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Wildlife tourism is big business. Seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat can be an awe-inspiring experience and large numbers of people are now choosing to go on holidays that specifically cater for such interactions (e.g. an Antarctica cruise, Galápagos Islands visit, or gorilla safari) or to incorporate a wildlife excursion into a general holiday trip (whale watching, riding an elephant or visiting a turtle hatchery).

Economically, wildlife tourism can benefit areas both locally and nationally. Additionally, people who have experienced wild animals first-hand are more likely to appreciate the importance of such animals, and their environments, which may in turn lead to greater support and protection of these animals and their habitats. However, there has been relatively little research undertaken into quite how human visitors, in ever increasing numbers, are affecting the lives and environments of the animals that they wish to view (and also the local communities).

UFAW has therefore supported, and continues to support, a number of projects seeking to elucidate and ameliorate the impact of humans on the welfare of wild animals.

An increasingly popular tourist destination is Antarctica, which receives approximately 40,000 visitors each year, and many people who travel there wish to visit the breeding grounds of penguins, seals and seabirds. Animals are particularly vulnerable from visitors at breeding times, when courtship and mating behaviours are occurring, and when animals are born, at which point young juvenile animals require greater care. If the behaviour and physiology of animals is altered significantly, then breeding success is reduced and the stability of colonies affected, which can adversely affect the welfare of individuals and ultimately affect the survival of the population as a whole. All visitors are therefore required to conduct themselves in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty, its Protocol on Environmental Protection, and relevant Measures and Resolutions adopted at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) and general guidelines are available (eg over-flight height of helicopters when viewing breeding seabirds, or approach distances of people to penguins when on foot). However, such guidelines are not always based on scientific research, indeed a paper published in 2015 that discusses Wildlife Approach Distances in Antarctica (1) states that “The scientific evidence base for limiting human disturbance impacts to Antarctic wildlife is inadequate in almost all respects, and is in urgent need of improvement”.

One scientist, Dr Tamara van Polanen Petel, investigated the effects of human activity on the behaviour and physiology of Weddell seals in Antarctica. This kind of scientific work is very important and UFAW supported her in presenting and disseminating her findings (which showed that existing guidelines could be improved if the goal of management was to minimise disturbance to Weddell seals) at an International Wildlife Management Congress. Dr van Polanen Petel’s research continues to be part of a relatively small body of scientific work assessing the impact of human actions on wildlife in Antarctica (2, 3, 4).

The Galapagos are another increasingly popular destination for tourists and to investigate how tourism impacts on the health and welfare of endangered Galapagos sea lions UFAW supported a project undertaken by Mr Paddy Brock. Over a two-year period, Mr Brock researched immune activity of two Galapagos sea lion populations, one heavily impacted by humans and the other on an uninhabited island. Mr Brock concluded from his research that Galapagos sea lion immunity was significantly affected by human activity and that this in turn could impact on sea lion fitness and welfare. Mr Brock published his work in the following Journals: Animal Conservation (5) and PLoS ONE (6).

When humans are trying to help wild-animals it is important that there is sufficient knowledge of animal behaviour or biology, or best practice to ensure that the methods used are in the best interests of the animals. For example, UFAW supported Thushan Kapurusinghe (Project Leader at the Turtle Conservation Project in Sri Lanka), firstly in undertaking a survey of current practices at turtle hatcheries in Sri Lanka and then in developing a workshop to train hatchery management and staff.

Sri Lanka is a popular nesting ground for five marine turtles (Loggerhead, Green, Olive Ridley, Leatherback, and Hawksbill) all of which are either vulnerable or endangered and although the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance 1938 make it an offence to “capture, kill, injure, or possess [sea turtles] or their eggs”, many nesting sites are targeted by egg poachers (turtle eggs are considered a local delicacy). Other anthropogenic causes of turtle population decline are: slaughter for their meat or carapace, fisheries bycatch, destruction of habitat, and pollution. Consequently, a number of turtle hatcheries have developed which aim to remove and relocate vulnerable eggs to increase the chance of hatchling survival.

However, Thushan found that there were significant shortcomings in many hatchery protocols which could result in poor animal welfare, including: poor egg collection technique (increases embryo death and hatchling deformities), delays in reburying eggs and incorrect nest placement and depth (increases embryo death and hatchling deformities, and can affect hatchling sex-ratio which is temperature dependant), keeping too many hatchlings in one tank (overcrowding can cause injury and subsequent infection), taking turtles out of the tanks for photos (poor practice and detrimental to turtle welfare), keeping hatchlings for too many days in tanks (affects natal beach imprinting process and depletes vital energy reserves), releasing hatchlings during the day time (increases predation risk and dehydration and hyperthermia from the sun), releasing turtles at the same site (increases predation risk), and releasing too close to the sea (affects natal beach imprinting process).

