Many of us dream about seeing an elephant on safari, or tracking gorillas in the wild! When done properly your wildlife travels can have a huge benefit on wildlife conservation!
But it’s important that your wildlife holiday is done properly in a responsible way, or you may actually end up hurting wildlife, instead of helping it. Take the famed Tiger Temple in Thailand, which was recently closed down. Tourists would pose with tigers or bottle feed cubs. It sounds like an incredible opportunity to get up close place with one of the world’s most majestic cats right? Not to mention that it brought in a cool $5.7 million dollars each year to the monks who ran the place!
It’s now being described as hell by numerous media outlets for the 147 tigers who lived there. Animal activists have long said that the tigers were kept in awful conditions, underfed, beaten, and drugged – to make their interactions safe for tourists. Recently, it’s come to light, after 40 dead cubs were found in the freezer that they were being bred for illegal trade.
But when done correctly, wildlife tourism can have a positive impact on wildlife conservation. That’s why I was eager to interview Megan Devenish, the Product and Responsible Tourism Manager for Exodus Travels. The company has been a pioneer in responsible travel ever since their inception in 1974, long before it was considered to do so. Today, Exodus Travels offers 89 wildlife holidays and is continually pushing the standard for responsible tourism – like being one of the first companies to omit elephant rides from their itineraries and replacing them with alternative elephant interactions that are better for the elephants. And if you want to see tigers in a way that actually helps, not harms them, check out their Land of the Tiger tour. Your visit actually helps their conservation work in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, which you can read all about here.
Q. Do you believe wildlife tourism, if managed properly, can play a role in conservation?
A. Absolutely! One of the greatest examples of that is the conservation success is the gorilla tracking.
I saw this first hand when I visited Rwanda to observe the mountain gorillas and was really impressed with how much the locals were involved. It thrilled me to no end to learn that a large portion of the funds raised went directly to both the mountain gorillas and to the locals – giving them further incentive to protect these highly endangered apes.
Mountain gorillas are the only great ape experiencing a population increase. This is largely due to intensive conservation efforts and successful community engagement, said David Greer, WWF’s African Great Ape Programme Manager. See Mountain Gorilla Population Grows for more details.
She also provides an example of how tourism has had a positive impact on turtle populations in Costa Rica. In her example, she says that, when you compared the money made from volunteers and overnight tourists with the money that could have been made from poaching it was clear that getting volunteers was a lot more beneficial, financially, for the community. Over the years the project has led to conservation education of the local school kids, ingraining the conservation arguments (along with the financial ones) to protect turtles.
Q2.There’s so much greenwashing now, where companies pretend to follow responsible tourism practices, but really aren’t. What are your tips for choosing a wildlife tour that actually helps wildlife?
A2. Ask questions. If there’s a lack of information that’s probably indicative of what happens on the ground. A reputable company should make it clear what their policies are. For example, at Exodus Travels they provide trip notes, outlines and their processes for each tour.
This makes sense, if a company has responsible tourism practices in place, it will want to promote these. If you’re unsure, before you book ask about their responsible tourism practices and what their guidelines are for interacting with wildlife. I also think it’s good to be aware of what are not considered to be responsible wildlife tourism practices, i.e. swimming with captive dolphins, riding elephants or walking with lions. Also be wary of places operating as animal refuges. I visited one such place in Honduras and was beyond horrified to learn that they captured baby monkeys in the wild (by killing their entire families first), and brought them to the wildlife “refuge”. If you really want to help wildlife, you will avoid these activities and the tour operators who offer them like the plague.
Q3. That brings us to, how close is too close?
A3. Avoid interactions where wildlife is held in captivity. At Exodus Travels, we only visit wildlife in captivity when it is an actual wildlife rehabilitation program and is thoroughly researched.
I was also thrilled to learn about Exodus Travels’ proactive approach to overcrowding wildlife. I experienced this when I was on safari in Yala National Park looking for leopards, with another tour operator. As soon as there was a leopard sighting, it would be communicated to all the jeeps. Before you knew it, there were 10+ jeeps, with engines running crowding a leopard. I felt sick to my stomach and asked my guide to ask the drive to ideally turn off the jeep, or at least quit revving the engine. The driver thought I was crazy. He was only trying to do his job and get me as close to the leopard as possible – which I imagine was far too close for the leopard’s liking.
Megan says that she had a similar experience in Yala and it didn’t feel right for her either. Exodus Travels avoids contributing to the problem by entering Yala from a separate entrance, one that is far away from the crowds. She also says that they let visitors know in advance that they won’t be answering any leopard calls when a leopard is sighted. They still want their wildlife travellers to see a leopard, but not at the expense of stressing out the leopard. They have a similar policy for whale watching in Sri Lanka, where blue whales are frequently being crowded by too many boats.
I love innovative solutions like this which benefit both wildlife travellers, and more importantly the wildlife itself!
Q4. How can a wildlife traveller minimize their impact while wildlife viewing?
A4. Exodus Travels invests in extensive leader training to achieve the “Exodus Standard”. Visitors generally follow the leader’s advice on how to act and behave. Furthermore, we are always looking for ways to reduce waste. Megan also pointed out that people are on vacation. Most don’t want to spend their entire vacation worrying about being a responsible wildlife traveller. She says that’s why they have so many repeat clients. Their clients know that they can rely on their guide to let them know what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. It’s another huge advantage of going with a responsible wildlife travel company – you can take comfort in knowing that you’re helping wildlife, without having to worry about what to do and what not to do.
Q5. What’s a species that would really benefit from wildlife tourism?
A5. Herpetology tours, in particular frogs, in particular in Latin America is a suggestion from our wildlife expert here. There’s a fungus which is decimating entire frog species which, potentially, could have a terrible effect on ecosystems. The frogs of Central America (and South America) themselves are fascinating as they come in all different colours, red, green, orange, red eyed, translucent, some live in trees, some on the ground….etc. Such tours would help raise awareness about the plight of these frogs and the potential domino effect, which could help in raising funds for research and conservation as well.
This is a great lesson for all of us. If you’re really passionate about a specific species, then see if there is a wildlife tourism project built around it to support it. Not only will it be a trip of a lifetime, but you will be making a positive contribution to that species.
I’ll never forget my visit with mountain gorillas. I have a primatology degree and had worked with gorillas at the Calgary Zoo, but had never seen them in the wild. I was so overwhelmed that I cried. My guide gently whispered in my ear so the rest of the group wouldn’t hear, I love people like you. You get what a special gift it is to spend an hour with these magical creatures!
And an even better gift in knowing that my visit was playing a small role in bringing these vulnerable apes back from the brink of destruction! That’s the power of wildlife travel when done properly!
Note: Thank you to Megan for all her insights and to Exodus Travels for making this post possible. As always, all opinions expressed are my own.