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The tour operator's dilemma: Keeping the customer happy while not disturbing the wildlife
by Ronda Green

AUSTRALIA WIKI

This essay is excerpted from a presentation at the 2002 International Ecotourism Conference in Cairns.

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A traveller almost always has limited time and limited money and is looking for quality experiences within those constraints. Wildlife tour operators have to deliver these quality experiences. In this competitive world we need to not only satisfy but delight our customers to have a reasonable chance of staying in business long-term.

Does giving people satisfying wildlife experiences endanger wildlife and their habitats? If I thought this was always the case I would not be running ecotours.

In fact I think ecotourism can and does have many positive effects on wildlife conservation, such as monetary and other contributions to conservation and research by tourists and tour operators, economic arguments for preserving wilderness, and an opportunity to promote an enhanced appreciation of fauna and flora and support for their conservation.

But there are problems, and we can't justify ignoring them. I'm sometimes told I shouldn't be talking about negative effects on wildlife, because this gives a negative tone to ecotourism and could endanger my own and other businesses. To me this seems a bit like telling car manufacturers they shouldn't do any research into the effects of collisions, or saying that restaurant owners shouldn't think about possibilities of food poisoning. Have any been driven out of business by using crash test dummies or following hygiene procedures? How on earth are we going to avoid problems and maintain high standards for our own operations and the industry as a whole, and also show the world that we do have these high standards, if we don't recognize that potential problems exist and find ways of minimizing them?


PERSPECTIVES

Talking for a moment as a research ecologist with a passionate interest in conservation biology, I am very concerned about human influences on wildlife and their habitats. This includes any negative impacts caused by tourism, including wildlife tourism, and I have co-authored a lengthy report for the CRC for Sustainable Tourism on the negative effects of wildlife tourism on wildlife. Having said that, I have also been a co-author of a report on the positive effects, and believe there are enough of these to justify promoting responsible wildlife tourism around the world, as long as we can minimize the negative effects.

Talking again as a tour operator, I really want to know what effect we have on the wildlife. Are our activities gradually affecting the wildlife in ways that will either improve visitor experience or might they ultimately destroy the very things we are trying to show them? Are the animals going to start avoiding the areas we use? Are they going to behave less naturally? Are we likely to cause, however gradually, any changes to their habitat? What if a lot of other tour companies start doing the same kinds of things in the same places? How are these effects going to be compounded? If those other tour companies, my competitors, are not required to minimize their impacts, might they in the short-term give their guests more exciting experiences but in the long term spoil the wildness of the area, the naturalness of the experience and the probability of seeing a diversity of wildlife?

I'm also concerned that conservation-minded people - including many potential customers - look at wildlife tourism simply as exploitation for capital gain, and are very cynical about the term "ecotourism." There are certainly enough examples of ignorance and bad practice to justify some of these attitudes, but we are not going to correct this situation by pretending there are no negative effects. Instead, as an industry we must be able to show the world that we do very seriously keep up to date with all possible problems and try to avoid them.

Often this is easy enough. There are many excellent opportunities for giving our guests marvelous wildlife experiences without apparently affecting the animals in any way. The grand finale for my own 3-day wildlife tour is watching 500,000 large fruitbats taking to the skies at dusk, the main crowd taking about 20 minutes to pour past us, often coming quite close, and our guests often making such comments as "wow, this is like being in a Gothic movie" or "um ... you don't have vampires in Australia do you?" The colony has been here for many years and not only watched by people standing here for many years but been the object of strenuous but unsuccessful efforts of some local residents to deter them from roosting so close to their homes by cracking whips and such like. I very much doubt that our small, quiet group is having any kind of impact.

At other times, there is some conflict between what guests want to do and what seems best for the animal. I've only had one who wanted to wrestle a koala when we saw one walking along the road - a guest from San Diego who was a great fan of the Crocodile Hunter and apparently wanted to practice with something a bit smaller. That sort of request is easily enough dealt with. Many others can be handled by good interpretation.

But what about guests who want to get close to a nervous animal for a better look, a good photo, or just a feeling of "closeness" to a wild creature. Or those who earnestly, desperately want a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a flashlight photo of a nocturnal creature? What about those happy souls who just can't seem to realize they are talking loudly or whistling?

