Responsible Wildlife Tourism (An Interview with Dr. Michael Hutchins)
By Jordan Schaul | National Geographic | July 2014
In our extensive series of interviews on wildlife issues, Dr. Michael Hutchins, and I have discussed a number of pressing global concerns that compromise the health of ecosystems and conservation efforts aimed at saving and restoring imperiled wildlife populations.
The distinguished conservationist and noted authority on wildlife management and policy has graciously agreed to discuss another relevant topic with a more promising contribution to species preservation: responsible wildlife tourism. This evolving industry provides great promise as a means to protect wildlife and wild places, but it also has its challenges and must be carefully managed and regulated.
As national coordinator for the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Campaign (2013-), former executive director/CEO of the Wildlife Society (2005-2012), former director/William Conway Endowed chair of Conservation and Science for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (1990-2005), former curatorial intern/conservation biologist/coordinator of research at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo (1985-1990) and having taught undergraduate and graduate courses in animal behavior at the University of Washington, Seattle (1979-1985), Dr. Hutchins has served not only as a scientist and leading conservation steward, but also as an expert on conservation and science education.
Besides his wealth of knowledge concerning wildlife management and conservation, Dr. Hutchins also has a degree in anthropology and a particular insight into the public perception and social aspects of conservation practices. In addition, Dr. Hutchins is a founding partner and director of conservation and science for World Safaris and director of conservation and science for Safari Professionals. Both are considered to be two of America’s most responsible wildlife tourism companies.
Dr. Hutchins has traveled to over 30 countries and six continents pursuing his interests in wildlife and nature. Few have as much firsthand experience working with guides and other outfitter personnel and wildlife tourism entities and are as poised to discuss the topic from a multitude of angles. It is a privilege to share the following interview I conducted with such an esteemed colleague.
Jordan: Can you talk about the history of the wildlife tourism industry?
Michael: Yes, the evolution of the wildlife travelbusiness is quite an interesting one, which all started with members of the British upper class traveling to Africa in the late 1800s and early-1900s to seek glory and adventure. Many of the early explorers, such as Stanley, Livingstone, Burton, Speke, and others had opened up the continent, and European colonization followed (Hanbury-Tenison, R. 2010. The Great Explorers. London, KK: Thames and Hudson). However, many others that could only be classified as tourists, as opposed to professional explorers or geographers, began seeking their own personal adventures (Bull, B. 1992. Safari: A Chronicle of Adventure. London: Penguin Books).
Many of these early tourists were seeking to replicate the experiences chronicled in the writings of the early explorers, and many were big game hunters. The term “safari,” which is Swahili for “journey,” became part of popular language and was eventually adopted into the English dictionary. The British upper class liked to travel in style and entire outfitting companies sprang up to meet their travel needs, offering everything from pith helmets and tents to canned foods and firearms.
The popularity of safari-type adventures during this period peaked when former U.S. President and conservationist Theodore Roosevelt went on safari to East Africa to hunt big game from April 1909 to March 1910. The specimens collected were for the “National Museum,” which is now called the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History. His travels were reported in Scribner’s Magazine and his best-selling book, African Game Trails.
Things began to evolve again as international travel became more affordable with the advent of modern air travel and with the evolution of the conservation ethic and consciousness in the 1960s and 70s. People began to consider how tourism could harm the environment and wildlife if not done properly. The term “eco-tourism” was coined to describe nature and wildlife travel that was sustainable and responsible and minimizes harm to both wildlife and ecosystems. Although sustainable, regulated hunting can still be a part of this experience, as it was in the early days of wildlife safaris, most people are now choosing to “hunt” with their eyes and cameras.
Rules and ethical standards were developed as wildlife tourism became more popular and overwhelmed existing industry infrastructure. Many popular destinations for wildlife tourism protected key areas (e.g., Tanzania and Costa Rica) from development (e.g. the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica) and actively managed them for wildlife conservation and biodiversity. Today, the wildlife tourism industry spans the globe and generates billions of dollars of revenue, while also providing an economic incentive for wildlife and habitat conservation and cultural preservation (Frangialli, , F. 1998. Forward in Theobald, W.F. (ed.) Global Tourism. Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann).
Although not completely harmless, when done properly, tourism can provide a relatively benign economic incentive for wildlife conservation that is far more preferable to other forms of development, including mining, oil and gas exploration, agriculture, and so forth. This may be the best we can hope for in a world increasingly dominated by humans and their domestic animals.
