Should we stay away from wildlife?

Should we stay away from wildlife?

Do you remember a specific moment where you connected with wildlife? Where a complete admiration washed over you, and you finally got what BBC documentaries is all about. I do so hope you have experienced this at least once in your life! But the next question becomes a bit trickier. If you look back at that moment again, can you pinpoint the ways it changed your future actions? Did it make you reconsider buying plastic wrapped food or use more public transport? Did you tell friends about your experience and at the same time enlightened them in what they could do to protect the wildlife?
Because truth of the matter is that as beautiful as your moment might have been, if it did not change your actions afterwards it remains very unimportant to the rest of us.

A study by Ballantyne, Packer & Sutherland (2011) investigated just that; the long-term changes of visitors’ conservation behaviour. Here, the visitors where surveyed after they had been to one of four different marine-based wildlife tourism spots. The tourism experiences were either captive (A theme-park or an aquarium) or non-captive (turtle- or whale-watching). Upon four months after their visit, a telephone survey was done where the visitors were asked to describe memories and feelings of their visit. Answers were then divided into four categories: I.) Sensory impressions, II) Emotional affinity, III) Reflective response, and IV) Behavioural response.
A comment that stuck with me while reading this study, was a line in the results section describing the sensory impressions: “Interestingly, these vivid sensory impressions did not appear to be limited to any particular site or animal species”. I think this very much explains how these moments in life are not just created by the presence of the animal, but it is when the visitor becomes mindful about the experience and puts it all together in a broader perspective, that the memory sticks. This is where good science communicators come in, as we can mitigate that transformation. In this particular study, the results suggested that the communication focusing on threats posed by humans were one of the most effective ways of getting long-term behavioural responses. To be honest, I would not have expected a different way as this type of communication gives the visitor clues on what to change towards. You could not expect visitors to know what they should do to help wildlife, by simply telling them about the ecology and life history traits. It needs to be practical.

One thing worth noting is that the study in this article was done in 2009 and a lot has changed since then. The most significant change I have noticed through my line of work, is that the wildlife tourism industry has had to constantly adapt to the opinions and beliefs of the tourists. And the driving force behind their beliefs has been the increasing awareness of animal welfare within the wildlife tourism industry.
When I first started working in 2007, I would constantly receive complaints from visitors to the facility who could not find the animals they wanted to see. The facility is constructed as three large domes (>3000 meters squared in total) with an indoor tropical ecosystem of vegetation and mostly free roaming animals. The paths in which the visitors can roam is very limited, >60% of the area is only occupied by the animals. So the reason behind the “invisible wildlife” was mostly that the animals were taking a break from the highly wandered paths in the domes and had sought out quieter areas in the vegetation. Through a decade of visitor engagements, I came to experience the shift in their expectations for the visit. It went from being a check-list over the animals they wanted to see, to an awareness of the animal welfare and suitable habitats/enclosures. That not being able to see an animal was a good thing, was all of a sudden a conclusion the visitors would come to themselves without having me to explain why. Now in all fairness, a lot of the credit for visitors behavioural changes, go towards the advocacy that come from institutions dealing with wildlife encounters. But I just find it fascinating how the visitors themselves have become critical towards these businesses. Overall, I think this shift is healthy, as long as the visitors know how to assess it themselves. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for a lot of captive wildlife tourism companies to fight against unjustified statements from non-science organisations like PETA and WSPA who have a big group of followers, some of which are known to act in extreme ways.

I myself am a fan of having a mix of both captive and non-captive facilities to engage visitors in wildlife conservation. As it is also mentioned in the study, captive and non-captive facilities have different strengths and weaknesses. My sense of thinking is often very straight forward and when it comes to assessing the need for captive wildlife, I always ask: do the income and advocacy for this particular wildlife, benefit the species as a whole? Frankly, I am one of those people who always knew what to answer to the Train Dilemma. Better to sacrifice one in order to protect the rest.
Another thing to take into consideration is that with the exploding numbers of tourists around the world – 3 million came to New Zealand in 2018, 5.1 million is expected by 2025 – you simply can´t have all these people running around in the natural ecosystems, to try and get close to wildlife. Modern zoos whose goal is conservation, education and research are filled with people who can mitigate these experiences. Yes, there are definitely facilities that should be modernised or simply shut down, but the anti-captive movement sees all captive facilities as the same.

So why can´t we just make sure people stay in a distance from wildlife and free the captive ones? Well, it is important to acknowledge the power of people having experiences in close proximity of wildlife, which can help mitigate their support towards conservation. This was exactly what triggered both sensory impressions, emotional affinity and reflective response for visitors in the 2011 study – all of which contributed to the behavioural responses visible four months after. And by having a science communicator there, when the encounter is happening, you can not only ensure the safety of the visitor but also the safety of the animal.

So, what do you think about the wildlife tourism industry we have today?
What are the major things that you would change?
And do you think advocacy for wildlife conservation should be mainly led by wildlife tourism operators, or are there other institutions you see more fitting?

Photo credit: Randers Regnskov

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