We do know quite a lot nowadays about impacts of wildlife tourism on wildlife: the paper on negative effects that I co-authored with Karen Higginbottom was the result of two years of literature research and interviews. However there is much that we don't know, and some very strong and highly polarized opinions that sometimes appear to be based more on philosophical viewpoints than on any study or observations on actual effects on either individual animals or populations.

There are many issues, but I'll just briefly mention three, and then go on to how we as operators might cooperate to form a nationwide database of information on how to research and implement ways of minimising effects.

Two issues that are important not because they might have the greatest effect but because they are activities very commonly indulged in during wildlife tourism are spotlighting and hand-feeding.

HAND FEEDING

The whole question of hand-feeding is highly emotive, with extreme views fervently supported in each direction but very little information on effects other than some rather obvious problem cases, such as animals that become too bold and aggressive, or overpopulating at the expense of others. Many tour operators are faced with a situation where they know there is plenty of wildlife but can never be sure they will find any when taking their guests on tour. They can explain to their guests that they are seeking animals in the wild, not visiting a zoo, but there is still an uncomfortable feeling that their guests will be less than satisfied (and will not recommend their tours) if they do not encounter particular anticipated species. Live-trapping animals or restricting their movements by fences would often be illegal, and also fail to give guests the feeling of seeing animals in the wild. It is tempting instead to provide feed at regular interval which increase the possibility of the animals' presence. And some guests of course are utterly delighted at the prospect of physical contact with a wild creature.

I never allow hand feeding in a National Park or other wilderness area, and always explain to our guests why this is so. But what about less natural situations, such as farm homesteads or picnic areas in highly altered habitats? If we adopt the totally purist approach and tell everyone (as some interpreters do) how selfish and wrong it is of them to want to feed the animals, do we needlessly upset some very nice people who get a lot of pleasure out of close contact in relatively harmless situations? Can the kind of "bonding" some tourists feel when feeding animals strengthen their conservation interest in the future? These are difficult things to test: but what we can test is some of the effects the hand-feeding might have on the animals, so that if we think there is an important positive effect we can weigh this against the degree of negative effect it might have. Effects are likely to differ widely from species to species and in different kinds of situation -

SPOTLIGHTING

The effects of spotlighting have not been studied in detail for many species. Robyn Wilson of Townsville has found three species of possum to not care what colour is used as filters on spotlights, as long as the light intensity was decreased, and that the sound of quiet adult voices and passing cars don't worry them as much as the crunching of gravel. This is useful information. But can we generalize these findings to other animals? To koalas? To owls and frogmouths? To leaf-tailed geckos? Frogs? Even to other possum species? What about fish, spiders, scorpions ....? What bothers each of them? How much does it matter? (that is, are they just disturbed for a minute or two, or do they avoid the area for the rest of the week?)

We know that nocturnal animals will behave more naturally if light intensity is lowered and that there are various ways of doing this - for instance using filters or nightscopes or infra-red videos, or simply tilting the spotlight so that the animal is in the periphery of the light rather than receiving the full-on glare. Ray Ashton has evidence that some animals will change behaviour if spotlighting is more frequent than once every three nights.

WHAT WE DON'T SEE

Another aspect that concerns me is the effect of wildlife tourism activities, and of ecotourism and nature-based activities generally, is what we do to the animals we never know about. Numbats are known to take cover under logs when they detect approaching footsteps, but the walker may never know there were numbats around, precisely because they have taken cover. How often does this happen with bandicoots or antechinus while we're out there looking for owls and koalas? How often with button-quails or other shy ground-foraging and low-nesting birds while we're leading people past their favoured sites, perhaps on a daily basis? The lizards we see while walking might get over a disturbance quite rapidly - what about the ones we didn't see?

We make promises for accreditation that we will not do activities that will unduly disturb wildlife, but these do not always translate easily into actual distances for each species, or indications that an animal is being affected.

There's already quite a lot that we know. Melissa Geise's work on penguins has shown very nicely how best to approach penguins, and the signs that they are getting disturbed and ready to stand up, exposing their eggs to cold air. We know that when a kangaroo stands bolt upright, staring at you with ears pricked towards you, she will probably bolt if you don't back off and will certainly do so if you come any closer. We know that crocodiles and alligators will desert their nests, exposing eggs to predators, if tour boats come too close. We know that waterbirds prefer canoes to motor boats (hardly surprising). I could go on for the next hour - there is a lot of other information in the CRC report on "Negative Effects of Wildlife Tourism on Wildlife."