Jordan: Responsible wildlife tourism has the potential to enhance conservation efforts for animals and nature. How does this work?
Michael: Done well, wildlife tourism can provide a strong economic incentive for wildlife conservation by being a major long-term source of jobs and income for local people. In developing countries, such as those in East and Southern Africa, wildlife tourism is the primary reason that significant wildlife populations still exist. People who travel to these countries inject needed foreign currency into their economies, create jobs, and buy local arts and crafts and other products that contribute to human well-being and cultural survival (Hawkins, D.E. and Kahn, M.M. 1998. Ecotourism opportunities for developing countries. Pp. 191-204 in Theobald, W.F. (ed.) Global Tourism. Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann).
In fact, 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. An excellent example is the recent response of African governments and people to the elephant and rhino poaching crises that have been sweeping across the region. African governments have been stepping up their anti-poaching efforts (e.g., Kenya) and even firing corrupt officials who have been involved in the illegal wildlife trade (e.g., Tanzania).
Consider also the opposition that has been building against the development of a road that would bisect Serengeti National Park and threaten the one of the world’s last great migrations of vast herds of wildebeest and zebra. Much of this opposition has come from wildlife tour operators, conservationists and people who have traveled there. With growing human populations, the pressure for continued development is unlikely to abate and is only going to get worse. For example, the Tanzanian government’s recent unfortunate decision to mine portions of Lake Natron, the site of the world’s largest concentration of flamingos. Similarly, serious consideration was being given by the Democratic Republic of the Congo to open up Virunga National Park—home to endangered mountain gorillas– to oil exploration and drilling. Fortunately, that has not happened due to the actions of concerned individuals and organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund.
The promise of long-term revenue from responsible wildlife tourism often appears to be the only thing standing in the way. In developing countries, challenged by poverty and unemployment, the reality is that wildlife is going to have to pay for itself and wildlife tourism is one of the most benign ways in which this can be accomplished.
Jordan: Although the wildlife tourism industry implies that it is an eco-friendly endeavor, some of the most vigilant and conservation-minded tour operators may generate human disturbance as a mere artifact of bringing people closer to wildlife. From observing nesting pelagic seabirds to calving cetaceans, to predation by apex predators, ecotourism is not without inherent threats to wildlife populations. Is it a significant reason for concern?
Michael: There is no doubt that the mere presence of humans can disturb wildlife and have negative consequences for conservation. A good example would be walking through a seabird colony, causing many of the adults to leave the nest and cease incubation or temporarily abandon their chicks, which could increase their chances of being taken by predators. Another would be the risk of transmission of disease between humans and animals, as has occurred between humans and gorillas in central Africa (Litcghfield, C.A. 2008. Responsible tourism: A conservation tool or conservation threat. Pp. 107-127 in Stoinski, T.S., Steklis, H.D., and Mehlmen, P.T. Conservation in the 21st Century: Gorillas as a Case Study. New York: Springer).
Good tour operators and government regulators are aware of these risks and many rules have been established to reduce the potential deleterious impacts of wildlife tourism. In the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, for example, tourists cannot set foot on the islands without being accompanied by a trained guide and must stay on established paths. Similarly, driving off road in some areas of the Serengeti National Park and in all of the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area is prohibited by the Tanzanian government or carefully controlled where it is allowed. This greatly lessens the risks to wildlife associated with nature tourism. Responsible tour operators and regulators must be constantly vigilant for any operator not following the rules.
That being said, some species are more sensitive to human activities than others, and it depends on the situation. In fact, animals in areas that have low rates of tourism are likely to be more stressed than animals in areas where humans are a frequent, but benign, neutral presence. In the Serengeti, for instance, animals have become highly habituated to tourist vehicles and have little, if any, reaction to their presence. Cheetahs will often jump onto vehicles in order to get a better view of their surroundings or lie down in the shade created by a vehicle to stay cool. The reaction to humans traveling on foot, however, is often quite different. In fact, they flee, indicating the degree of habituation that animals develop to vehicles. (see related link)
In the Galapagos Islands, animals exhibit a phenomenon called “island tameness.” Having evolved in the absence of predators, most animals do not flee at a human’s approach. This, of course, has made the animals highly vulnerable to human hunting or to the depredations of introduced predators, such as feral cats. However, hunting is not allowed on the islands now and efforts to eradicate introduced species, such as destructive feral goats and cats, have ramped up in recent years to the benefit of wildlife. Nonetheless, tourism can increase the risks of species introductions, so park managers and tour operators must be forever vigilant. Of course, there are other environmental impacts from responsible wildlife tourism, including the use of fossil fuels for transportation, road-building, waste produced at hotels, tented camps and other facilities, etc.
