering any questions we had about the Komodo dragons.
Day visits are extremely popular from the nearby fishing village of Labuan Bajo, but the best way to really experience the park is on a 3-day Komodo National Park sailing trip! The prices of these sailing trips vary depending on the length of trip, the amount of people and type of boat, however, a good ball-park figure is around £150 — £200 per person for a 3-day sailing trip including stops at a number of islands, snorkelling and entrance fee to Komodo National Park.
Visit the bowing deer of Nara, Japan
The city of Nara can be reached by either the city of Osaka or Kyoto in less than an hour. Due to its location, Nara Park makes a great 1/2-day excursion on your Kyoto itinerary. We were able to go to Nara Park and meet the famous “bowing deer”
Nara Park is a public park since 1880, and its sole purpose is to be a deer sanctuary for the sacred deer. Why are these animals sacred? Well, according to a story, Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder, first appeared on the top of a mountain riding on a white deer. The deer inhabiting the surrounding forest were deemed messengers of the gods and decreed sacred. Today, the government of Japan considers the deer in Nara a national treasure, which is why you can see them roaming in Nara Park.
There is no entrance fee for the park, and it is open 24 hours a day. You can purchase a package of crackers for ¥200 and can feed the deer yourself. The deer are uniquely accustomed to humans and mimic human bowing. These are still wild deer and caution is advised when interacting with these animals. Just calmly hand out the crackers until the crackers are all gone.
The address of the park is 406-1 Zoshicho, Nara, 630-8211, and you can take the bus which is a 20-minute walk from JR Nara Station, or the train, about a 5 minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station.
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre based a little North of Chiang Mai. The elephants that are rescued are often ex-worker abused elephants from Thailand and neighbouring countries such as Myanmar. Now 250 acres, the park is home to over 70 elephants, 400 cats, and over 600 dogs.
Not only is the park dedicated to offering a safe and happy home to elephants, dogs, cats, buffaloes, and many other rescued species, but it’s also dedicated to spreading awareness of animal abuse. As well as educating all visitors and holding workshops in schools about the unethical elephant industry, Elephant Nature Park works closely with the Thai government to improve animal welfare.
There are a few different visiting options on offer, from half-day visits to two-week volunteer experiences. In April 2019, I spent a week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park.
During this week, I was given a glimpse into the beautiful life these elephants are now living as well as learning about the awful history behind their sufferings. There were also other activities on offer such as dance classes, movie nights, Thai massages, and language classes.
My daily duties varied between picking up elephant poop and helping to make the elephants food. This meant that on numerous occasions I was able to be up close with elephants, coexisting together. It was so incredible and refreshing to see in real life just how much of an impact the park has on both the animals and people.
1-Week Volunteer Program Fee: 12,000 THB (around £308).
Ethical animal encounters in Europe
Watching arctic foxes in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve at Westfjords
In the far north of Iceland is a small nature reserve that can only be reached by boat. This means that the wildlife that makes it home is isolated and protected from hunting and over tourism. My boat trip was in a large boat and then a small zodiac. As we arrived, I felt that this was a special place.
Arctic foxes have territories, and one large territory is close to a small farmstead. From the farmhouse, I was able to watch the foxes as they came across the mountains from their dens and head down to the beach to fish. In the winter months, this is the only source of food for the foxes. In the summer months, life is a little easier and the foxes can be seen hunting in the streams and along the bird cliffs. Foxes came around with no baiting which for me was very important. This ethical encounters with the wild foxes were incredible.
The nature reserve has a large proportion of the Icelandic Arctic fox population, and it has a few ongoing research projects that help to understand these small mammals.
Getting to Hornstrandir is only possible by boat which leaves from the Isafjordur in the Westfjords or by foot in the summer months along the east coast of the reserve from Holmavik. To get the most from this experience a guide is recommended and costs of these start from $400 a day including the boat fare.