There is also a lot of other information out there, gathered by tour operators, national park rangers, ecologists and amateur naturalists which, while perhaps not yet suitable for publication in a scientific journal, would be very valuable for others to share and discuss. Perhaps in collating information we might find conflicting observations. We could discuss these and try to determine why we might see different effects in different situations.

NETWORKING

What I'm now setting up is a network of tour operators and other nature interpreters to share information on effects of wildlife tourism on wildlife and their habitats. As tour operators we might not wish to share all our secrets with potential competitors, but on the topic of not disturbing the wildlife we really should be cooperating. It is the right thing to do environmentally - and if not interested in doing the right thing environmentally we should not be claiming to be part of ecotourism. It is also the ethical thing to do as an industry, as well as making good practical sense. We surely do not wish to disturb the animals we might need to see again, and each tour operator should each be responsible enough not to knowingly spoil the chance of others.

So one thing we can do is to gather all the information we can on the effects of what we do, and share it. The database I have set up includes for each record contributed:


  • Species involved
  • Species category - e.g. macropod, wader, butterfly
  • Date of observation (if relevant)
  • Name and contact details of reporter
  • Whether the report involved simply an observation of an effect or the result of an attempted method of minimising the effect
  • Whether it is a direct report or reference to a useful publication
  • Effect category - e.g. disturbance of animal at nest
  • Details of effect (including where relevant effect of action taken to minimize effect)

There are also a number of ways we could cooperate with experiments. For instance if twenty of us were testing the effects of different coloured filters in a reasonably standardised way we could find out the relative effects on a greater variety of species than any of us could manage alone. When I began Araucaria Ecotours I made walking trails through rainforest regrowth, one to take guests along each week and the other to be used only twice a year. I measured soil compaction, small mammal abundance, birdlife and young plants. Soil compaction showed a significant difference within the first few weeks, but I haven't yet made enough measurements to test the other factors. Two tracks - one treatment and one control - is a ridiculously small sample size, but there simply isn't enough time to do much more. With a network of several dozen people testing two tracks each we might really get somewhere. We could also delve into a coordinated study of what happens to the more cryptic species by planting observers who will sit quietly observing wildlife for perhaps an hour before the tour party walks through, notes the effects when they do and whatever the wildlife do once they leave.

Although I am aiming at formulating hypotheses and designing experiments in accordance with standard scientific procedures, we may often not have enough rigor to publish results in the scientific press. We will however progressively gain more and more insights and modify our behaviour accordingly as we piece together more and more info. Such experimenting could also form the basis of hypothesis-forming for more formal studies, either by the same group of people or by post-grad students and other researchers.

DEFINING OUR ROLE

I see our role not as setting out to advocate any particular viewpoints except those I made at the start:

a. that as an industry we should explore the effects of wildlife tourism on wildlife in a wide range of situations and species so that we can learn how to minimise these effects
b. we should cooperate with one another in these efforts for the good of both the industry and the wildlife and the ecosystems they belong to
c. there is a lot of information out there that deserves to be far more widely known, and also questions to which no one yet has answers, and both are worth pursuing
d. these results should be publicised and disseminated as widely as possibly, to be readily and cheaply (preferably freely) available to all who are conducting wildlife tourism or interpretation in the field, as well as environmental assessment and development of theories, strategies and guidelines.

I am suggesting we come up a constantly-growing database of information that all of us and any others can refer to when either deciding what to do in a particular situation during a tour, or something a bit wider such as refining our attempts at determining limits of acceptable change, or recommendations on seasonal zonings of public access to wildlife habitat.

At present I am exploring ways of including all info on a website to most of which all who are interested will have access at any time, but some sections at least temporarily restricted to those with a password. This is so we can comfortably explore some sensitive issues on the web without fear of wide exposure until we are ready.

This is a strictly nonprofit exercise, and the only charges which may be levied are to cover postage and handling of newsletters for those who do not have email, or perhaps if necessary some time in the future a small contribution towards maintaining the website. I anticipate that all those who are actively contributing in other ways will be exempt from any such fees.


AUTHOR

Ronda Green is the founder of Araucaria Ecotours, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2012.


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