Welfare in Wildlife Watching
Bex Dawkes is a writer, photographer, adventurer and environmentalist. She grew up in the quiet hills of Worcestershire, England but the wildness of the mountains and the magic of the coastal pacific brought her to settle in British Columbia, Canada. When not kayaking, biking, hiking or skiing, Bex can be found drinking a cup of tea, dreaming about those things.
Whether you’re photographing lions on an African safari or watching grizzlies fish for salmon deep in the Alaskan bush, the welfare of animals should always be high on your priority list if you’re engaging in wildlife viewing activities while on vacation.
Getting too close to wild animals, feeding them or spending too long in their habitat can endanger these wonderful creatures. Isolated incidents can create short term stress for the animal, and if close encounters are repeatedly occurring, wildlife can become habituated to humans. For smaller prey, this can make them less scared of predators and more vulnerable to attack. For bigger predators, this might mean they’re more likely to approach and interact with humans in the future. Ultimately, irresponsible wildlife viewing can result in stress, conflict and even death.
Comparatively, responsible wildlife tourism can be beneficial to wild animal welfare. Guides and companies who operate at a safe and respectful distance, who provide interpretation and education about these creatures, and who contribute to scientific research and data collection, can have positive impacts on the conservation and protection of many species.
Spirit of the West Adventures, a multiday kayak tour operator in British Columbia, provides some examples of how this might be put into practice day to day.
“We operate in an area rich in wildlife. On our kayak tours, you might see everything from humpback whales, orcas, porpoises and sea otters, to black bears, bald eagles and barnacles” says Breanne Quesnel, owner & operator of the company.
“It’s always a balance between providing this incredible immersive experience for our guests and respecting the boundaries of these amazing wild creatures. Getting educated, working with local conservation groups and following the policies put in place by various organizations are the basic first steps towards ensuring the welfare of these animals.”
For Spirit of the West, this means putting their guides through their paces. Each member of staff is a trained interpreter in marine mammals and has been educated in the Canadian Whale Wise regulations and guidelines. Guides are taught the minimum approach distances (400m for orcas in critical habitats, 200m in non-critical, 100m from all other whales), and how kayakers should ‘raft up’ so that whales can more easily see and avoid them. On many of the tours, guides carry hydrophones, so that guests can listen to the whales as they sing underwater. Staff and guests can also get involved in local citizen science projects: collecting data about cetacean sightings and bird counts.
“We try to go above and beyond the basic requirements. We’ve been members of 1% for the Planet since 2007 and have so far donated more than $100k to local environmental charities – many of which are focused on wildlife conservation and education. Myself and my husband Rick have also served as board members for multiple non-profits promoting responsible wilderness tourism and we were founding members of NIMMSA (North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association). We really care about protecting these magnificent animals in the waters that we paddle, and ensuring that they are treated with care and respect” says Breanne.
If you’re planning a trip overseas and want to see some local wildlife, take a bit of time to do some research. A small amount of reading can ensure that you support an organization doing things the right way.
What to look for in a wildlife watching company:
- Are the guides certified as naturalists or interpreters?
- Is the company vocal about adhering to local wildlife watching regulations?
- Does the company talk about responsible or sustainable tourism?
- Do they donate (either in time or money) to local conservation efforts?
There are so many incredible wildlife watching tours and excursions out there. Whether you choose to go sea kayaking with orcas in British Columbia, go on a birding expedition in Paraguay or watch penguins on a cruise in Antarctica, the natural world has something amazing for everyone.
But wherever you go and whatever you do, remember that your choices can support animal friendly tourism. A wildlife watching experience might be life-changing for you, but it shouldn’t ever be life-changing for the animals you’re there to see.
Wild Welfare works to promote responsible wildlife tourism activities through partnering with travel companies to ensure animal welfare is at the forefront of all decisions made. To learn more, click here.
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Images © Bex Dawkes