The Outsider’s Guide to Responsible Wildlife Travel


It was the moment I had dreamed of since booking a puma tracking safari in Patagonia: two playful cubs and their mother, mere dots on the hill, inching toward us. If we were lucky, they would soon be in sight.

I grabbed my binoculars, eager to watch their movements from afar, a good 400 feet away, but my heart stopped at the unfolding scene. The tourists with cameras weren’t even hiding their attempts to walk closer to the animals; the mother cougar, now on high alert with her ears up, was visibly upset. My guide, local puma tracker and photographer. Miguel FuentealbaHe shook his head in disgust. “That—that’s not good,” she said, noting that such behavior is unfortunately tolerated by vendors on private land outside of Chile. National Park Torres del Paine. However, he mentors young guides in the hope that one day ethical cougar tracking will become the norm.

The whole experience was harrowing. Of course, me I wasn’t on that irresponsible wildlife tour, but seeing such travelers approach the animals without scruples, perhaps not realizing they were wrong, reminded me how important it is to research an experience like this before you book.

Finding an ethical wildlife travel experience requires research, analysis, and a BS meter for greenwashing lingo, not to mention a solid understanding of the do’s and don’ts of animal encounters in the wild. Here are tips from wildlife travel and conservation experts on how to find responsible wildlife travel providers, plus common red flags that companies should avoid.

Research companies thoroughly

Before booking any wildlife experience, spend time on various tour operator websites and their social media. Go beyond “green” marketing messages. Are they protecting the animals that they take travelers to see?

“Do you have a sustainability or conservation section? [on their site]? What do they do across the spectrum? Do they have sustainability behaviors, such as giving back to the community? says Jim Sano, vice president of travel, tourism and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “If you see those things, that’s a good indication that they’ve compromised and are most likely following the rules of the protected area.”

ask the right questions

Not all tour operators can have a full website and multi-million dollar wildlife conservation campaign, especially local vendors, like the one I traveled with. That doesn’t mean they don’t take conservation seriously. Plus, exploring with a local or native guide is one of the best ways to help out the community you’re visiting. So how do you determine who conducts ethical wildlife tours?

“When selecting an operator, ask questions about [the tourism] the approach, the species, the location and the process,” says Jack Fishman, conservation and community officer for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. PADI Conscious Foundation. If you cannot find this information on the guide’s website or on social media, please email or phone to inquire before booking. Also, take some time to browse review sites; Are there reports of bad behavior in the one or two star reviews? David MacDonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, recommends avoiding any wildlife activity with a provider whose TripAdvisor score falls below 80 percent.

Another hint that a tour operator may not be responsible? A 100 percent guarantee of wildlife sightings. That assurance could be the result of a supplier feeding the animals, a practice known as provisioning, which conservation biologists say is “dangerous to the health and safety of wild animals,” according to The New York Times.

Beyond looking for red flags, you can also proactively find a responsible tour operator by referring to regional conservation associations for their suggestions. (For example, the Galapagos Conservation Fund lists its recommended tour partners; many financially support the trust, a sign that they are walking the walk and giving back to conservation research).

Be knowledgeable about the sanctuary

Sanctuaries are one of the biggest marketing scams in the world of wildlife tourism. Yes, some are legitimately trying to help animals at risk, but perhaps an even larger portion of them are falsely using the label to sound ethical and attract travelers. Those photos of travelers feeding adorable lion cubs or taking selfies with sloths are a big red flag.

According to PETA, reputable animal sanctuaries do not allow hands-on interactions with wildlife. That includes the common practice of bathing with elephants. This experience is marketed as more responsible than elephant riding (which you should never do), but sadly, the training to prepare them for safe bathing with humans is just as traumatic.

“Tourists need to know the truth: Any elephant they can get close enough to touch is an elephant that has been horribly abused for this use,” said Audrey Mealia, global director of wildlife for World Animal Protection, in a statement. release. company blog post.

