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Tourism and Animals - Animal Viewing

Animal Viewing

Wildlife sightseeing is an activity that has increased recently. In the African continent alone, the available data on the sales for safaris mean 168 million dollars per year. Regarding  whale watching, as the Internation Fund for Animal Welfare points out, this activity has allowed to replace the economic benefit resulting from whale hunting and thus to have an impact over its conservation. However, we must differentiate respectful practices from those that endanger wild animals and their habitats.

Benefits of a responsible sighting tourism

People attracted by this type of travel-experience that seek to feel and feel part of the nature, allow the diffusion of a new concept of responsible tourism in which knowledge and respect for ecosystems foster a greater interest in the protection of habitats, the financing of conservation projects (through the same rates or entrance fees to natural parks) and the creation of employment for local populations. The existence of safaris and respectful sightseeing activities represent an economic incentive for conservation and education about wildlife, its threats and the need to protect it. We have witnessed respectful initiatives that show how tourism has helped to protect animals and their habitat. Conservationists began organizing crocodiles’ sightings in Jamaica to protect them from poachers. In the Galapagos, wildlife sightings have allowed population to grow, the Fiji Islands Reef and Sharks Marine Reserve have managed to develop a sustainable and self-financed project with great benefits for the local community.

Several studies show that, well managed, the animal sighting in their habitat provides a much higher economic return than commercial -and lethal use in most cases-, of those same animals in other contexts. Africa, for example, obtains more benefits from ecotourism than from what is known as “trophy hunting”. The sighting of sharks on the other hand, projects a greater growth than its fishing.

Negative Effects and Dangers

The sighting of wildlife is sustainable as long as it favours the conservation and survival of the observed species. An incorrect interaction can cause changes in the animal behaviour, their mood and their psychological state, affecting their habits of predation, feeding and/or breeding.

It should also be kept in mind that some species such as great apes can contract human diseases for which their immune system does not have natural defences.

The interest in certain tourist destinations causes that many places become fashionable, as occurs during the nesting of the turtles in Costa Rica. This uncontrolled tourist expansion, the waste generated by tourists and the infrastructure itself jeopardize the maintenance of habitat and biodiversity. A dramatic example in this regard is provided by coral reefs. The breaks of the corals caused by the excessive number of inexperienced divers end the life of many organisms, reducing the variety of marine life of that place and consequently the tourist attraction to it.

Likewise, there are also operators whose trips do not respect the codes of conduct. They harass animals excessively causing them unnecessary stress, altering their behaviours (social, hunting, escape, feeding, breeding or resting) and vital cycles (hibernation), herds are separated, as well as mothers from cubs, or causing fatal accidents with vehicles.

The main recommendations to control the negative impacts of safari and sighting tourism on wildlife and the environment are:

  • Reduce the number of visitors and regulate the number of tourists that can access certain areas at the same time.
  • Adopt codes of good practices for different types of sightings. In Uganda, for example, tourists have to keep a minimum distance of 7 meters from the gorillas, they cannot touch them, make loud noises or use camera flash. The sightings are limited to a maximum of one hour/day and all tours are led by expert guides and limited to groups of maximum 6/8 people.
  • Train and hire guides with the necessary knowledge.
  • Move sightings away -the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society promotes, whenever possible, whale sightings from land rather than from boats.
  • Redirect visits and prevent access to the most sensitive areas and develop alternative attractions such as visit centres.
  • Have previous studies that indicate the type of activities and number of tourists compatible with a certain locality and its fauna, especially taking into account the resulting effects that an increasing demand -both the destination and the sightings - can cause towards the animals and their habitats.
  • Control and restrict the number of tour operators that can work in a certain area (inviting them to subscribe codes of good practice and limiting the number of permits and licenses).
  • Regarding tourists, report bad practices of companies or other travellers.

Finally, it is important to consider that the long-term effects of sighting tourism are still quite limited. Cheetahs, for example, are the most sensitive and vulnerable big cats. The success of their hunt -daily and during daytime-, can be affected by the human presence, holding them back from hunting or seeing that their prey is fleeing because of the noise of the safari cars. In The Serengeti there have been several cases of hit cheetahs whose cubs were hunted by other predators after being separated from their mothers. As a consequence, codes of good practice for sightings of one species cannot be automatically applied to another of the same group

From FAADA we advise tourists that want to join animal sightings to take into account at least the following general tips.

  • Harmful intake or interference of fauna and flora is prohibited.
  • Do not use airplanes, ships, small boats, or other means of transport that disturb wildlife on land or at sea. Some vehicles go too fast, make too much noise or change direction abruptly, and can cause accidents with animals involved (sometimes because animals get used to vehicles and lose their fear).
  • Do not touch or manipulate animals, you could transmit diseases, infections or parasites (and vice versa). If you are sick or not feeling well, do not participate in these excursions as you could endanger wildlife.
  • Do not feed the animals or attract them with food. Getting animals used to humans can make them dependent, vulnerable or dangerous. It can alter their individual behaviour patterns and their populations, create dependence and habituation, provoke aggressions towards people or other animals and induce health problems. Also try not to eat during the visit (this could transmit diseases or cause animal attacks).
  • When you leave the site, take away all the trash, even the skins of fruits or organic debris that you might consider harmless.
  • Do not provoke animals or try to attract their attention by screaming, making noise or exaggerated movements. This can stress them, scare them, disrupt their natural behaviours or even interpret it as a threat and attack.
  • Avoid eye contact with animals, for some species it can mean a threat.
  • Special care is required during the mating, moulting or breeding season. Do not place yourself between two animals, especially between a mother and her cub, some species are highly protective and could attack if they suspect that their babies are threatened or leaving the baby more vulnerable to predators.
  • Try not to damage plants when walking or driving vehicles in areas or on hillsides covered by mosses or lichens.
  • Minimize noise to avoid scaring wildlife.
  • Be predictable and consistent in your behaviour. Avoid making sudden movements.
  • Do not introduce non-native plants or animals.
  • Keep a safe distance from wildlife, both on land and at sea, respecting the minimum distances.
  • Respect the maximum time allowed for sighting.
  • If you have to do your physical needs, do it away from animals, dig a hole as deep as possible (about 30 cm) and cover it later.
  • Respect the rules regarding the maximum number of visitors allowed. Too many people can stress animals, make them feel nervous and even leave their area.
  • If someone in the group or even the guide, do not respect these rules, correct them and report it to the organizers.
  • Encourage the use of binoculars to watch marine animals and sea birds.