It’s not hard to find wildlife experiences around the world — but unfortunately, many involve prioritizing human enjoyment over animal welfare. From chances to ride on the backs of trained dolphins to animal “sanctuaries” that force animals to perform for tourists, it seems like most wildlife tourism is hurting, not helping, wildlife.
But that’s not the case with these five wildlife tourism experiences that welcome tourists for one single purpose: to further fund their conservation efforts. In honor of World Wildlife Day, consider booking one of these wildlife tourism trips that actually help wildlife. You won’t find any opportunities for staged photos at the destinations below (a few candids though, probably), but you will find a genuine opportunity to make a difference with your tourism dollars.
The wildlife tourism activities below range from half-day activities that cost only $10 to stays at a private island resort where you’ll fill your days with ocean conservation and wildlife volunteering.
1. Help on a whale research boat in Patagonia
Along with animals like penguins and sea lions, the Strait of Magellan and surrounding waters are home to enormous humpback whales. They can weigh up to 60,000 pounds and be 50 feet long, and guests will learn to listen for the sounds of the blowhole to know if a whale is in the area. Researchers can identify the whales by their tail markings, patterns, and sometimes injuries. Photo: Suzie Dundas
Where: Patagonia (Punta Arena, Chile)
Number of days: 3
Sign up for a trip with WhaleSound, based in Punta Arenas, Chile, and you’ll get a whale-watching experience, sure — but you’ll also get the chance to spend two nights in a geodesic dome at the researchers’ eco-camp on Carlos III Island. You’ll spend long days on board the small research vessel with scientists, where you can focus just on whale watching or help with whale identification and tracking — citizen science at its best. In the evenings, back on land, you’ll have meals with the researchers and camp staff, be treated to lectures and updates on the scientists’ research, and even get to enjoy a classic pisco sour made with ice scooped from the freezing waters of the Santa Ines Glacier.
Guests of WhaleSound spend three days aboard the Tanu, a small but comfortable research vessel that tracks whales throughout the Strait of Magellan. It’s long days on the water, so maybe best avoided if you’re prone to seasickness. Photo: Suzie Dundas
On the second day with WhaleSound, guests will make the trip to the Santa Ines Glacier. Stay for more than a few minutes, and you’ll definitely hear the sounds of ice cracking and breaking as the glacier slowly moves and warps. Assuming the boat crew are good with their net, they’ll likely scoop up a piece of ice broken off from the glacier to make pisco sours later that night at camp. Photo: Suzie Dundas
It’s not just whales you’ll see while on the water with WhaleSound. Patagonia is home to sea otters, sea lions, and five types of penguins: Magellanic, Humboldt, Gentoo, Southern Rockhopper and King. Bring your long camera lens. Photo: Suzie Dundas
WhaleSound guests sleep in geodesic domes, and camp staff make a fire in each one at night while guests are dinner. From my dome, I could hear the sounds of whales exhaling through their blow holes in the water at night, and even managed to see a huge humpback whale sleeping in the seaweed just a few yards from the shore. Photo: Suzie Dundas
2. Replant and restore baby coral in Fiji
There are more than 6,000 species of coral on the planet, and they’re alive — that’s right; they’re animals, not plants. So when reefs die off, it’s literally coral dying. But divers in Fiji can help save baby coral by doing a restoration dive or working in an underwater coral nursery. Photo: Kokomo Private Island
Where: Kokomo Island Resort, Fiji
Cost: None (included with all stays)
Number of days: Variable
While a stay at Kokomo Private Island certainly isn’t cheap, the resort does take significant steps to be good stewards to the ocean. The resort employs two full-time marine biologists and has its own waste processing and compost facility and a desalinization plant to avoid shipping in potable water. But most impressive are the resort’s extensive sustainability programs. It runs a mangrove restoration project, growing mangroves on the resort’s farm and replanting them on the shoreline of a local village to fight erosion and rising sea levels (guests can assist with everything from planting to seed collection). It’s also home to the South Pacific chapter of a sustainable fishing co-op, a clam nursery and spawn center, and even a sea turtle research program in collaboration with the University of the South Pacific.
