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Call of the wild

To support conservation and experience the wild world at its best, start by recognising tourism organisations that endorse ethical travel, writes Kate Webster.

They say an elephant never forgets, nor will I ever forget the moment I first saw an African elephant in the wild. Amongst the bushveld in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park in the KwaZulu Natal province, South Africa, I was at the mercy of this giant. The interaction was entirely on his terms –  he came closer when it suited him, made us wait while he uprooted tree spouts to eat and then sauntered off into the distance. I was respectful of the elephant’s space and environment, as it should be with animal encounters in the wild.

My previous encounters with wildlife did not always go this way. Rewind 20 years and I found myself perched upon Asian elephants in Bali and in South Africa, I was beside myself as I cuddled lion cubs. At the time, I thought to myself how lucky I was to interact like this with wildlife.

I now cringe at such activities and am very much ashamed at what I did. In my defence, at the time, I didn’t know any better. I was uneducated and unaware that those experiences were part of a dark side of tourism harming the very thing I went to enjoy. I have since learnt that this opportunity to travel and experience the worldly wonders comes with great responsibility.

I developed a sense of responsibility and reason when visiting far-flung places. I educated myself on how to give back to the people, wildlife and places I encountered along the way. My travel decisions changed from ‘feeling good’ to ‘doing good’.

Tourism can and should protect global biodiversity, safeguard habitats and prioritise animal welfare.

When you travel ethically and sustainably, it can be an eye-opening, unique and soul-enriching experience. There are few things as captivating as witnessing wild animals in their natural habitats. That’s one of the reasons why travel is so special – it allows us to have once-in-a-lifetime encounters with the amazing creatures that roam our planet. From watching a cheetah sprint across the savannah to diving next to giant manta rays, wildlife experiences are among the most incredible aspects of travel. Unfortunately, achieving this isn’t always that clear-cut.

Many of the iconic wildlife species that captivate us are also threatened by human activities. Animal and plant species around the world are facing extinction at up to 1000 times the natural rate. As the number of travellers seeking more impactful travel experiences has risen, so too have the scams which take tourist dollars and therefore do more harm than good.

Tourism activities such as safaris, birdwatching, snorkelling and nature photography depend on healthy plants and animals. As wildlife tourism becomes increasingly popular, it’s vital to ensure it happens sustainably. Tourism can and should protect global biodiversity, safeguard habitats and prioritise animal welfare.

So how do you identify ethical travel experiences?

Tourism Boards

Start by researching at the source, looking into the country’s Tourism Board. Do they have a focus on conservation and green travel? Is there a national rating system for experiences, accommodations and facilities throughout the country? A great example of this is Rwanda’s tourism board, Visit Rwanda. Rwanda has quickly risen as a must-see destination thanks to its commitment to conservation and responsible tourism. Each year the country celebrates Kwita Izina, the baby gorilla naming ceremony. The ceremony is an opportunity to thank the communities that live around Volcanoes National Park, research partners, vets, dedicated conservationists, rangers and the trackers who protect the gorillas.

Tour operators

Booking your travel through a tour operator offers convenience and peace of mind, but where are your tourism dollars spent? Look for a company that has sustainable practices that follow strict guidelines. Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy (AKP)  focuses on positively impacting lives and livelihoods in the communities where their guests travel, with a commitment to ensuring guests learn about their philanthropic investments as part of their travel experience. From Africa to Asia, Latin America to the Antarctic, AKP  work with partner communities on education, health care, conservation and enterprise development projects.

Conservation is just part of the Four Pillars of Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy. They partner with communities living on the edge of wilderness and support strategies to balance endangered species, fragile ecosystems, and economic opportunity. An example of this is the work to save the critically endangered rhino.

The growing global poaching crisis has forecast that rhinos will be wiped out by the year 2036, with the critically endangered black rhino disappearing much sooner. The AKP Rhino Conservation Program has stepped in with translocation and protection initiatives to address this dire situation, taking a stand against poaching before it’s too late.

Along with Sanctuary Retreats, AKP has strategically partnered with Rhino Conservation Botswana, the Botswana Defence Forces and other partners to translocate rhino, both black and white, from South Africa into Botswana. Here they are better protected from poachers, under 24/7 surveillance and have a greater chance for survival. Tailor-made journeys through Abercrombie & Kent can include the opportunity to learn more about the Rhino Conservation Program.

Dehorning rhino has become commonplace in South Africa, where it has been effective at decreasing the reward for poachers’ efforts. It is a drastic measure but has become necessary due to such a severe poaching crisis, and the approach is “no horn, no poaching”. Together with increased protection on the ground and air by counter-poaching teams, it is a means of deflecting the problem. Tourism injects much-needed funds into such conservation activities, and often travellers will be able to get hands-on and assist in operations.

Individual organisations

There are numerous organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGO) and Non-profits sprouting authentic, ethical experiences that give back to conservation. Sadly, not all of these are legitimate. Before booking your conservation experience, do your research. While we often like to help the smaller outfits, rule of thumb is to stick with the larger, well-established organisations.

A good checkpoint is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest global network of government and civil society organisations. With some 1200 member organisations working across 160 countries, the list is quite comprehensive. Other noteworthy organisations include David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Jane Goodall Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Save the Elephants, International Rhino Foundation, Charles Darwin Foundation and World Animal Protection.

Feature Image: Jason Savage Photography

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