This is one reason I prefer the term “responsible wildlife tourism” to “ecotourism.” No tourism is perfect from an ecological point of view. However, responsible wildlife tour operators and facility managers do their best to follow all of the rules regarding wildlife protection and to choose in-country partners (who provide transportation, accommodation, and other amenities) that operate as sustainably as possible and do not have major deleterious consequences to wildlife or their habitats (Murphy, P.S. 1998. Tourism and sustainable development. Pp. 173-190 in Theobald, W.F. (ed.) Global Tourism. Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann). This makes sense because the health of wildlife and their habitats is critical to the future of the wildlife tourism industry.
Jordan: Several nations that are considered popular ecotourism destinations, like Botswana and Australia, have instituted national strategies for the development, management, and accreditation of tourism vendors and programs. Can you talk about certification and standardization of the wildlife tourism industry and the future of such programs? Will more nations adopt such policies and standards in the near future? Are they effective in reaching their objectives?
Michael: Yes, it makes sense for nations to plan for tourism, carefully regulating the industry and the infrastructure that comes with it (Bramwell, B. 1998. Selecting policy instruments for sustainable tourism. Pp. 361-379 in Theobald, W.F. (ed.) Global Tourism. Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann. Overdevelopment can be a big problem for wildlife and their habitats and should be avoided. However, as Bramwell (1998) pointed out, “Government preferences for direct public regulation or self-regulation in tourism may be guided more by politics and ideology than to have a balanced approach.” Countries are better off limiting the number of tourists that visit important wildlife areas and charging more for the experience than seeking a mass, cheap market.
Certification of sustainable timber and other products has helped consumers make good decisions about purchasing products. That being said, I have some serious reservations about certification programs for wildlife tour operators. Having a piece of paper issued by a third party may look good, but it doesn’t ensure that the company in question is knowledgeable, experienced and following all the rules. When shopping for a reputable, responsible wildlife tour company it is critical to do some of your own research and not rely upon others to do it for you, which is essentially the function of a third-party certification program. Important questions to ask are: What is the background and training of the owners and driver-guides?; How long has the company been in business?; Do they work with responsible in-country partners?; What is the company’s philosophy of responsible wildlife tourism? (This should be clearly stated on their web site.); Is safety a priority?; What kinds of information and instruction are you given prior to and during your trip? (e.g., a detailed itinerary showing what you will do and where you will stay, a discussion of health concerns and preparations, etc.); Can the company put you in touch with others who have traveled with them and are willing to provide a reference?; and last, but not least, does the company donate a portion of its profits towards conservation and associated human welfare projects in the countries they travel in? Both companies that I work for, or co-own (Safari Professionals and World Safaris) donate a minimum of 10 percent of their profits to assist with wildlife and habitat conservation and associated human welfare projects and also give travelers an opportunity to donate if they wish.
Jordan: Cultural experiences are another aspect of wildlife tourism. How does tourism impact traditional societies?
Michael: As I have training in anthropology as well as wildlife biology, I have given a great deal of thought to this topic. Of course, tourism can have both positive and negative influences on traditional cultures (Swinglehurst, E. 1998. Face to face: The effects of tourism on societies past and present. Pp. 82-97 in Theobald, W.F. (ed.) Global Tourism. Second Edition. Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann). However, if it is done right, it can provide needed financial assistance and be a learning experience for all. I’ve had numerous unique cultural experiences myself that have had a profound influence on me. In 2002, I traveled to Papua New Guinea with a small group of scientists and conservationists from Conservation International. We attended the Highlands Festival, a gathering of nearly 90 different tribes in the city of Mount Hagen and took a boat down small tributaries of the great Sepik River where we visited several small villages, interacted with local people, and purchased traditional art. At one point I asked the driver of our boat, a young man from a local village, “Do you like it that we come here?” He thought about it for a moment and then looked at me and said, “Yes, we do” I immediately asked, “Why?” He said, “Honestly, you’re entertainment for us. How else would we get to meet people from Washington, D.C., London, or other places around the world? Furthermore, you buy our art, which allows our villages to buy things we need like generators and medicine.”
