Swimming with dolphins? An elephant trek through Thailand? Diving with sharks? Many people count getting up close and personal with wild animals as a highlight of their trips abroad and animal experiences form a vital part of many countries’ tourism industries. However, there is some controversy over how this can be done without bringing harm to the species and the environment.

In the month after Trip Advisor banned sales of some animal attractions and during which Harry Potter lovers everywhere are anxiously awaiting the launch of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, we look at animal tourism that is safe, ethical, and truly magical.

Go on Safari in South Africa

A safari is the ultimate value for money if you are seeking to see a range of wild animals in their natural habitat. If you are lucky you will witness the migration of wildebeest and zebra, see majestic, fearsome lions and serene giraffes as well as a host of other native animals and tropical birds.

Not all safaris are created equal; some are little more than zoos, with animals snatched from the wild, penned in and herded to ensure that tourists get a good look at everything. If you want a genuine safari experience, there are a number of South African safaris that are ethical and safe. Of course, there is no guarantee that you will see every animal on your list, but you will be sure that everything you do see is 100% wild, ethical and natural.

Before you go:

Do your research: find out about each safari’s wildlife conservation policy and what they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint. Look for a safari that is a refuge for former captive and abused animals, or one that has been created around an existing natural habitat, not one that imports animals.

Visit an Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand

It is hard to imagine Asia without conjuring visions of elephants richly decorated in vibrant colours, peacefully conveying tourists along familiar trails in breath-taking surroundings. However, the fact is that the gentle giant of the modern world is treated poorly to allow humans to achieve dominance; a process that is essential to ensure the riders’ safety. If you want to be truly ethical, you need to dismiss this particular dream and replace it with an activity that will help to protect the elephant population, without causing it harm.

Thankfully, due to the rise of conscientious tourism, there are a host of elephant sanctuaries to choose from, which provide you with the opportunity to work with sick, abused, old or orphaned elephants, instead of them working for you. Elephants World was established in 2008 to cater for elephants suffering from the effects of tourism. The ultimate up-close experience, you can take care of the elephants by helping to bathe and feed them, an activity infinitely more personal than a mere ride.

Swim with Sharks in South Africa

The top of many bucket lists, swimming with sharks is the ultimate adrenalin-fuelled experience, allowing tourists to meet the sea’s most fearsome predator face-to-face. Although shark diving involves meeting in the wild, there is some controversy about how ethical it is. Large amounts of feed, known as chum, is released into the sea to attract the shark – an act which is thought by some to interfere with the sharks’ natural feeding and hunting patterns. Chumming is also thought to encourage sharks to associate the idea of humans with food; an association that some say has increased the number of shark attacks on humans. However, other experts say that diving with sharks is important for the protection of the species, and that when people come face to face with the awe-inspiring fish, they realise the importance of shark preservation and move away from the preconception that the shark is the ultimate predator.

If done sensitively, diving with sharks can be an incredible experience, but as with any animal tourist attractions, it is important that you find one that takes ecological, environmental and ethical responsibility for their practice.

Before you go:

Find out how many people are taken on each dive; good companies limit the number to reduce the detrimental effects of shark diving. Ideally, look for a company that doesn’t use chum but relies on the sharks’ natural curiosity.

Visit a Grizzly Bear Sanctuary in America

Yogi, Baloo, Paddington, Pooh… everyone has a favourite bear. The fact is, grizzly bears have a bad reputation and they are seriously under threat from human violence as well as our impact on the environment. A combination of reduced habitat and climate change means that bears’ paths cross with those of humans more and more as they search for food; understandably, humans feel threatened and act accordingly.

America’s bear population has dropped dramatically to worryingly low numbers in the last century but bear sanctuaries offer protection to the clumsy, loveable and truly beautiful species. The Grizzly Bear Rescue and Education Sanctuary in Montana is home to bears rescued from captivity, who would not be able to survive in the wild. The sanctuary works hard to help rid the bear of its bad reputation and provides a spectacular experience designed to educate and inspire its visitors.

Of course, we all want to get the most out of our holiday encounters, to create memories that will last a lifetime and, let’s be honest, will be better than anyone else’s! The key is to focus on culture, not cruelty; respect the native culture but try not to take part in anything that encourages the exploitation of animals or people.

If you have got up close and personal to magnificent creatures, send us your pictures on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

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