Curiosity killed the cat?

By Sinead Gillett, Deputy Travel Editor

The desire to get as close as possible to animals in the wild is born of an innate human sense of curiosity. Many find it both thrilling and fascinating to seek out and observe exotic creatures in their natural habitat. Consequently, speciality tour operators that focus on wildlife adventures, or safaris, have emerged. From local businesses to large international operations, these companies recognise the pulling power that wildlife holds when it comes to attracting tourist traffic.

The most popular wildlife experience is the African safari. Around one half of the estimated 12 million trips per annum that make up the global wildlife tourism market are to African safari locations, with South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana being the top destinations. The lion, leopard, African elephant, rhino, and Cape buffalo – collectively known as “the big five game” – are a huge draw for tourists, although there are many other animals of interest.

Other destinations boast their own array of exotic species, and popular locals include; the Galapagos islands, Indonesia and Patagonia. Australia has a diverse offering that includes marsupials, marine life, as well as poisonous snakes and spiders. Malaysia is home to the critically endangered Orangutan, Canada is famous for bears, India for tigers, and China for pandas. The list is endless. Where you find wildlife, you find tourists.

As well as providing enjoyment for millions of people, wildlife-watching tourism has an important educational function. It informs tourists about the indigenous animals of a particular region, and their place within that eco-system. Crucially, wildlife tourism helps to raises awareness of the many pressing social and environmental issues that threaten the world’s wildlife population, for example, climate change, pollution, poaching, land conversion, and deforestation. Increased awareness helps to generate financial support for conservation and protection schemes, many of which also receive contributory funding from the tour operators themselves. Due to this positive focus on conservation, wildlife tourism is often considered a form of eco-tourism.

The industry provides a significant source of income and employment for a growing number of local communities, particularly those in developing countries, such as the African nations, that struggle to generate economic growth.

Wildlife tours stimulate secondary commercial activity for local economies by bringing tourists into the region and bestowing a new demographic to be utilised by local businesses. Often, infrastructure is developed solely to accommodate tourist traffic but in many cases its implementation is as beneficial to residents as it is to visitors. All of this helps to improve the standard of living, and quality of life, experienced by local people.

As interest in wildlife continues to grow, particularly due to its exposure in international media, so too does the demand for wildlife excursion packages. In order to meet this demand, more and more suppliers are entering the market, and as a result, the wildlife tourism industry continues to expand. But just how sustainable is this growth? And is wildlife tourism as eco- and animal-friendly as it appears at first glance?

As the industry grows, large-scale international companies threaten the presence of local tour suppliers in the market. The freezing out, or suppression, of these businesses is likely to result in a Western-owned industry for Westerners, a situation that, as is the case with other similarly structured industries, can be conducive to the exploitation of workers and local resources.

Already the environment is suffering because of wildlife tourism. The demand for wildlife packages has created a boom in hotel and resort construction, particularly on sensitive forest lands. This development contributes to deforestation and serves to narrow the expanse of natural habitat available to animals.

Directly affecting animals and their habitat is the issue of disturbance. Wildlife viewing can disrupt feeding or nesting sites, disturb breeding patterns or scare away animals. In Kenya, for example, tourist presence drives cheetahs off their reserves, increasing the risk of inbreeding and thus further endangering the species.

For other animals disturbance can have the opposite, but equally damaging, effect: they acclimate to the presence of humans, making them more vulnerable to poachers and more likely to enter human settlements. Animals that are distracted by the presence of tourists are made more vulnerable to their predators. For some animals, like Canada’s harp seals, disturbance has also been found to cause a decline in the attendance of adults to their young.

According to a 2006 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) / Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), such adverse effects can be avoided or minimised, providing that sufficient resources and funds are available for effective management, and that tourism development is subject to proper planning controls and limits. For example “limiting visitor numbers and accompanying visitor groups with trained guides helps to minimise the direct disturbance of wildlife; and walkways can be installed to reduce habitat damage from trampling by visitors in heavily visited areas. Tourism facilities can be planned so that they are situated well away from sensitive areas for wildlife, and overall development kept within clear limits that are established to prevent unacceptable impacts.”

Polices, such as these, need to be sought after by tourists. Consumer power dictates the tourist industry. If tourists want real conservation then that is what they will get – but it is up to the individual to insist on this.

When planning your wildlife-watching trip it is important to thoroughly research the tour company you intend to use. If their operation is motivated by conservation and managed in a way that acts in the best interest of the animals, and indeed of the local community, then you – and at-risk animal populations – are in good hands.

Wildlife tourism certainly has its negatives. However, if wildlife-watching is managed in a way that is compatible to the conservation of wild animals, then sustainable growth of the industry is viable. While curiosity continues to drive demand, it does not altogether threaten to kill the cat.