The eight rules of booking a wildlife vacation

Swimming with whale sharks in Mexico. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda. Tracking pumas in Patagonia. Animals motivate us to make pilgrimages to the ends of the earth, filling our bucket lists and our Instagram feeds in equal measure.

When carried out responsibly, travel can help ensure the future of these awe-inspiring creatures and their habitats. But too often, thoughtless or downright opportunistic operators put financial gain above sustainability, leading to such stories as last week’s tiger temple bust, with monks in Thailand (yes, monks) accused of perpetuating terrible animal cruelty for tourist-driven fun and games. The rise in app-induced “road rage” in South Africa’s game parks feels tame by comparison.

Here’s the silver lining: Luxurious and fulfilling wildlife trips often go hand-in-hand. In fact, luxury travel fuels some of the world’s most ambitious conservation projects. The next time you’re heading into the wild, be part of the solution by following these rules of thumb.

Be Wary of Interactive Encounters

“A good guideline is to avoid tours that promise hands-on encounters with wild animals,” said David Emmett, a senior vice president at Conservation International. Many of these operators remove animals from their original habitats—often separating them from their packs and uprooting their social dynamics. Even when animals are kept in their habitats, interacting with humans can throw off their natural behavior and make them more susceptible to threats in the wild.

Pick the Free-Range Option

Particularly if you’re traveling abroad, avoid venues that keep animals in enclosures, such as those you’d find in a zoo. “In the developing world, you simply don’t have the resources to create environments for captive animals to thrive,” explained Jim Sano, vice president of travel, tourism, and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, which says these animals are often mistreated. Instead search out places that let the figurative (and literal) buffalo roam.

Discover the Backstories

Good news: It is possible to have interactions with wildlife that are both close-up and completely kosher. “Look for ones that house animals that can’t be reintroduced into the wild and where the animals are being cared for diligently,” said Leigh Henry, a senior conservation policy advisor with the World Wildlife Fund. Opening these sanctuaries to tourism “can sometimes ensure that resources are available to care for those animals,” she explained.

For instance, at Abu Camp, a Wilderness Safaris property in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, safari-goers are encouraged to take savannah walks with a herd of rescued elephants or help give them baths. The property’s website offers backstories for each member of the herd; it also offers entire pages dedicated to elephants it has successfully reintroduced into the wild. Here, conservation and animal welfare are twin priorities.

Look for a Badge of Honour

So how do you find properties like Abu that get it right? While there isn’t yet a certification program for the tourism industry that undergoes regular audits, several organizations will point you in the right direction. Jennifer Morris, chief operating officer for Conservation International, is partial to Rainforest Alliance. “Their standards emphasize sustainability and responsible environmental practices that don’t harm animals or the planet—as well as sound social and economic practices that are good for people,” she said. (So far, the program focuses on Central America and South America.) The team at WWF maintains a global list of preferred travel operators called WWF Partners; Henry and Sano also recommend tours that have received a seal of approval from the UN-endorsed Global Sustainable Tourism Council.

Baby Animals Are Cute; Breeding Is Not

Every expert we spoke with agreed: breeding centers are dangerously misleading. According to famous conservationist Gregory Carr, who has spearheaded the rehabilitation of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, places that “claim they are breeding wildlife for reintroduction, or are acting as sanctuaries” are often just “baby animal factories for tourists.” Chris Roche, chief marketing officer for Wilderness Safaris, put it quite simply: “Unscrupulous breeders use tourism as an additional revenue stream for their activities.” And WWF’s Henry agreed. “There are a handful of zoos that have credible conservation breeding programs,” she said, “but many outside of the U.S. are really breeding for financial gain, regardless of what they claim.”

Trust Operators That Talk Openly About Conservation

Operators that prioritize conservation don’t usually make a habit of hiding it. That’s why Sano recommends going to a company’s website and seeing how much information it provides beyond the price and dates of itineraries.

Nothing there? “Depending upon the resort, there are all sorts of questions a traveler can ask that may not necessarily have to do with wildlife,” said Carr. You can take the temperature for a place’s ethos by asking whether they recycle, provide reusable water bottles, hire local staff, and so on. Chances are a company will operate thoughtfully across the board, or not at all.

Support Local Businesses, the Right Way

Don’t feel pressured by local guides to go to quote-unquote animal parks, advised Sano. “Often times they’re getting kickbacks, so go through more established tour operators and raise your antenna higher if you’re booking locally.”

Do seek out places that empower locals instead. “If traditional communities benefit, they are more likely to support anti-poaching efforts,” said Carr. So make sure that your operator employs or trains locals as guides and considers them for management positions; this demonstrates a commitment to social justice. And ask whether locals are allowed to enjoy the benefits of the area’s conservation—beyond the financial. “At Gorongosa Park we bring local students and teachers to the Park every day in small vans, so they can be ‘tourists’ and enjoy their national park. In fact, the No. 1 demographic group that visits Gorongosa is people from neighboring communities,” said Carr.

Do Your Due Diligence—or Outsource It

“The internet is a vast resource, and travelers should use it,” said the WWF’s Henry. It sounds like an obvious point, but it’s one worth making. “If anyone over the last five years had Googled the tiger temple in Thailand,” she elaborated, “they would have known that something was going on. There were countless articles, including ones from us, about concerns with that facility.” Don’t want to do the legwork? Task your travel agent with a little recon.

Think Big Picture

“Ask yourself this big question,” suggested Carr. “Will tourism lead to greater protection of this landscape by providing an economic value to the region maintained in its wild state? If so, you are part of the solution.