In September last year, actor James Cromwell interrupted an orca performance at SeaWorld Orlando. Using a megaphone to protest against the centre's captivity of the marine mammals, he was subsequently arrested for trespassing; the company had already pledged to stop breeding the animals and start phasing out its "killer whale entertainment shows" after sustained controversy. But the Star Trek star isn't alone in his sentiments. Public interest in attractions where animals are removed from their natural habitats is rapidly dwindling, and scepticism about tourist attractions that masquerade as sanctuaries is growing.
A glance at this year's top 10 most visited attractions in the world according to Travel & Leisure magazine, shows a complete lack of animal encounters in the listings. By comparison, responsible wildlife trips have seen dramatic growth in recent years: 7 per cent annually according to the United States-based International Ecotourism Society, the longest running eco-tourism association in the world.
As public awareness of genuine ecotourism, conservation and the treatment of animals grows, destinations and tour operators are taking another look at their wildlife travel policies. TripAdvisor recently removed activities where animals are forced to come into contact with the public, and Virgin Holidays has taken an active role in changing the way tourists interact with marine animals on its trips.
Travel operators are beginning to offer more trips to some of the world’s most vibrant destinations, where the aim is to ensure animal-centric experiences while simultaneously educating travellers and respecting wildlife freedom. We bring you a selection of trips where you can get close to the wonder of nature, without leaving your mark on the wild.
Tracking Arabia’s unicorns (above)
Get to know the animal widely believed to have been the source of the unicorn legend, with an eight-day research trip to Dubai's Conservation Reserve. Hosted by Biosphere Expeditions, a Dublin-based non-profit research and conservation organisation, participants will join a team of scientists to collect data about the Arabian oryx. Upon arrival, guests will get plenty of technical instruction, learning things like navigation skills with a compass, setting up camera traps, and safely steering a 4x4 across sand dunes. The next morning, after a freshly prepared vegetarian breakfast, participants will get involved in various data-gathering activities. From studying oryx behaviour and counting gazelles, to collaring foxes or heading out into the desert to track down observation points and set up cameras, all of the efforts help boost the information in existence on the wildlife living in the area. This data is then used to establish animal populations, adjust food stocks and assess how herds are affected by the environment. After a day of researching, it's back to the desert oasis base. A solar-lit Bedouin mess tent and a roaring campfire surrounded by ghaf trees are the social points, and as the chef whips up a vegetarian dinner for the group, it's a chance to compare notes or find out about the rare spottings of the day. As night falls, participants can bed-down in comfortable dome tents. With the oryx having been classified as vulnerable by the United Kingdom's IUCN Red List Unit, participants' trip fees play an important role in conserving the species, and Biosphere Expedition put around two-thirds of each fee directly back into this project, or a similar local initiative. As well as oryx, you can expect to see wildcats, Arabian hares, gazelles, owls, falcons and, of course, plenty of camels. You don't need to be super-fit for this one, but you do need to be able to trek about 9km per day, over sandy terrain.
The next trip runs from January 20-27, and costs Dh8,739 per person; www.biosphere-expeditions.org/volunteeringinarabia
Tiger-spotting in India
With just 3,000 tigers left in the wild, getting anywhere near the big cats is no easy task. In India's Madhya Pradesh, a region that was once known as the "tiger state", there are many places working to reverse the rapidly dwindling population of tigers. Kipling Camp is one such place. Established in the 1980s, it is ranked as outstanding by Travel Operators for Tigers – an international campaign that advocates responsible tourism as a major player in saving the wildlife of India and Nepal. Run by tiger conservationist Belinda Wright, founder of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, the family-friendly Kipling Camp is located on the outskirts of the Kanha Tiger Reserve, and accommodation is in the form of rustic cottages, each with its own veranda, offering great views of the surrounding forest. Visitors can learn more about conservation issues, join tiger-spotting safari drives and enjoy nature walks, tours of local villages and riverside picnics. The camp also hosts community initiatives, like its recent health camp, which saw more than 20 doctors and 5,000 locals attend. Guests are welcome to join in the organisation of such activities. Long-term resident elephant Tara – star of novelist Mark Shand's Travels on My Elephant – is one of the highlights of any visit, with guests thrilled to have the chance to watch her as she wanders the camp grounds and takes river baths.
Rooms start from Dh1,500 per night, and rates include safari drives, bird walks, meals and taxes with additional chargeable activities also available; www.kiplingcamp.com
Kenyan elephant patrols
Conservation Safaris offer a 10-day hands-on experience in Kenya, that fuses all the elements of a traditional safari with in-depth, hands-on learning opportunities.The focus is protecting the African elephants that call this land home. Guests partake in daily safari drives where there is the chance to spot the "Big Five", and spend the night in luxury safari camps. Bushwalks and boat rides give more opportunities for wildlife discovery, and guests can enjoy exclusive access to elephant conservation projects in Tsavo and Amboseli, usually off limits to the general public. After meeting the wildlife rangers, guests are invited to join an anti-poaching patrol, before visiting the elephant research camp set up and funded by American conservationist Cynthia Moss. A visit with Maasai elders allows guests to learn more about the local communities. Every booking allows Conservation Safaris to offset 1 tonne of carbon emissions, purchase a pair of boots for a wildlife ranger, fund a local child's place on a Tsavo Conservancy safari and extend protection of the Balanga Rainforest by an additional 52 acres. What's more, revenue from the 2018 trips combined, will help fund critical anti-poaching strategies, including the Eye in the Sky gyrocopter and the salaries of three local rangers for 12 months.