Whale watching in Husavik
Whale watching in the city of Husavik, Iceland, is known as the best location in all of Europe to see these mighty marine mammals. We visited Husavik as part of our Iceland Ring Road itinerary specifically for this experience. Husavik is located in the northeastern section of Iceland, right on the coast. Whales, in particular, the humpback whale, blue whale, and minke whale, hang out in the bay.
During our whale watching expedition, we boarded restored, traditional wooden sailing boats and then headed out into the bay to follow the whales. For three hours, we cruised around the bay, watching the whales as they surfaced and dove near us.
Whale watching with the North Sailing company in Husavik is an eco-friendly and ethical tour, as the boats have been carefully restored, and they offer carbon-neutral, electric boats.
Additionally, preserving the wellbeing of the whales is a top priority for North Sailing. They are careful to not approach too quickly or too close to the whales, and to conduct the tours in a way to preserve the whale’s health and not cause distress.
Although you can see whales throughout the year, summer is by far the best time to go whale watching in Husavik, as the whales have migrated north for feeding and are hanging out in the bay. In summertime, there are also tours to see puffins as well!
Tours generally cost between $85-90 for a 3 hour tour. This includes the use of warm coveralls and a cup of cocoa. I would book several weeks in advance – the tours can fill up!!
Other countries in Europe
Dingle Sea Safari in Ireland
The Dingle Sea Safari is a 3 hour boat tour of the Blasket Islands, a group of uninhabited islands off the coast of Dingle. The tour features rock formations, historical overviews, and plenty of animal encounters.
While on the Dingle Sea Safari, I saw dolphins, a shark, a whole manner of sea birds, seals, and a puffin. I singled out the puffin because I’d wanted to see a wild puffin for years!
This tour is an ethical animal encounter because the guides are careful to leave a respectful distance between the boat and the wildlife at all times. Visitors can see animals in their natural habitats with minimal interference; if the animals want to avoid visitors, they can simply swim or fly away.
There were many animals that were very curious about our boat and chose to approach us! Several seals swam up towards the boat and seemed to study us for a few moments before moving on. The dolphins were even more interested in us. They followed alongside our boat and seemed to race almost all of the way back to the harbor, losing interest when we finally slowed down in the calmer water.
Dress as warmly as possible, including gloves and waterproof shoes. The boat can get quite rocky, so take acupressure bands for sea sickness and avoid any foods that might upset your stomach ahead of the tour.
The Dingle Sea Safari costs €65 per person (everyone in my group felt it was worth the cost!).
Tapada de Mafra, situated in Mafra Portugal
Located 25 minutes north of Lisbon, the Tapada de Mafra is an ecological haven for Portuguese flora and fauna. It was originally the royal hunting grounds when the palace was built in Mafra, in 1738. It has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and now it ethically protects indigenous species of flora and fauna. It is also an environmental educational centre which participates in EU and state led studies. Proceeds from ticket sales go towards local protection and education projects.
This is one of the best things to do in Mafra as a family or with a group of friends and this visit will keep you busy for at least a few hours. Prices range from 9.50 to 17.50 euros for adults, and 7.50 to 12.50 euros for children from 4 to 12, depending on which activities are chosen. Although children under 4 enter for free, I don’t recommend this activity for this age group since kids need to be able to walk/bike at least 5 km. Organized activities, as well as light hiking or biking, is on offer in the park, where animals such as deer, wild boars, foxes and other forest dwellers can be seen, as well as different types of birds. Activities such as canopy tours (15 euros), horse and buggy ride (13.50 euros), as well as a train ride (10.50 euros) through the forest, allow guests to take in the views of the surrounding valley and enjoy the biodiversity. Presentations on birds of prey, and bees also take place daily and patrons are invited to take part after enjoying a picnic in the designated picnic area.
Visit reindeer in Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
Nestled in the Highlands of Scotland is the Cairngorms National Park. At first glance, the Cairngorms seems just like another park.
