Animal tourism: Getting close to wild animals can be dangerous, for them

The lion cubs were only a few months old and very playful. Known as "devils" at this age, they were sweet, but if you turned your back on them, they'd stalk you from behind.

Lions, even small ones, will be lions. One of them chewed through the strap of my handbag when I wasn't looking.

I was in South Africa and visiting a large lion sanctuary for a "Walking with Lions" experience, where tourists walk alongside unrestrained lions through the bush, accompanied by guides.

The less scary part of the experience was an opportunity to cuddle the baby lions, which were kept in a pen separate from the adult animals. The lions were part of an international program to breed the recessive white gene that would help with animal disease control, we were told. Volunteers came from all over the world to help with the program and it was aligned with several top tertiary institutions.

The lions were sold only to respected organisations such as other sanctuaries and zoos, never for "canned" hunting or to private individuals. Their practices were ethical and monitored by the SPCA, they said.

Cuddling feisty little baby lions seemed harmless and walking outside the compound with three unfettered, but well-fed, lions was an exhilarating experience.

But none of those lions were destined to go back to the wild.

Cubs are taken from their captive mothers early to be hand-reared so they're tame enough to be cuddled. When they're too boisterous to be petted, they are reassigned to walk with tourists. By age one or so they're too old to be trusted to walk but they're also too domesticated to be re-wilded. Some are kept for breeding. When there are too many lions to be fed and cared for, they are likely to be sold.

The best of many unhappy outcomes is that the lion is sold to a reputable zoo where it is treated well and has some territory. But the animal will never again have the chance to roam free. Some are sold to unregulated private zoos, which seemed well and good until we saw the documentary Tiger King. At worst, they'll be sold as prey to hunters who corral them in a pen and shoot them at easy range.

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The worst cases of animal abuse are out there in plain sight. When I visited Amer Fort in Jaipur several years ago it was obvious the poor elephants that carried tourists up and down all day were malnourished, mistreated and miserable. They're broken in with bull hooks and repeated bashing with wooden batons.

Tourists, including some in my group, paid money to ride on them anyway.

Many animal interactions seem benign enough on the surface, especially when touted as part of research or conservation projects. So I found it interesting to read a recent study, conducted by the non-profit Pacific Whale Foundation, which looked at the impacts of swim-with-whale tourism on whale behaviour, specifically in Hervey Bay, Queensland, which is a resting ground for migrating humpback whales.

The report concluded that the practice had a seriously negative impact on the Hervey Bay cetaceans. The whales, which have limited energy reserves, were expending far too much of it when swimmers were in the water. This was likely to have long-term effects on breeding and population sustainability.

Similarly, swimming with or feeding dolphins, a popular tourist activity around the world, sometimes involves captive dolphins, which are kept in tanks and can suffer acute psychosis. (This goes doubly for dolphins forced to perform in shows.) But, even in circumstances where dolphins are wild, human interaction can threaten the species' survival.

When dolphins are conditioned to seek food from humans, they become less willing to hunt for themselves, learning to beg for a living, marine scientists find. Those lost hunting skills are not passed on to young dolphins. Without fear of humans, they do dangerous things, such as swimming too close to boat propellers and nets. Hand-feeding alters their behaviour, leads to increased risk of injury, stress and aggression.

In the Monkey Mia Recreation Zone at Shark Bay in Western Australia, years of ongoing research into the bottle-nosed dolphin population has led to strict regulations, including the limiting of feeding to five provisioned adults only.

But not all animal experiences are ethical. Some would argue that they can never be ethical.

If you want that cute selfie, you need to ask hard questions first. As with my lion cub experience, it's easy to be swayed by the seeming good intentions of some conservation projects (to help, Intrepid has launched an Animal Welfare Toolkit: intrepidtravel.com/au/animal-welfare).

An animal in the wild is a magnificent thing. Don't mess with it until you're absolutely certain you're doing no harm.

Twitter @missleetulloch

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