Helping nature with responsible travelHal Brindley – Travel For Wildlife
What are we trying to sustain?
Is it tourism itself? Not exactly. Sure, we’d all like a longer beach holiday, but we’re talking about something much bigger. The bottom line is that we’re trying to sustain life on Earth. And not just for humans. There are 8.7 million other species of plants and animals that share this big crazy ball of life with us. To me, sustainable tourism means that our recreational activities do no harm to living things on this planet, and better yet, actually help them.
My wife and I love wildlife. It’s the reason we travel: to see incredible animals in their native habitats. Naturally, this love for wildlife has filled us with a desire to help conserve the animals and habitats we visit, so our vision of sustainable tourism is quite specific. When we make travel decisions, the first thing we ask ourselves is, “Does this harm wildlife or its habitat in any way?” If the answer is yes, then we choose something different. The second question we ask is “Does this benefit the wildlife we’re traveling to see?” If so, then we make that our priority and we help promote that choice to other travelers. But answering these questions is not as easy as it might seem.
Stay close to nature
We always start with the direct effects and work outward. For example, does this tour directly harm or harass wildlife? Some methods of watching wildlife are clear examples of harassment, like poorly-managed tours that approach too closely, surround animals, or bring in too many visitors for the safety of the animals. Some examples are over-crowded dolphin or whale-watching regions, or vehicle-based viewing where too many cars converge on a single big cat. Other clear examples are tours that alter natural behaviors, like luring animals with bait, feeding them, or allowing people to touch them. These types of interactions can have both direct and indirect negative consequences for wildlife.
We also avoid attractions that involve captive animals. Capturing wild animals (or breeding wild animals in captivity) to entertain tourists is certainly not a sustainable tourism choice, especially not from the perspective of the individual animal in captivity, or the others who died or suffered along the way. It also does long-term damage to wild populations and to our perception of how wild animals should be treated. Petting or walking with captive wild animals is an obvious example. Another is riding on top of wild animals that had to be “broken” for the activity, such as elephants. But sometimes the biggest challenge is breaking through the wall of propaganda that is set up to justify these activities to tourists. By calling them eco-tours or referring to themselves as sanctuaries that rescue animals, tourists can often be quickly lulled into thinking that they’re actually helping animals and not hurting them. Other common justifications are public education, providing jobs, captive breeding for eventual release, or donating money to conservation. We always try to carefully analyze the claims of such attractions and decide for ourselves if this is actually benefitting conservation and is it really morally justifiable to keep these wild animals in captivity. Usually there is a much better way to accomplish the same goal without the downsides that come with captive animal attractions. Some of the worst examples of animal abuse, such as lion petting and lion walking attractions, are experts at convincing people that their facility is promoting lion conservation when in fact they do no such thing. To us, traveling sustainably requires careful research and the ability to put the needs of animals before our own desires.
Making eco-tourism worthwhile
Sustainable travel also has to work on a human level in order to preserve animals and habitats. If local people have more financial incentive to protect their native wildlife than they do to exploit it, then the system is a self-sustaining one. For example, a villager in the rainforest of Sumatra may have no way to provide for his family besides cutting down trees in the nearby forest to supply the Indonesian plywood and pulpwood industry. He obviously cares more about feeding his children than preserving the habitat of the last Sumatran rhinos and tigers and orangutans. And in the short term, it does not matter to him that the practice isn’t sustainable. He can’t afford to wonder what he will do when the trees are gone. Now lets say an eco tourism initiative allows locals to own and operate an eco-lodge, employs local people as guides, and creates a market for local handcrafts. Not only do the villagers now have a sustainable form of income, but also they develop a sense of pride in the native wildlife that people are willing to travel to see.
If managed properly, eco tourism can have long-lasting positive effects on endangered wildlife and habitats, as well as humans.
Lastly, as sustainable travelers, we have to acknowledge the indirect global effects of our travel upon wildlife and ecosystems. Nearly all current forms of travel (airplanes, trains, boats, cars) involve the burning of fossil fuels, making transportation the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions and climate change worldwide. Changing climates are the biggest threat to species diversity. When things change too quickly for plants and animals to adapt, those species disappear. So traveling sustainably means making the smartest choices possible to reduce emissions. For example, we try to fly as little as possible by finding direct flights, grouping trips together, or spending longer times in single destinations. On the ground we choose the most efficient forms of travel we can find and support lodging options with the lowest carbon footprint. But in the long run, the only sustainable option is finding zero-emission alternatives to our current methods of travel.
Travel can have a positive impact on wildlife as long as we’re willing to think carefully about our choices. We are just one of the many millions of species living on this planet so lets work together to support life on Earth!
Hal Brindley – Travel For Wildlife.com
Hal, a wildlife photographer, and Cristina, a zoologist, travel the world in search of wildlife while working with conservation organizations and non profits in international conservation campaigns.
Committed to traveling ethically and with minimal impact, Travel For Wildlife won Silver for “Best Responsible Tourism Blog” at the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2015 at WTM London and Gold for “Best Responsible Tourism Award” at the Cinnamon Travel Blogger Awards, TBC Asia in Sri Lanka 2016.