It has hiking trails for miles, and visitors cycle there year-round. However, the Cairngorms is home to one of the best things to do in Scotland-– the ability to meet one of the last free-ranging herds of reindeer.
The Cairngorm Reindeer herd has been roaming the hills of Scotland since 1952. This herd of 150 reindeer is a fantastic place to spend some time with these rare animals. At times, a few various reindeer will be in the paddocks. But, the true experience is hiking up into the hills of the Cairngorms to see the herd when they are running wild.
Each day, the caretakers of the herd head out to find where the herd is that day. They work diligently to provide ethical care of these animals, specifically making sure they have the freedom to roam as they please.
A hike up to the paddock will be £20 for adults and £15 for children. This includes a hike into the hills and time with the reindeer herd, including photos. There is a limited number of tickets available each day, as the herders are careful not to overwhelm the animals and make sure to give them time and space alone.
If you can, be sure to visit during the winter months! Word is that Santa is regularly with his reindeer, often giving away treats!
Port Lympne Safari Park in the UK
Port Lympne in Kent is one of the best safari parks in the UK. Though some visitors may confuse it for a zoo due to the fenced enclosures housing animals not usually found in Europe, Port Lympne is much more focused on education, conservation and leaving the world in a better place than when it opened.
As a business focused on conservation, not only does a day trip here allow visitors to see wild animals in areas mimicking their natural habitat, but it also has a much more important purpose. With the money it makes from fundraising and ticket sales, the Aspinall Foundation, which owns Port Lympne, breeds rare and endangered animals with a view to returning them to the wild. It has successfully reintroduced over 70 lowland gorillas, 40 Javan gibbons, numerous cheetah and white rhino to their natural homes.
Head out on a self-guided walking tour of the park to find lions, gorillas and tigers, while a guided tour on a safari canter will treat you to sightings of giraffe, white rhino and painted dogs, among others.
A day ticket for the safari park including the guided tour costs £29, though it is possible to stay overnight in order to experience the closest thing to an African safari in the UK as you can get! Opt for a luxury glamping experience in Bear Lodge, or sleep next to the tigers in Tiger Lodge. There aren’t many places in the world you can do that!
Hawk Conservancy Trust, Andover, UK
Starting life as a farm in the 1960s, the Hawk Conservancy Trust in rural Hampshire just 20 minutes away from Stonehenge, has developed over the years into a specialist conservation centre for birds of prey, with an outreach programme which spans across the globe. As well as being home to a dedicated hospital which treats over 200 sick and injured birds each year, the Trust has research, conservation and education as its primary focus. Projects include the reintroduction of red kites to the UK and the Nest Box Project to increase the number of kestrels who are declining across the country. Further afield they are leading the efforts to protect vultures who are heading for extinction due to an increase in poisoning by elephant poachers.
The funds for this work are raised by visitors to the Hawk Conservancy who arrive in their droves to learn more about these incredible birds and to watch the flying shows, which are the highlight of any visit. Not all birds from the hospital are able to be returned to the wild and instead they live at the Trust and take part in the flying displays. The grounds of the Trust are spacious and truly immaculate, with woods, ponds and a wildflower meadow, with the birds living in huge outdoor homes filled with trees and plants.
The Trust holds regular events and visitors are occasionally allowed to handle the birds on specialist days where you learn how to fly them, but otherwise it is all about watching these magnificent creatures and learning how to help protect their environments.
An adult day ticket to the Trust costs £15, with a child’s ticket at £12.50. The events vary in price, with the Owls by Moonlight costing £35 and a handling experience starting at £87. All money raised goes back into upkeep and conservation projects.
Ethical animal experiences in Oceana
Visit Maria Island National Park in Tasmania
Maria Island National Park sits 30 minutes by ferry off the east coast of Tasmania, Australia. Once a convict and farming settlement, Maria Island is now a wildlife sanctuary where visitors can daytrip or camp and immerse themselves in the island’s abundant wildlife. The island is home to 125 bird species, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, bandicoots, and Tasmanian devils.
