A Suggested Code Of Conduct For Wildlife Tourists
An estimated 300 grizzly bears roam freely across Glacier National Park in the United States. Signs abound warning visitors to be “bear aware”. They are directed not to feed or approach the animals, especially sows with cubs. Campers and backpackers must secure their food in bear-proof containers or use bear poles. But this wasn’t always the case.
People have long loved to watch wildlife. Chalets built between 1910-15 by the Great Northern Railway into Glacier’s backcountry dazzled guests for decades with close up bear sightings. They drew the bears in by tossing their garbage into dumps just outside the buildings. Visitors could then watch these mighty carnivores plunder the trash from the safety of the lodge. All this changed on the night of August 12, 1967 when two grizzlies fatally mauled two campers. This event forever changed the country’s approach to bear management.
While this tragedy can serve as an object lesson about what can go wrong when humans and wildlife interact, it also has much to teach us about what we now call “ecotourism”. Ecotourism is defined broadly as a type of travel that supports the local environment. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it must be environmentally responsible, promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and have socio-economic benefit to local peoples. And The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) describes ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.
However it’s defined, just because your travel takes you to natural areas, it doesn’t automatically qualify as ecotourism. “Greenwashing” is an increasing problem as more and more tourists seek out ecotourism experiences. Tours that involve large groups, fail to emphasize conservation, guarantee proximity to wildlife, or don’t showcase local guides and educators are all suspect. Unfortunately, examples abound of wildlife tourism gone wrong. Antarctic cruise tourism, polar bear tourism, and whale and dolphin watching all represent cases where wildlife tourism failed to provide the hoped-for conservation benefits.
The best ecotourism unites conservation, communities and sustainable travel. Ecotourism can give residents an alternative to resource exploitation. Since it’s mostly non-consumptive, well-managed ecotourism can provide long-term financial compensation to local communities. It supports those working directly in the tourist industry as well as those involved indirectly such as suppliers of food, transportation, fuel, and so forth.
While travelers help the local economies in the places they visit, they have perhaps an even greater impact on the local environments. Tourism can incentivize a change in land use from consumption to conservation. Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania are all tourist magnets. Much of the attraction comes from the opportunity to see wildlife. Visitor fees provide much-needed resources for conservation efforts. They can finance the establishment of feeding, relocation, anti-poaching, and other protection programs, Much of the fees charged to travelers by legitimate ecotourism companies should go to conservation efforts such as these.
Unfortunately, ecotourism isn’t always good for wildlife. According to a 2015 study published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, ecotourism can negatively affect animals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they change their behavior in response to human presence. Wild animals may start to relax as they become habituated to humans, making them an easier target for poachers. They may become bolder, even with normal predators, increasing the chance they will be injured or killed. Predators may come to avoid areas frequented by people, creating a haven for smaller prey animals. All of this disturbs the natural balance in an ecosystem, and may even alter genetic selection in wild animals.
In addition to affecting animal behavior, tourism can have other negative impacts. Creating tourism infrastructure can degrade local habitat through the construction of roads, utilities, and guest facilities. Visitors leave behind garbage, trample vegetation, clog roads and collide with animals. Popular times for visiting may be during mating season or when females are giving birth to their young. Stress at these times can affect reproduction and juvenile mortality.
So how can we be responsible ecotourists?
There is no general code governing wildlife watching recognized across the globe. While ecotourism carries risks, it can also do much to preserve our planet’s natural and cultural heritage. For ecotourism to fulfill its promise, we need an Ecotourist Code of Conduct. To be most effective, such a code should tell tourists not only what behavior is expected, but why. People react more positively to restrictions when they’re explained.
Best practices for wildlife watching should balance the needs of tourists, industry, and wildlife. Each locale is different and needs to be managed as such. The guidelines need to address both the biological and social aspects of wildlife tourism. Ideally, further research would identify which animals will respond to human presence and in what ways. That information can inform a code of conduct specific to a given area and ecosystem. In the meantime, we should consider the following template as the basis for a code of conduct that can be modified to fit the particulars of each location.
Proposed Code of Conduct For Wildlife Ecotourism
The goal of this code is sustainable tourism that can enhance the tourist experience while conserving local habitat and minimizing the effects on wildlife.
- Be aware of your impact on the environment and community you visit.
Within reason, you should try to reduce any negative impacts as much as possible.
- Keep wildlife wild.
Don’t expect to feed or physically interact with the animals. This will reduce opportunities for habituation.
- Expect to find some restriction in your wildlife viewing.
You may find time limits or zones set up to govern tourist visits. They are there for the protection of the animals, the ecosystem, and possibly, you.
- Be aware of potential area closures to protect wildlife during vulnerable periods such as birthing or mating.
Plan your travel accordingly and accept unexpected restrictions with good grace.
- If you’re camping, avoid using wood for fires.
In many areas, wood is hard to come by, and local residents need it.
- Avoid using chemicals such as soaps and detergents.
There is likely no water treatment facility to keep these substances from getting into local rivers, lakes, or streams.
- Leave nature in its place.
Don’t take souvenirs from the wild places you visit. It may look like just a rock or a tuft of hair, but the local ecosystem needs it more than you do.
- If you are traveling independently, hire local guides, stay in family-run guest houses or hotels, and eat the local cuisine.
The traveler should support the local community as much as possible.
- Remember that you are a guest.
Be well-mannered and generous with your hosts. Consider yourself an emissary, and act in a way that will make your hosts eager for more tourists from your home.
- If you are hiring a tour company:
- Be wary of tour companies using the “eco” label when it’s not warranted.
Investigate a tour operator thoroughly and avoid those whose offerings exploit local peoples or ecosystems.
- Look for a small group size, though this will likely raise the price.
True ecotours can only be run with small or medium groups. Ecosystems suffer when large groups tramp through fragile areas.
- Education should be a key component of the trip.
Find out if there will be a naturalist, a local guide or other expert with your group.
- Expect minimal amenities.
You likely won’t find a five-star hotel or gourmet restaurant in a pristine natural area. Appreciate places with a low ecological footprint.
- Expect to walk or bike on your tour.
The promise of a large, comfortable, air-conditioned tour bus should raise a red flag.
- Plan to use water and other resources responsibly.
You may find only a cold shower, no climate control in vehicles or rooms, no potable water outside of what your tour company provides and toilets that don’t take toilet paper. Consider it part of the educational experience.
As animal advocates, the last thing we want to do is to hurt animals. Seeing animals in the wild can be an unmatched thrill. To have these experiences, and to provide them for future generations, we must be responsible and put animal welfare before our own enjoyment. Adopting this Code of Conduct for Wildlife Ecotourism can be a good first step.