The 10-day trips costs Dh23,118 per person, including meals, accommodation, transfers, park fees and guides, but excluding international flights. There are two trips scheduled for 2018, running March 7 to 16 and June 4 to 13; www.conservationsafaris.com
Tracking lynx in Montenegro
Spot wolves, jackals, bears and badgers; bed-down in shepherd's huts, and trek across wild mountain plains on this conservation tour that takes place in Montenegro's Prokletije National Park and the remote mountains of Hajla. Participants must have a good level of fitness, as days are spent trekking over often-treacherous terrain. Organised in partnership with Objectif Sciences International – a Swiss-based NGO that has been offering high-quality scientific holidays since 1992 – the trip involves guests in research on the rare Balkan lynx, a creature that was previously thought to be extinct. Wandering the Montenegrin mountains in search of the creature, guests are shown how to implement scientific monitoring while knowledgable guides demonstrate tracking and identification skills. Mountain living also sees participants learn foraging skills as they collect wild fruit and vegetables that are then used as ingredients in the group's evening meals. As well as learning more about the habitat and characteristics of the Balkan lynx, travellers also have the chance to find out more about Montenegrin culture.
Trips cost from €1,409 (Dh6,099) including accommodation, meals and guides but not including international flights. This year’s trips are scheduled for May 31, August 2 and September 6;
All about orangutans in Borneo
Since its inception in 1990, UK-registered charity Orangutan Foundation has rescued thousands of orangutans, and provides care to hundreds more. Steppes Travel offer an immersive trip that allows travellers to encounter these great apes in the Tanjung Puting National Park and Lamandau Wildlife Reserve of Borneo accompanied by Ashley Leiman, founder of the Orangutan Foundation. Be prepared to come face-to-face with these creatures as you visit feeding sites that are regularly frequented by ex-captive primates, now living in the wild. Journey along rivers deep into the heart of the rainforest, and keep any eye out for proboscis monkeys, monitor lizards and colourful kingfishers. With a focus on gaining an understanding of orangutans, you may get within a few metres of the animals, but the priority is more on educating travellers about the threats that the animals and their habitat face. Bed-down in comfort at the solar-powered Rimba eco-lodge, perched over the Sekonyer River on the very edge of Tanjung Puting National Park and accessed via a small wooden boat. Proceeds from the trip help fund vital habitat protection, including running guard posts and forest patrols, and supporting the Orangutan Foundation's Rescue and Release Programme.
Ten-day trips start from £3,395 (Dh16,671) including meals, park fees and taxes, but excluding international flights. There are two dates scheduled for 2018, on June 3 and October 14;
Helping rhinos in Botswana
Tribes has a long-standing reputation for its ecotourism offerings and a six-night African Rhino trip ensures access to some amazing wildlife on both land and water, while checking into a variety of luxury accommodation and simultaneously making an invaluable contribution to Botswana's endangered rhino populations. Get set for game drives in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, float through the waterways of the famous Okavango Delta, and take a boat ride on the Chobe River. You'll fly between the lodges to really make the most of your time on the ground, and each site offers a choice of accommodation, with options to suit different budgets. In northern Botswana, you'll come across huge herds of elephants and plenty of big game. Journey on to the northern edge of Kalahari Desert to wonder at vast salt pans left over from an ancient lake, then watch wildebeest migrations and mobs of meerkats. Finally, head to the Okavango Delta, one of Africa's best wildlife reserves, where the sights are unrivalled. With only 60 rhinos left in the entire country – the black rhino is classified as critically endangered and the white rhino near threatened – this trip doesn't guarantee rhino sightings, but it does ensure that a donation to the Botswana Rhino relocation and re-introduction programme will be made on your behalf.
Prices start at £3,000 (Dh14,730) per person on a twin-share basis in low-season, and include seven days of accommodation, food and local beverages, daily safari activities, domestic flights, transfers, park fees and all taxes, but excludes international flights and visas; www.tribes.co.uk
Tracking bears in Canada
Get to know Canada's grizzlies on an eco-friendly sailing excursion with Maple Leaf Adventures. Home to bears, wolves, whales and more, British Columbia is a land of fjords, mountains, forests and great river estuaries which you'll navigate on The Swell, an 88-foot converted tugboat complete with cosy cabins, an open wheelhouse lounge and even a hot tub. Cruise between snow-capped mountains and melting waterfalls amid wildflowers and green sedges, and watch as grizzly bears come to forage in the open after their winter torpor, and unsteady cubs wrestle in the grass. You'll don gumboots and head out on shore visits, exploring the worlds of several northwest First Nations, where you'll find out more about their ancient customs and traditions. Get even closer to the natural world using the tug's inflatable dinghies to access wildlife colonies and remote beaches; use the on-board hydrophone to listening to marine mammals below the surface; and spend time with scientists at a whale research station learning more about the creatures of the deep. Then, it's on to the north coast where forest walks and wolf-spotting awaits. The trip is virtually no-impact when it comes to emissions, and the company is rated high on sustainability travel circuits, having been listed in National Geographic Traveler's 50 Tours of a Lifetime awards. All employs come from local communities, and the majority of revenue from all cruises remains in this coastal economy.
The eight-day Spring Rainforest Bear trip starts from 7,822 Canadian dollars (Dh22,355) for two people sharing a cabin, including taxes and all trip expenses, but excluding international flights. The ship is also available for private charter. The spring trip sails on May 20; www.mapleleafadventures.com