With no vehicles on the island (you explore on foot or bike), no introduced species, managed tourist numbers and no resorts, Maria Island has become a wildlife haven and an ethical way to experience Australian local wildlife. You are encouraged to take the Maria Island Pledge, a vow to treat the island’s habitats and wildlife with respect. The Pledge pays particular attention to Maria Island’s wombat population. The cute barrels of fur and their even more adorable babies are selfie magnets and visitors are asked to stay a respectful distance from them.
Maria Island is also a sanctuary for Tasmanian devils. On mainland Tasmania, the population is being devasted by the contagious facial tumour disease. Healthy animals have been relocated there to conserve the species.
The ferry from Triabunna to Maria Island costs about A$50 and you will also have to purchase a national park pass. Once you are on Maria Island, there are no extra costs unless you stay overnight. We recommend an overnight stay on Maria Island so you can enjoy the island once the day trippers have left. There are no shops, you have to bring all your supplies (and take all your rubbish) for your stay.
Wildlife watching in Tasmania
Tasmania is Australia’s wildest state, with over half of the island protected by a network of reserves. This makes Tasmania a fantastic destination for seeing the weird and wonderful Australian animals in the wild.
For our last trip to Tasmania, we planned our entire itinerary around finding and observing wildlife. You practically can’t avoid Bennett’s wallabies and Tasmanian pademelons (a smaller kind of wallaby) anywhere you go in Tasmania. It took a bit more effort to see two of Australia’s weirdest animals – the echidna and the platypus. Both are egg-laying mammals, and it doesn’t get odder than this. The best place we found for watching platypus is the Tasmanian Arboretum in Eugenana.
But our favorite spot for seeing Tasmania’s wild inhabitants was Cradle Mountain. The area is part of UNESCO World Heritage-listed Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair National Park, and it is ridiculously beautiful. As we hiked the trails through this alpine wonderland, we saw more wombats than people (at dusk), as well as echidnas, wallabies, and pademelons.
There is, of course, no handling of the animals involved, an very rewarding ethical animal experience that allows you to see wild animals being wild. And as a side benefit, the cost of your entry ticket contributes to keeping places like Cradle Mountain protected from being turned into commercial or residential developments.
Monkey Mia dolphins
Getting to see wild dolphins is amazing, and Monkey Mia in Western Australia’s Shark Bay is one of the best places for an ethical animal encounter.
Unlike many other places that offer any kind of dolphin experience, Monkey Mia does so in a way that ensures it does not harm the wild dolphin families and their calves. Strict regulations are in place to protect the dolphins.
While there are up to three daily ‘feedings’, these feedings are limited to two chosen dolphins and never exceed more than 10% of the dolphin’s daily food intake. Therefore, they still have to hunt and their natural behavior remains unaltered.
It has been proven that this practice does not have a negative impact on the survival rate of the dolphin caves, which is a major problem at most locations that are known for dolphin encounters.
Additionally, the observation of the Monkey Mia dolphins has contributed to our understanding of dolphins and their habits. This includes the peculiar hunting technique of the Monkey Mia dolphins that use the beach and shallow water to their advantage. The rangers will be happy to tell you all about it.
While there are up to three daily dolphin experiences a day, it is up to the dolphins if they want to come to the beach and participate. I personally think the second daily experience is best, as there are usually fewer spectators.
The dolphin experience is included in the Monkey Mia day permit which costs A$15 per day. A holiday pass has a validity of four weeks and costs A$25.
It is best to spend at least a night at the Monkey Mia Resort, so you have enough time to also rent a kayak. Some of the dolphins might come to you – a truly amazing experience!
