After working as an underwater photographer on Ningaloo Reef, Lewis has seen how minimal impact wildlife tours should be run. Here’s what to look for when planning your own encounter with animals in the wild.
Growing up with the privilege of being able to travel and explore the natural world is perhaps the thing I am most grateful for in life.
If you’re anything like me then your travels consist of quality time in the outdoors, surrounded by the majesty of nature. When planning trips I’m always looking for somewhere new that has an interesting ecosystem to explore; whether that’s the lowland jungles and flood plains of the Himalaya or the pristine tropical reefs of Raja Ampat.
Bottom line is, if there are unique animals, landscapes or cultures to discover then count me in.
Wildlife Tours Are Incredible
Wildlife tourism has come a long way in a short time. It’s pretty safe to say that for the right amount of money you can pay to see any animal, anywhere on earth… Unfortunately though, with such a large array of experiences available at our fingertips, there are plenty of options that don’t always have the wellbeing of the animal as priority.
There’s something magical about seeing an animal in the wild. Don’t get me wrong, my favourite way to spend a night in still involves a David Attenborough doco and a takeaway pizza.
But nothing will ever compare to the feeling of swimming with your first Whale shark or seeing a tiger stalk through long grass in search of prey. Experiencing these animals up close and personal in the wild is often a positive and life-changing experience, but it has the potential to cause the opposite effect on the animals themselves.
When looking for wildlife tours it’s always important to keep in mind how ethical the activity is. In developed countries such as Australia there’s less of an immediate need for financial gain to be the primary reason to run these operations, but that doesn’t always mean wildlife tour providers will always do the right thing.
If there’s one thing that capitalist society has taught us, it’s to always put profit at the forefront of our business models. In developing nations the risk of unethical wildlife tourism and exploitation of wild animals is even higher.
How Wildlife Tours Can Hurt The Species You’re There to See
A prime example of the profit-over-planet mentality is the infamous Oslob Whale Shark Experience on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. Whale sharks are a highly transient species, having been recorded migrating over thousands of kilometres in search of their main food source, plankton.
Unfortunately in Oslob, local fishermen have figured out that if you feed these usually seasonal visitors then the whale sharks have no reason to migrate.
They’ve effectively extended the season from a short visit to a year round tourist activity, and they’ve increased revenue from the tourist dollar tenfold.
Whilst from a quick glance this doesn’t seem too bad, there’s a large cause for concern that these usually vagrant giants of the ocean are no longer migrating. Migration is a crucial aspect of their mating habits, allowing populations to mix and the gene pool to stay healthy.
Considering that the Whale shark is on the endangered species list worldwide, strongholds like the Philippines need to have better ecotourism policies in place to stop this from happening.
But what’s even worse is the fact that tourists are actively contributing to the demise of the species they’re paying to swim with. It’s sadly ironic, but often without access to this information the guests on these tours go home unaware.
Do Your Research
The story of Oslob’s Whale sharks and unsustainable tourism has been repeated time and time again as budget travel opens up to a wider audience and travel in general (pandemics aside) becomes more accessible than ever before.
It’s important that as an ethical traveller you conduct your own research into these activities before you book them. There’s plenty of information available online, but try to take everything you read with a pinch of salt.
This is becoming an especially large problem with the growing use of Instagram as a travel research tool. People are having their expectations of a perfect ‘insta-worthy’ experience set well in advance of actually working out the details of the trip and prioritising these expectations over lowering their impact. I saw plenty of this when I was working as an underwater photographer on the Ningaloo Reef.
It’s also important to be aware of the growing trend of ‘greenwashing’, the process of using keywords like ‘eco’, ‘green’ and ‘planet-friendly’ in marketing to trick consumers into thinking the companies are doing more for the planet than they actually are.
As a general rule of thumb, if a wildlife tour feeds or chases the animal then it should be avoided. I’d also be wary of any tour company that guarantees sightings; if there’s one thing that wildlife is other than wild, it’s unpredictable.
Doing this research and voting with your feet (and cash!) is a powerful way to support companies doing things the right way.
Support Companies That Champion Conservation
There are plenty of examples across the planet that sit on the opposite end of the scale. By booking with these tours guests can often directly contribute to NGO funds and organisations that work to conserve our precious ecosystems.
Great, ethically-minded tours often attempt to combine wildlife viewing and education, leaving you with a solid knowledge base of the animals themselves and the threats they face.
One great example is Dolphin Discovery Centre eco tours in Bunbury, WA. The tours put the ball in the dolphin’s court, giving them the choice of when and how they interact.
The company is run as a not for profit organisation with funding put towards education, conservation, and research projects; they even partner with local Universities and have built up over 31 years of knowledge about local populations.
With the encroachment of mankind negatively affecting so many of our wild places across the planet, make sure that the next time you travel you check that the wildlife interaction you’re booking onto will have a positive impact on that animal’s life.
In the end it’s our choices that keep these companies running, so it’s worth supporting the right ones.
As the legendary David Attenborough says, ‘Cherish the natural world, because you’re a part of it, and you depend on it.’