But for divers and snorkelers, the most intriguing program is the coral reef restoration facility. The resort has three different types of coral nurseries — underwater areas where coral can grow in protected areas and be monitored and cared for by marine biologists — and has the capability of nurturing 3,000 individual animals per season. The resort has successfully introduced more than 2,000 baby corals back into the open ocean and guests can participate as much as they’d like. Volunteers can assist the marine biology team in coral observation and education, introduce small coral into the nurseries, or go on a dive to transplant “grown-up” coral back onto the nearby reefs. If you’re not a diver, you can participate during a two-hour intro to scuba dive, which requires no previous experience.
All that said — the resort is probably best known for its manta conservation project (part of The Manta Project) and dedicates significant time and resources to manta tagging, observation, and identification. The resort is where travelers will spend most of their time, but its just one of many environmentally focused activities on the island.
Fiji has some of the world’s best diving and is home to more than 400 species of hard and soft corals. But equally is the need to protect the animals that live in the safety of the coral. More than 1,200 species of fish, 58 species of shark, and dozens of species of crustaceans, octopuses, and mollusks shelter in the reefs. Without coral, the entire food chain of the ocean collapses. Photo: Kokomo Private Island
Kokomo Private Island has seven coral nurseries, all at shallow depths and protected from swells and currents. This is a horizontal rope nursery, designed for branching corals (most species of coral that resemble tree branches without leaves are ‘branching’). that resemble tree branches. The resort also has different styles of nurseries for coral that grows vertically and coral that can’t attach to a rope. Photo: Kokomo Private Island
The luxury resort has a variety of lodging, but even the smallest “room” is still a private villa. It’s pricey and certainly a for-profit experience, but the coral restoration dives have no additional fee — they’re just a chance for travelers to give back to the environment and learn about ocean protection. The resort (and homes on the island) fund the sustainability efforts and guests are welcome to participate in nearly all of the island’s ongoing projects. Photo: Kokomo Private Island
3. Go gorilla trekking in Rwanda
Treks take very small groups of tourists through dense jungle in search of mountain gorillas. If you find them, you’re only allowed to spend a limited amount of time with them per day to ensure they don’t become too accustomed to having humans nearby. Photo: Visit Rwanda
Where: Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Cost: $1,500 for gorilla permit (plus travel and lodging expenses)
Number of days: 1+
Thanks to the work of researchers like Dian Fossey, it’s well-known that mountain gorillas are facing severe threats to their population. Between habitat destruction, disease, and poaching, there are fewer than 900 left in the wild. They live in the forests near the border of Uganda and Rwanda, and despite how lucrative the land they live on could be, there’s one thing protecting them — tourism. Both Uganda and Rwanda offer a very limited number of permits per day to make the trek on foot to attempt to find the gorillas in the wild, and the prices are steep at $1,500 for a one-person permit.
However, the steep cost also helps limit the demand and number of people in the jungle with the gorillas. Additionally, guests can only spend a max of one hour a day with the troop so they don’t become accustomed to humans. By booking a gorilla trek, you’re contributing to a fund that protects the gorillas and provides salaries for anti-poaching park rangers. Spending money on a trek in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park helps prove that land and resource conservation is more lucrative than farming, ranching, or poaching.
Volcanoes National Park, home to Rwanda’s gorilla treks, covers 72 square miles and is home to five volcanoes. Nearby are plenty of luxury and eco-lodges for travelers. Photo: Visit Rwanda
Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda borders the DRC’s Virunga National Park. This area of Rwanda was a battleground in the 1990s, but has since been developed into a safe national park for wildlife and international and local travelers. Photo: Visit Rwanda
The tourism money that comes from selling permits goes toward a host of ecological programs, from wildlife monitoring to ranger training and anti-poaching and anti-deforestation efforts. Photo: Visit Rwanda
4. Release sea turtles in Mexico
For a small fee, tourists can assist in releasing baby sea turtles like this one into the sea. Campamento Tortuguero Palmarito is a non-profit and all income goes toward sea turtle conservation and research. Photo: Nick Hines
Where: Puerto Escondido, Mexico
Cost: $10 (or $45 with transportation)
Number of days: Half day
Just a short drive from Puerto Escondido‘s famous Playa Zapoteca, Campamento Tortuguero Palmarito is helping to restore the populations of the numerous turtle species that call the beaches of Oaxaca, Mexico, home. Along with beach conservation, the group protects eggs until they hatch and then releases the babies to the ocean — and anyone can join in on the releases year-round through the organization itself or Lalo Ecotours or Airbnb Experiences if you want to package it with a ride to the beach.
