Animal images are incredibly popular – our Facebook and Instagram feeds are full of baby Koalas, smiling Quokkas and contented sea turtles.
Does this popularity help wild animals in any way? Not really, not unless the awareness is directly linked to conservation outcomes. Take Koalas for instance – while their popularity on the internet is unparalleled, they are dying out in large areas of south-east Queensland and New South Wales.
To address this Koala conservationists including myself declared May 3 Wild Koala Day: a day to celebrate Koalas in the wild and protect their habitats.
This international day links the cute picture with an action – plant a koala tree, attend a conservation day, photograph a wild koala and submit your sighting to citizen science, donate to a wild koala charity. But much more needs to be done to bring a conservation message to all wild animal travel.
So what can you as a traveller do to help wild animals in the wild? See them in the wild! Here are four reasons why seeing animals in the wild is the best way, both for you, and for the animals:
- Wild animals are exciting.
Every day is different with wild animals. You hear it all the time in Wildlife Guide circles: “I’ve been guiding for 20 years and I’ve never seen that!” Even guides with vast experience can’t always predict where, when or what a wild animal will do.
Recently, I was guiding a group of travellers in a forest I’ve visited since 1993. The male koala we were watching (from 10+ metres away – Echidna Walkabout’s koala-watching guidelines) started to behave like he would climb down the tree. I prepared my group to stay still and quiet. He did just what I expected, except for one thing – he climbed down and walked straight towards us. One of my guests had a huge male koala walk to within 3 metres of her.
My guest was initially nervous, then thrilled. She couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the day. A little bit of excitement is good for us. Watching wild animals, while being guided by expert Wildlife Guides, is safe and exhilarating.
- Wild animals live in healthy environments.
There are some exceptions, but the majority of wild animals require large natural spaces to thrive.
The kangaroo is one of Australia’s most famous icons. To see them in the wild is high on the bucket list of many travellers. But kangaroos are highly social and they need space, lots of grass, water and shady belts of trees. A big backyard won’t cut it. In my experience with Eastern Grey Kangaroos, a mob (a social group) needs at least 250 hectares (640 acres or 1 square mile) of healthy habitat to live.
By seeing animals in the wild you are supporting the communities that protect their natural places. The very fact that the animals are there for you to see implies that healthy nature exists in that location – and increasingly on our human-dominated planet, healthy nature exists because local people have protected it. Leading wildlife scientist and conservationist Dr Michael Hutchins said in an interview with National Geographic:
“Nature tourism is now being seen as a major contributor to poverty reduction. Furthermore, when local people realize the economic benefits that wildlife and nature tourism bring, they will fight for conservation, even in the face of corruption and wildlife crime”
Seeing animals in the wild encourages conservation.
- Wild animals spread the tourism benefits and impact.
Seeing wild animals is not something done with a crowd. Large numbers of people, with the infrastructure they require, often make places hostile to wild animals. There are exceptions, but even in those few cases where crowds can see wild animals, the crowds are usually controlled in grandstands, along roadsides and behind fences.
Most wild animal travel occurs in relatively small groups. In Uganda, groups visiting Mountain Gorillas are limited to 8 people per day. At Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, only ten people are allowed in the water with a Whale Shark during the tour with Exmouth Diving Centre. Small groups move more quietly than large groups, frighten animals less, and can respectfully follow the animal’s natural behaviour without disturbance. Small groups can use small buildings like B&Bs and guest houses, require only simple roads for their small vehicles, and need fewer facilities. Small groups can be hosted by small towns – and bring benefit to communities that desperately need it.
In contrast, crowds of tourists have a concentrated impact on one place and one community. They can also have a big benefit, but often the majority of the money goes to large corporations, not small local businesses.
In Australia, many small rural towns have great wildlife nearby. Eight people can be in Orbost in far East Gippsland, Victoria watching wild wombats and goannas, while another eight travellers are 200km away in Mallacoota doing the same thing. Thousands of wildlife tourists can be spread across a state, all having a great time with little impact.
- Wild animals are part of an ecosystem.
You might be travelling to see a Koala, a Tasmanian Devil or a Humpback Whale but there are a host of other animals, plants and micro-organisms that live there because of, or in the same habitat as that icon.
In the You Yangs over summer, wild Koalas rest during the heat of the day. They look so peaceful, high in a silver-barked eucalyptus branch. Until a raiding party of Brown-headed Honeyeaters, intent on a soft fur lining for their nest, descend. They come in gangs of 4 or 5, perch near the Koala, and dive down swiftly to tug chunks of fur from a Koala’s back. Some Koalas are horrified by this intrusion, and wake up striking at the cause of the sudden pain – just as we do when a mosquito bites. The birds have to be quick then, as a powerful Koala hand could knock them silly.
If the Koala is old or easy-going, the honeyeaters will perch on her back and fill their beaks until they look like they’ve grown a beard! By visiting wild Koalas, you are supporting Brown-headed Honeyeaters and a whole ecosystem of other creatures. The earth needs all those creatures to pollinate our food plants (bees, butterflies), clean our air (plants) and ensure our clean water supply (fish, micro-organisms) but many of them are not iconic, and almost no-one spends money to see them. Spend money on seeing the wild koala and you help them all.
Celebrate Wild Koala Day, May 3, 2017 by donating here
Important: Seeing animals in the wild only benefits animals if you treat them respectfully. For how to watch wildlife responsibly see Responsible Travel and Born Free’s guidelines here: http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/wildlife/travel-guide/responsible-wildlife-holidays
The Australian Wildlife Collection discourages handling, touching, petting or close interaction with wild animals. Seeing wild animals with a responsible Wildlife Guide who is a member of the Australian Wildlife Collection will ensure your safety, enjoyment and the ethical treatment of wild animals.