Turtle nesting and hatchlings at Mon Repos Beach in Queensland
The turtle season on Australia’s east coast starts in November for turtle nesting and finishes in March when the cute little hatchlings have all made their way to the ocean. One of the best places to see them is Mon Repos Beach, near Bundaberg, about 4.5hrs north of Brisbane.
Marine turtles are endangered animals, and the Mon Repos Turtle Centre was created to protect them. This non profit organisation is a fantastic place to learn more about these animals, the challenges they face and what we can do to support conservation.
Access to the main hall with a few displays is free, but the best experiences aren’t and require a booking. It costs from AU$10 to AU$15 to access the interpretive Turtle Tales displays in the immersive theatre. The popular Turtle Encounter tour is not to be missed, and I was able to get a spot by booking very early. Bookings usually open in September, and it costs between AU$15 to AU$30 to get a chance to see the turtles from really close on the beach. I was slightly disappointed to be in a large group, but everybody behaved well and followed all the instructions given by the ranger leading the tour to ensure the experience was the best for all involved, including the turtles. I actually loved seeing the excited reactions from everyone, kids and adults, when watching the wild turtles on the beach.
For many visitors, it is a life-changing experience that makes you want to improve your behaviour and become more eco-friendly to give turtles a better chance of survival.
Tasmanian Devil sanctuary, Cradle Mountain Tasmania “After Dark” experience
Being nocturnal animals, we decided to take the after dark experience at Devils @ Cradle, during our visit to Cradle Mountain. This allowed us to visit with the Tasmanian devils and quolls of the sanctuary in a more natural environment for them. During the after dark experience, we were given valuable information on the habits, habitat, lifecycle current threats to the species in particular the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) and the sanctuaries involvement in conservation programs. We then went out to meet and feed the devils and quolls, where we were given more information about the programs and care of the animals at the sanctuary.
Devils @ Cradle go a long way to adhere to some ethical guidelines, limiting numbers in enclosures to a minimum, with many orphaned devils kept separate, for release back into the area. A study at Devils @ Cradle, was to ascertain if the juvenile devils set to be released exhibited similar behaviour of those in the wild. The study concluded, the devils to be released did not appear to behave differently than their wild counterparts. With the only concern being a trend of increase of daytime activity. However, it was believed this is due to a shift to earlier feeding times and could be easily corrected.
Devils @ Cradle support the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program and Tasmanian Quoll Conservation Program. Whilst entry fees contribute to the conservation programs, no specific percentage from ticket is mentioned. However, we found other options available, to these programs, through direct donations or sponsorship of animals. Additionally, it is a sanctuary for injured and orphaned devils and quolls, often a result of a traffic accident or through the death of the mother from DFTD or other causes.
The after dark experience at Devils @ Cradle costs at the time of publishing are A$20.00 for children and A$37.50 for adults. Other tours are available at differing pricing.
Other countries in Oceana
Swimming with wild dolphins in New Zealand
One of the most magical experiences to be had is swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Book with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura to see some amazing dusky dolphins playing in the early morning waters. The company is located right in the town of Kaikoura, close to the mineral-rich waters that draw plenty of prey for the dolphins (and even humpback whales!).
The company runs tours all day, but the best tour is at 5am, when the dolphins are at their most playful. The guides then teach you how to encourage the dolphins to play, by diving down or swimming in circles or making weird whale noises into your snorkel. It’s incredibly cold, but SO worth it to get to swim with these creatures of their own free will.
The company scouts for dolphin pods, you hop in the water, and then it’s up to them whether or not they want to swim with people. The whole experience has an ethical treatment of animals, it’s non-invasive and respectful of the dolphins’ space.
A portion of the ticket sales also go towards research projects on wild dolphins in New Zealand waters.
While the tour itself is pretty pricey at NZ$220, it includes your thermal wetsuit rental and a hot shower afterward (which you will definitely need!).
Be sure to rent a go pro or bring your own so you can capture the magic of these gentle giants.
If you get lucky, you may even see a couple of babies in November!