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Walking the Talk
New Research Highlights the Importance of Evolving Wildlife Tourism Policies

Recent findings and the popularity of wildlife tourism show that tour operators should have an animal welfare policy in place alongside other social responsibility protocols that should evolve as new information becomes available. Travel companies needing to develop or update such a policy can begin with the tips below.

In Malaysian Borneo, travelers traversing the Kinabatangan River can watch the proboscis monkey munching on leaves in trees along the shore. Like many wildlife tourism experiences, this is an opportunity to glimpse an endangered animal in its natural habitat from afar — a seemingly unobtrusive, once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people.

Yet, recent research in the International Journal of Primatology reveals that approaching proboscis monkeys from as closely as 60 meters (about 200 feet) induced stress in the animals, even when boats travel at slow speeds. In other words, even those tour companies that sincerely care about the monkeys’ wellbeing may be causing unintentional harm.

Wildlife tourism directly contributed US$120.1 billion to global GDP in 2018, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Viewing and experiencing animals in their natural habitat accounted for 4.4 percent of all direct tourism GDP, directly creating 9.1 million jobs in the process. Further, wildlife tourism plays an important role in raising awareness about conservation efforts, and it often provides an incentive for local communities to protect fragile ecosystems.

But, despite the importance and popularity of wildlife tourism, many travel-related companies have failed to develop animal welfare policies.

“On a global scale, there is definitely a significant interest in animal welfare among travelers; and in the media, you’re seeing animal welfare issues becoming more of a focus; but I would say globally we’re not there yet, in terms of companies picking up on this and understanding it,” said Melissa Matlow, campaign director at World Animal Protection (WAP) Canada. “It’s just not seen as high of a priority as other environmental sustainability issues.”

These recent findings and the popularity of wildlife tourism serve as a reminder that tour operators should have an animal welfare policy in place that exists alongside other social responsibility protocols — and that policy should be flexible and evolve as new information becomes available. For travel companies that need to develop or update such a policy, begin the process with the tips below.

Start with high-risk activities

Any company that has taken this journey has discovered that pulling on a single thread to eliminate harmful wildlife practices reveals a host of nuances to consider, which can cause paralysis. However, Matlow suggests companies begin by removing the obvious offenders: wildlife entertainment. This includes activities such as swimming with dolphins, riding elephants, and any other such “wildlife tourism activities that have the highest detriment of mental impact on animal welfare and conservation.”

Involve travelers in the process

On-the-ground guides are important frontline ambassadors for identifying problematic animal welfare issues. However, encouraging travelers to report on areas of concern either via a post-trip survey or other means can surface concerns that go undetected by tour leaders. Companies can also use travel experiences to educate people on animal welfare and best practices for observing wildlife in its natural habitat.

“Our research has shown that the people who participate in these activities are wildlife lovers,” Matlow said, “and I assume anyone who’s putting in that effort and money wants to find an experience that aligns with their values. If they understood the impact of their behavior and actions on these animals, they wouldn’t want to participate; so, there’s quite a lot of opportunity there.”

Look beyond physical contact

As demonstrated by the stress observed in proboscis monkeys in Borneo, animals don’t have to be ridden, held or touched to be negatively impacted by the presence of people. Think holistically about how guests show up in spaces where they encounter wildlife and decrease that presence. Green Safaris, for example, uses four electric vehicles at three of its safari camps to minimize both noise and smell in the natural environment.

“The vehicles are so quiet, they cause minimal disruption to the wildlife when out in the bush,” said Alice Baker of Small World Marketing, which manages Green Safaris’ UK sales, marketing and PR efforts. Green Safaris also uses a solar-powered e-boat on Zambia’s Kafue River and e-bikes at some of its properties.

Bring suppliers on the journey

Animal welfare is part of the global climate and biodiversity challenge travel companies must address. As such, a more holistic perspective and response that considers the wellbeing of all stakeholders is appropriate.

“Both crises are real and happening in the places where we’re operating; so, we’re building a really robust response as a company in how we can invest in solutions in the places we visit with the communities we visit,” said Jamie Sweeting, VP for social enterprise and responsible travel at G Adventures. “True animal welfare requires a sound ecosystem and environment in which to live.”

If there is room for improvement, work with suppliers rather than abandoning them.

“Don’t just drop a company because it doesn’t yet do the right thing,” says Susanne Etti, global environmental impact manager at Intrepid Travel — which co-produced a publicly available animal welfare policy toolkit with WAP. “Work with the supplier to educate and inform — not preach; but say, ‘Hey, this is where we’d like to get to. How can we get there together?’”

Update the policy as needed

“We tend to oversimplify stuff in the tourism industry and think, “Oh, I’ve done animal welfare. I sorted out stuff with the elephants,’” Sweeting said. But developing an animal welfare policy is not a one-and-done activity. Like any corporate social responsibility commitments, companies should check in with and update the policy regularly. Attitude change can help accelerate progress; and as traveler sentiments and expectations evolve, companies should respond accordingly.

“One of the things we stress is that animal welfare is an evolving science,” Matlow said. “This is an evolving conversation and requires an open strategy and continuous improvement.”