Wildlife travel is much more than simply seeing animals. It’s about slowing down to the natural ebb and flow of a wild place, taking time to understand what makes it tick. It’s about the small wonders that stop you in your tracks and the mighty landscapes that leave you feeling humbled. It’s about making a connection. And that, in essence, is what responsible travel is all about.
Only by bonding with the environment you’re visiting will you appreciate the importance of treading lightly and minimising your impact. You will also better understand how to make a positive contribution to wildlife conservation.
But this isn’t an isolated experience: just you and the great outdoors. Responsible travel is as deeply rooted in culture as it is in nature. Making a connection with local people, learning and sharing information, will not only enhance your wildlife holiday, but can also strengthen the vital links between community and conservation.
On this website there are numerous examples of how community-run lodges and other sustainable tourism projects not only support conservation efforts, but also give local people a financial incentive for safeguarding wildlife. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Rwanda where mountain gorilla tourism has made a huge difference to people living near Volcanoes National Park. Part of the revenue from gorilla tracking permits is channelled into community projects ranging from education to sanitation. Poachers now find employment as trackers, local livelihoods have diversified into everything from craft making to tour guiding, while lodges recruit staff from nearby villages. There’s an enormous sense of pride in the gorillas. Enough money spent by travellers remains in the pockets of local people for them to view the apes’ mountain stronghold as a wild refuge to be treasured and cared for – rather than something to be dug up and converted to farmland.
Without tourism, mountain gorillas would still be on a slippery slope towards extinction, rather than climbing steadily to over 1,000 individuals recorded in the latest censuses. There are countless other cases – from rhinos and tigers to whales and coral reefs – where tourism is joining the battle for conservation, if not being the ultimate guarantor of survival for an endangered species or habitat.
When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process.
Responsible Wildlife Travel Q&A
How does carbon offsetting work?
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Should I drive off-road?
Should wilderness be sacred?
Read the latest posts on Responsible Wildlife Travel
10 WAYS TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER
When planning your wildlife holiday, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.
1. Cut your emissions
Plan an itinerary that minimises carbon emissions whenever possible. This might involve travelling by train, hiring a bike or booking a walking or canoeing tour rather than one that relies on vehicle transport.
>> Visit the World Land Trust to find out more about offsetting your emissions. World Land Trust’s Carbon Balanced programme enables individuals and organisations to offset their residual greenhouse gas emissions through the protection and restoration of carbon-rich wildlife habitats in the tropics.
>> Visit seat61.com for worldwide train travel.
2. Check the small print
Choose wildlife travel operators that abide by a responsible travel policy (if they have one it will usually be posted on their website). All of the holiday operators listed on Wildlife Wishlist practise responsible travel, but it is also up to the individual traveller to make difference.
3. Keep it local
If travelling independently, try to use public transport, stay in locally owned accommodation, eat in local restaurants, buy local produce and hire local guides.
4. Cut out waste
Take biodegradable soap and shampoo and leave excess packaging, particularly plastics, at home. The countries you are visiting may not have the waste collection or recycling facilities to deal with it.
5. Get in touch
Find out if there are any local schools, charities or voluntary conservation organisations that you could include in your itinerary. If appropriate, take along some useful gifts or supplies.
>> stuffyourrucksack.com has a list of projects that could benefit from your support.
6. Learn the lingo
Practice some local words, even if it’s just to say ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’. Respect local customs and dress codes and always ask permission before photographing people – including your wildlife tour guide. Once you get home, remember to honour any promises you’ve made to send photographs.
7. Avoid the crowds
Consider travelling out of season to relieve pressure on popular destinations, or visit a lesser-known alternative.
8. Take only photos
Resist the temptation to buy souvenirs made from animals or plants. Not only is it illegal to import or export many wildlife souvenirs, but their uncontrolled collection supports poaching and can have a devastating impact on local populations, upsetting the natural balance of entire ecosystems.
>> CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species bans international trade in around 900 species of animals and plants, and controls trade in a further 33,000 species. Several organisations, including WWF, TRAFFIC and the Smithsonian Institution have formed the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking.
>> According to the European Commission, the most commonly seized wildlife souvenirs are alligator and crocodile products, queen conch shells, coral jewellery and ornaments, boots, bags, belts, shoes and watch straps made from snake and lizard skins, traditional Asian medicines containing tiger bone, rhino horn, bear bile and musk, live plants such as cacti and orchids, shawls of shahtoosh (from the Tibetan antelope), turtles and tortoiseshell, elephant ivory, caviar, live or dead specimens of parrots, scorpions and reptiles and woodcarvings made from rare timber species.
9. Use water wisely
Water is a precious commodity in many countries. Treating your own water avoids the need to buy bottled water which can contribute to the build-up
10. Don’t interfere
Avoid disturbing wildlife, damaging habitats or interfering with natural behaviour by feeding wild animals, getting too close or being too noisy. Leave plants and shells where you find them.
To fly or not to fly?
Flying is bad for the environment. If you need convincing, read the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report which provides compelling and sobering evidence. You may have already decided that many of the holidays on this website are ethically unjustifiable because they involve large amounts of greenhouse-gas-producing air travel. There is no denying that if you can keep your travel local and use less polluting forms of travel, such as trains, then you will have less impact on climate change. Throughout Wildlife Wishlist, we feature suggestions for 'slow travel' as often as we can (please send us your ideas).
We always urge you to carefully consider the impact of your carbon footprint and look for alternative, greener ways to travel where possible. If flying is the only realistic option, then offsetting the carbon generated by your flights is better than ignoring the issue. Whatever your views on carbon offsetting, the simple truth is that it does counterbalance your carbon footprint by funding schemes ranging from reforestation to clean energy. You can offset your emissions through the World Land Trust's Carbon Balanced programme – the carbon offsetting scheme recommended by Wildlife Wishlist. You can also visit www.chooseclimate.org/flying to see detailed information on the emissions for your proposed wildlife holiday, while www.co2balance.com compares emissions from various modes of travel.
Carbon offsetting by individual travellers is just one aspect of this complicated issue. If we demonise flying completely, we put at risk the livelihoods of millions of people who rely on ecotourism around the world – either directly through employment with lodges and tour operators, or indirectly through the partnerships these businesses have with local communities. Those who simply advocate 'stop flying' may unintentionally cause countless people to fall into unemployment or even poverty.
Tourist dollars also support wildlife conservation, through permits, park entry fees and the channelling of profits into everything from anti-poaching patrols to education and habitat restoration. You'll find countless examples on Wildlife Wishlist of environmentally responsible travel operators 'putting something back'. You have to ask yourself whether endangered species like the mountain gorilla and Bengal tiger would still be around today were it not for international tourism.
But, you might argue, what's the point of all this if runaway climate change (accelerated by growing air travel) leads to a collapse in biodiversity and other disaster events? People will settle on all sides of this argument – and there may come a time when flying is considered the 'new smoking'. Wildlife travellers, however, do have an opportunity to make a positive impact on places, people and wild animals. It comes with a responsibility to ensure that their environmental impact is minimised (through green travel, carbon offsetting etc).
But it should not be entirely down to the individual to make a difference. The price of a plane ticket should reflect the environmental cost of the flight.
Airlines and governments urgently need to impose carbon taxes to fund greener, more efficient aviation technology, while increasing passenger duty to cut the forecasted growth of flights.