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The Responsible Traveller: responsible wildlife watching

Posted by Richard Hammond at 05:26 on Monday 08 February 2010

No matter how many wildlife documentaries you’ve seen, nothing can prepare you for the moment you first see a mountain gorilla in the wild. Squatting among the dense foliage, weighing some 200kg and nearly 2m tall (when standing upright), with deep set eyes, a mass of coarse black fur and bulging muscles, an adult silverback mountain gorilla is a fearsome sight. Yet once you’ve reeled from the terror of being so close to this huge wild animal, you become mesmerized by it. The shock turns to awe. Most people spend their full allotted time (usually one hour) transfixed. 

Where once observing raw animal behaviour in remote places was the privilege of patient wildlife film-makers or scientists, there are an increasing number of wildlife trips where guides can take you to observe some of the most amazing creatures on earth. However, while many wildlife-watching holidays, such as the gorilla trips organised in Rwanda and Uganda, are responsibly managed, not all wildlife encounters as good for the animals as they are for you.
(Above: silverback gorilla, Photo: Steppes Discovery.)

Adverse effects

A report published in 2006 by United Nations Environment Programme and the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals looked at the benefits and risks of tourism on wildlife, featuring case studies including butterfly watching in Mexico, turtle-watching in Brazil, cheetah safaris in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and shallow-water snorkelling with stingrays in the Cayman Islands. As well as highlighting best practice, the report noted that “Wildlife watching tourism can have adverse effects on wildlife in three main ways – by causing changes in their behaviour, to their physiology, or damage to their habitats” and concluded that “With the continued expansion of wildlife watching, and the increasing impacts and risks this poses for watched animal populations and their habitats, it is important to ensure that future management of wildlife watching tourism, and associated development of tourism facilities and infrastructure, is better planned and far more systematic than has often been the case in the past.” (Above: Birdwatching in South Africa. Photo: Richard Hammond)

As well as the risk associated with tourists getting too close to observe wild animals, the report said that “the general background levels of activity in areas where wildlife watching takes place can have significant effects on watched animal populations... One detailed study found that general patterns of behaviour of dolphins in a popular dolphin watching site in New Zealand were affected – showing less feeding and social interaction – even when animals were not being observed by tourists.”


Grahame Madge, spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), says there is concern that some populations of birds in Europe and North Africa are being disturbed by over-enthusiastic birdwatchers. Madge says is a classic example of the threat from birdwatchers on the dwindling numbers of Bald Ibis in Morocco (left) - listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species (which reports that over 95% of truly wild birds are concentrated in just one subpopulation in Morocco). According to Madge, there are fewer than 300 birds remaining, yet he says there have been allegations that the colony has been disturbed by birdwatchers trying to get a closer sighting or a better photo, which is putting this endangered bird at even greater risk. “We would want to restore the population and any additional disturbances such as pushing birds off the nesting ledge where they may be vulnerable to predation or other factors is a serious concern” he said. (Above: Bald ibis, feeding, Soussmassa Nation Park, Morocco. Photo: Chris Gomersall/rspb-images.com)

Madge says the RSPB’s advice for how to be a more responsible bird-watcher is two-fold: “First, we say don’t try to put the wildlife that you have gone to see under additional stress in order to get photos or better views - sometimes you have to make do with a distant view. The second is to be careful about additional threats that you may pose to the species, for example bringing non-native species to the area that you are travelling to. A major concern at the moment is people taking hand luggage, camera bags and other equipment that may inadvertently be spreading non native species through seeds attached to mud on socks and walking boots and the Velcro fastenings on equipment.

“It may sound ridiculous that we’re asking people to avoid taking seeds in clothing but it does present a major threat to wildlife and conservation. In many locations, particularly remote oceanic islands, such as Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha, a large number of non native species have become established through agriculture and tourism, and threaten the delicate native plants which can’t compete.”

Managing numbers

Chris Johnston, general manager of Steppes Discovery, the award-winning tour operator which organises nature-watching trips to over 50 countries, says managing visitor numbers is the key to responsible wildlife watching.

“The classic example of well-managed tourism is gorilla-watching in Uganda and Rwanda. Tourists pay a lot of money to get a permit (about US$500) to see the gorillas, which is a significant amount of cash and so immediately it takes away that mass market element and limits it to a finite number of people. The way that it is monitored is that you get one permit for one person to see a gorilla group and once they’ve spent one hour with them they then leave that group alone. Unlike what happens in the Serengeti, where people go in one after the other, in Rwanda it is monitored, low impact, high yield tourism and it works very well. The same thing happens in Botswana where they charge a fortune to get you in, and once you’re there you have the place to yourself and the money raised is invested back into the park.

“The problem with tourism is that it can be a blessing as well as a curse. If it’s done badly then habitat and livelihoods can be destroyed; if it’s done well, it can create economic incentives, jobs and conserve wildlife.”

Richard Hammond is the co-author of Clean Breaks - 500 new ways to see the world (Rough Guides, £18.99)

This article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in the April issue of Geographical magazine, available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

See also: Five Responsible Wildlife-watching Holidays

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