For guidance when choosing whether or not to visit one, use the World Federation of Animal Sanctuaries website. find a sanctuary Map. The federation vets and accredits responsible organizations around the world, giving you the peace of mind that a specific facility puts its animals first.

admire from afar

When you embark on a wildlife experience, you are entering an animal’s home. It’s critical to be a bystander, Fishman says. Watch the magical kingdom unfold, but don’t put yourself in the middle, even when a creature approaches you.

“Yes, the animal can touch you, but that’s not always a sign that the animal is looking for a touch response,” he says. “Our contact can be destructive to marine species, from introducing bacteria to destroying the protective layers of the skin. And our touch can be extremely stressful.”

These close encounters are more frequent underwater, which is why PADI scuba instructors share responsible guidelines before every outing, but as I found out on my puma tracking tour in Patagonia, some operators on land have been known to as well. they get too close. Important basic rules of responsible tourism of the wildlife of the Kenya Association of Professional Safari Guides These include: not disturbing animals with noise, flashing lights, or getting too close for them to get up; stay on approved roads; and do not come closer than approximately 65 feet. (Similar to Fuentealba’s approach to Patagonia, it’s important to let the wild animals roam. If they come at you, great. If not, watch them through binoculars.)

When in doubt, be like a fly on the wall, and if you end up on a tour where the guide doesn’t follow these rules, speak up. Your guide, or the owner of the tour company, may have an explanation for the behavior that is unknown to you. If the answer still doesn’t sound right, contact a wildlife conservation organization for a gut check. If the actions turn out to be harmful to animals, Sano says the best way to report them is to write reviews on sites like TripAdvisor; this will help future travelers to redirect their funds to more responsible providers.

Remember: Wildlife Tourism They can Make the good

Unfortunately, the negative actions of some tour operators stain the entire industry. Responsible wildlife tourism can and has done wonders to save endangered species by offering locals a better financial incentive than poaching, hunting, and mining. “Shark tourism around the world has made sharks more valuable alive than dead, leading to their protection,” says Fishman.

And Sano points to Namibia, the first African country to adopt environmental protection into its constitution in 1990, as a case study on the positive effects of ethical wildlife tourism. When the government gave Namibians the right to manage their natural resources through communal conservation areas, the once decimated populations of lion, cheetah and black rhino rebounded, and ecotourism is now one of the main models of income to support these communities.

Book with responsible wildlife tour providers

Here are three examples of international providers that incorporate the above criteria. You can find other responsible wildlife tour leaders, including local and regional guides, through the steps mentioned above or by using the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Y B-corporate directories.

Abercrombie and Kent: For decades, travel provider Abercrombie and Kent has prioritized animal welfare over epic photography. In 1982, two decades after launching the company, leader Geoffrey Kent co-founded Friends of Conservation, one of the first community conservation initiatives on the planet. In the decades that followed, his company helped introduce a wildlife safe driver education curriculum and safari code of conduct in Kenya. More recently, the operator has initiated a handful of innovative conservation programs, including a partnership with Rhino Conservation Botswana to move more than 70 rhinos from high-poaching regions to the Moremi Game Reserve, where official “rhino monitors” keep an eye on them 24/7. Guests are invited to see and learn about this rhino conservation strategy on several of the company’s trips to Botswana.

Bold: A Certified B Corp, Bold It was the first global tour provider to ban elephant riding in 2014, long before the adverse effects of the practice were widely shared. The company has a strong animal welfare policy, starting with the golden rule: watch them from a distance. On the conservation side, Intrepid also runs reforestation projects, promotes carbon offsetting, and leads efforts As the Torres del Paine Legacy Funda program designed to help this Patagonian park preserve its biodiversity as the crowds continue to grow.

Adventures in the natural habitat: Backed by WWF, Adventures in the natural habitat (NatHab) organizes trips from the Arctic to Africa and has long been an innovator when it comes to sustainable travel offerings. In 2019, he debuted the world’s first zero-waste adventure, a Yellowstone excursion focused on composting, recycling and upcycling in nature. The company also supports grassroots conservation initiatives within the communities you visit. This includes the Great Bear Rainforest Conservation project in British Columbia, where NatHab helped fund and protect critical terrain for brown bears, and Hope for Madagascar, a project designed to help locals across the country minimize poverty through of education and conservation.

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