After a quick explanation of turtle habitats and lifecycle (eggs hatch after about six weeks, depending on the species), participants head to a line of string on the beach close to the water with gourd bowls in hand. Baby turtles are put in the bowls and then released onto the sand, where they zig-zag their way to the waves.
The sunset makes for a picturesque experience — just don’t think too much about the seagulls and other birds that flock and dive just offshore. The actual release lasts about an hour, but you’ll want to budget time to get to and from the site (and take plenty of photos).
The baby sea turtles are very, very tiny, so it’s not a surprise that seabirds see them as food. Baby sea turtles are only about two inches long, and sea turtles can lay 100 eggs at once several times per season. Photo: Nick Hines
It’s hard not to feel a sense of happiness as you set the baby turtles on the sand and watch them successfully scurry into the sea. While they’re still at risk of predation in the water, they’re generally safer off the sand as they can hide near seaweed or partially bury into the ocean floor. Photo: Nick Hines
The scaly baby turtles are as cute as can be, and escorting them across the sand is a great way to help ensure as many as possible make it safely to the sea. But it’s not the only way to participate. Tourists can go for nighttime ATV rides to observe sea turtles and report new nests, go dolphin and turtle watching on a boat, or even opt for an eight-day wildlife tourism camp (including snorkeling and hiking). Photo: Nick Hines
5. Monitor elephants in Thailand
An average day on the expedition includes a long hike into the jungle to find the elephants, followed by around three hours of behavior monitoring and studying. Once returned to camp, participants will have time to enter their research, visit the local village, and participate in discussions on ecology and wildlife. Photo: Biosphere Expeditions
Where: Near Chang Mai, Thailand
Cost: $2,144 (plus travel expenses)
Number of days: 8
Thailand’s elephant “sanctuaries” are notorious for poor treatment of the gentle animals, so it’s important to make sure any elephant encounters in the area are genuinely welfare-based. Fortunately, you can rest assured that the elephant monitoring trip with Biosphere Expeditions are focused on conservation and protection. Biosphere Expeditions’ citizen science trips pair non-scientist travelers with scientists leafing wildlife projects around the world. Under the guidance of a researcher and staff, volunteers will assist with various roles — in the case of this trip, elephant and wildlife monitoring.
Following the trip, the research is used for everything from scientific publications to influencing local legislation and lobbying for wildlife-friendly policies and partnerships. Biosphere Expeditions even takes additional steps to make sure bringing volunteers to sensitive areas isn’t harming the planet, including serving all-vegetarian food on the trips and offsetting their carbon emissions.
Researchers, staff, and citizen science volunteers alike stay in a nearby hill tribe village. Shown here is the expedition base, where the team meets for training and discussions, as well as to upload and analyze the data they collect. Photo: Biosphere Expeditions
These two elephants are displaying natural elephant behavior, both buy using their trunks to sniff out their surroundings in search of food and by having a quick scratch against the trees. Photo: Biosphere Expeditions
This elephant is named Gen Thong, and he’s one of the youngest members of the study herd. The elephants are used to humans and staff and citizen scientists can and must get quite close to study details of their behavior and food preferences. Here, Gen Thong is being curious and following a staff member on his way back to camp. Photo: Biosphere Expeditions
The focus of your eight days in Thailand will be on studying the behaviors of Asian elephants like this one. They’re considered endangered and research suggests their populations have declined by about half in the last 60 years, mostly due to habitat loss. Photo: Biosphere Expeditions.
Happy World Wildlife Day, everyone. Let’s all aim to do one helpful thing for the wildlife near us today.