To educate key personnel and improve hatchery management, Thushan invited the hatcheries to attend a workshop and of the seven invited, six attended (the seventh could not attend due to other commitments). Thushan, and other experts in the field, delivered a series of lectures promoting scientific marine turtle hatchery management practices and discussing the role that hatcheries can play in positively contributing to turtle conservation and welfare.

UFAW fundamentally believes in promoting and supporting education in animal welfare as a key means of improving animal welfare and another educational workshop t hat was supported by UFAW sought to improve the welfare of elephants in Thailand

Elephants are a popular tourist attraction in Thailand, especially since logging with elephants was banned in Thailand in 1989. Elephants and their mahouts (a keeper or driver of an elephant) now often seek to earn a living by entertaining tourists. Elephants may be used to give rides, paint a picture, or kick a football, or simply to beg on the street with their mahout. The living conditions and welfare of both elephants and their mahouts has been a cause for concern for many of the people visiting areas where these activities take place. Many elephant owners and mahouts keep, train and care for elephants in traditional ways which do not always take into account scientific advances in animal health and welfare.

The elephant workshop supported by UFAW was reported to be a great success with overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants. Individuals attending received both practical training demonstrations, such as target training using positive reinforcement to train elephants to present their feet for foot care, and theoretical lectures, including how to assess an elephant’s welfare and how their physical and psychological needs may be provided for in a captive setting. Many of those who attended commented on how they planned to introduce the concepts explored during the workshop to their colleagues, and to implement what they had learnt with their own elephants.

UFAW continues to support research projects that investigate human-animal interactions and the welfare of animals in the wild. Such research is vital if we are to improve our understanding of wild animals and consequently improve their welfare.


  1. Wildlife Approach Distances in Antarctica. Working paper 027 submitted by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research to Antarctica Treaty Consultative Meetings and the Committee for Environmental Protection. Agenda Item: ATCM 13, CEP 10c. Sofia, Bulgaria 2015.
  2. van Polanen Petel T, Terhune J, Hindell M, & A. Giese M. An assessment of the audibility of sound from human transport by breeding Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii ). Wildlife Research. 33: 275-291. DOI: 10.1071/Wr05001.
  3. van Polanen Petel T, Giese MA, Wotherspoon S, & Hindell M. The behavioural response of lactating Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) to over-snow vehicles: A case study. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 85: 488-496. DOI: 10.1139/Z07-029.
  4. van Polanen Petel T, Giese M, & Hindell M. A preliminary investigation of the effect of repeated pedestrian approaches to Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii). Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 112:205-211. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.07.005.
  5. Brock PM, Hall AJ, Goodman SJ, Cruz M, Acevedo-Whitehouse K. Applying the tools of ecological immunology to conservation: a test case in the Galapagos sea lion. Animal Conservation. 16(1): 19-31. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2012.00567.x.
  6. Brock PM, Hall AJ, Goodman SJ, Cruz M, Acevedo-Whitehouse K. Immune activity, body condition and human-associated environmental impacts in a wild marine mammal. PLoS ONE. 8(6): e67132. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0067132.

Selected papers on tourism published in the UFAW Journal, Animal Welfare:

Clegg ILK, Van Elk CE and Delfour F. 2017. Applying welfare science to bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates). Animal Welfare. 26(2): 165-176. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7120/09627286.26.2.165

Carder G, Proctor H, Schmidt-Burbach J, D’cruze N. 2016. The animal welfare implications of civet coffee tourism in Bali. Animal Welfare. 25(2): 199-205. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7120/09627286.25.2.199. UFAW.

Muir R, Keown AJ, Adams NJ, Farnworth MJ. 2013. Attitudes towards catch-and-release recreational angling, angling practices and perceptions of pain and welfare in fish in New Zealand. Animal Welfare. 22(3): 323-329. UFAW.

Pedernera-Romano C, Aurioles-Gamboa D, Valdez RA, Brousset DM, Romano MC, Galindo F. 2010. Serum cortisol in California sea lion pups (Zalophus californianus). Animal Welfare. 19(3): 275-280. UFAW.

Carrera ML, Favaro EGP, Souto A. 2008. The response of marine tucuxis (Sotalia fluviatilis) towards tourist boats involves avoidance behaviour and a reduction in foraging. Animal Welfare. 17(2): 117-123. UFAW.

O’Leary H. 1996. Contrasts in diet amongst Barbary macaques on Gibraltar: Human influences. Animal Welfare. 5(2): 177-188. UFAW.