Seeing a wild animal up close can be a profound and life-changing experience, one that many well-intentioned tourists seek out in their travels.
The problem is, most of us are really bad at telling which wildlife attractions actually harm the wildlife.
A new study by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (which was tracking Cecil the Lion before he was shot by an American tourist in July) compared major global wildlife attractions with tourists’ reviews on TripAdvisor. It found that 80% of reviewers seemingly failed to recognize that the attraction they’d visited was at odds with conservation principles or animal welfare.
For example, captive tiger sites worldwide received the researchers’ lowest marks for animal welfare. But based on the reviews, tourists love them, with more than 80% neglecting to note any concerns about the animals’ welfare amid generally glowing reviews.
“Some of the most concerning types of wildlife attractions…received overwhelmingly positive reviews from tourists,” study co-author Neil D’Cruze of the London-based group World Animal Protection, which funded the research, said in a statement.
Wildlife attractions account for 20% to 40% of global tourism, drawing in 3.6 million to 6 million annual visitors, according to the authors.
For their part, animal-loving tourists who want to use their influence responsibly should consider a few key factors.
Jeremy Smith, editor of the responsible tourism website Travindy, says the simplest rule of thumb is to avoid altogether attractions featuring captive animals.
“While there are still many issues to be aware of when viewing animals in the wild, such as whether vehicles keep an appropriate distance or whether animals have been artificially lured towards the vehicles, they are still far more likely to have been able to live as natural a life as possible,” Smith tells Quartz.
If tourists can’t or won’t limit themselves to wild-only experiences, steer clear of any attraction that allows visitors to handle animals directly. Lion cubs raised to be petted by tourists are often shot upon adulthood because their contact with humans has made their survival in the wild impossible, Smith says.
Avoid attractions that force an animal to exhibit a behavior that wouldn’t be normal in the wild—such as elephants performing in a circus, monkeys dancing on a street, orcas twirling in a marine park.
And if TripAdvisor is still your lodestar, avoid any animal attraction rated “excellent” or “very good” by less than 80% of reviewers, advises David Macdonald, director of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.