Does first-hand experience of magnificent wild animals in their natural habitat deepen our connection with nature? Almost definitely.

Does that change our behaviours in regard to the environment as a whole? Sometimes. Are those moments possible to recreate in a context of captivity? I think rarely.

While reputable zoological societies have long played an important role in rare species breeding and conservation programmes, the same can seldom be said for theme parks that tend towards titillating rather than rehabilitating our disconnected relationship with nature.

The award-winning documentary Blackfish is a harrowing and depressing case in point. Its 'star', a bull Orca named Tilikum, is an incarcerated shadow of its wild cousins – floppy-finned, understandably cantankerous and arguably borderline psychopathic due to its theme-park imprisonment. Witnessing shows with such stars is less a celebration of harmony and natural wonder than a note of crass commercial and exploitative discord.

Natural history television technology is now enabling us to view extraordinary, mind-boggling and awesome insights into our planet's most incredible wild animals. These techniques are relatively non-invasive, using remote-operated cameras often disguised as other animals. They give us realistic, perhaps more honest, representations of how nature really works.

Even if the footage is visceral, red in tooth and claw and occasionally romantically anthropomorphised it's a far and superior cry from watching a killer whale king-of-the-ocean performing lame pool tricks in exchange for a dead fish.

If in order to be motivated to conserve our most magical animals we must all have an emotive encounter with them in the wild, or on safari, or at a theme park, then they really are screwed. I've been fortunate enough to enjoy one or two moments with such beasts on my low carbon overland travels, these flight-free adventures at least partly motivated by wishing to see the natural world without stewing it with a slew of carbon emissions in the process. Yet as powerful as those were a good David Attenborough gets my skin tingling almost as much.

Far and away the most important thing is to do something. Campaign for, donate to or directly sponsor conservation work. Great ecotourism does have its place, driving community awareness that animals and their habitats are more valuable alive and intact than cut up as, say, bushmeat, but its not an option for all but the privileged few.

Perhaps tuning into stunning television that brings us into intimate if indirect contact with wildlife is the only real way forward for a planet of 7 billion people.

It certainly beats the crude cabaret of theme parks or chasing animals across the savannah in a squadron of Land Rovers. These practices demean both us and the nature of which we are an integral and now dominant part. In the 21st century we can do so much better.

• Ed Gillespie is an eco-travel writer who has written about environmentally sustainable, slow travel. His book Only Planet comes out next month.

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Photo Credit: A drive-through safari. Getty Images