Of course, I’ve seen the bad side of tourism as well. In the early 1990s, I traveled to Taman Negara, a national park in northern Malaysia. One of the park rangers took us to meet the Orang Asili, the aboriginal people of the Malay Peninsula. Upon arrival, we were introduced to an elderly gentleman who, dressed in a simple loin cloth, took us into the jungle to demonstrate how he hunted gibbons with a blow gun. My companions and I felt privileged to catch a brief glimpse of his world, so different from our own. But others were not as respectful. Before leaving, we passed by the temporary huts the people had built for shelter. Remarkably, there was some European graffiti on one of the huts and candy wrappers littered the area. I had noticed that the people’s teeth were in poor condition—no wonder with tourists giving them sweets. As we got back into our boat at dusk and left the village, the old man stood on the riverbank and waved goodbye. A feeling of sadness overwhelmed me as I could tell that the Orang Asili’s way of life was changing, and not necessarily for the better.
That being said, I have also seen remarkable ways in which tourism has helped people to maintain their traditional way of life in spite of the many attractions of and pressures for modernization. In my many travels to East Africa, I have had numerous opportunities to interact with the Maasai people. This is primarily a herding culture and cows and donkeys are prized possessions. Interestingly, I have had both satisfying and unsatisfying cultural experiences with the Maasai. I visited one tourist boma in 2011 near the Ngorongoro Crater that I did not enjoy. After a quick, cursory tour of the village, we were pressured into buying hastily-manufactured trinkets. That highly commercialized version of the cultural experience can be contrasted with my visit to northern Tanzania in 2014. There, we spent a whole day with our Maasai hosts who introduced us to people and walked us around their village, where we were able to gain a much better understanding of Maasai daily life and culture. The people seemed more comfortable with our presence. The experience was less choreographed, less commercial and more of a learning experience for both our travelers and the Maasai.
At the end of our visit, people still put out some things for my group to consider purchasing, but my travelers were more prepared to spend because they were not being pressured, and in getting to know the people, they felt more inclined to help. The Maasai are poor by Western standards and the money brought in from tourism helps them to maintain schools and seek medical care when needed. By profiting from tourism, the Maasai can also begin to understand the importance of keeping abundant wildlife in the areas they live, including large predators, such as lions. In conclusion, tourism can have both positive and negative impacts on traditional cultures, but if done well, can be a win-win situation for both tourists and local people and their communities. Indeed, there is a trend in responsible tourism called community-based conservation, which is gaining in popularity. In such cases, local communities own and manage the tourist operations on their traditional lands, which directly link the economic benefits of tourism to wildlife conservation and human welfare (e.g., the Maasai Wilderness Trust is one of the most innovative and effective examples of a true partnership between a tourism operation and traditional communities).
Jordan: One role that captive wildlife attractions seem to serve is one of education. But opponents of zoos and aquariums often contend that wildlife belongs in the wild and that it is more educational for people to observe animals in a natural setting. But is really feasible for everyone to be offered such opportunities at an affordable cost?
Michael: This is an excellent question. Wildlife tourism is an incredible way to experience nature and to contribute to wildlife conservation and human welfare worldwide, especially in developing countries. Furthermore, it offers real, not virtual life experiences. However, it can be expensive and a majority of people—even in the richest of countries—cannot afford to travel to exotic locations, or may do so only once or twice in their lifetimes. Customized trips to East Africa, for example, can cost several thousand dollars—not something that is feasible for those struggling to make ends meet, or who are completing their education, buying a house, starting a family or forging a new career.
So what are the alternatives? One can certainly watch National Geographic or other wildlife programming on TV, but this is simply not the same as seeing the real thing. Or, you can go to a professionally-managed zoo or aquarium. If you are near a good one—one accredited by a regional zoo association and that maintains high levels of professional animal care—you can observe and learn about live animals from around the world in settings that resemble their natural habitats. This is one of the strongest and most cogent arguments for professionally-managed zoos and aquariums. Accredited zoos and aquariums do provide a location where urban dwellers—perhaps those most divorced from nature—can view wild animals in naturalistic habitats and experience some semblance of reality in a safe and educational environment (Hutchins, M. 2003. Zoos connect us to the natural world. Boston Globe, 2 November). Extreme animal rights activists who want to close zoos—even the best institutions—would deprive tens of millions of people of that experience. In fact, more people visit accredited zoos and aquariums in the United States than all professional sporting events combined. Furthermore, those institutions offer structured educational experiences to millions of children conduct valuable research and contribute more than $130 million to in situ conservation annually.
Would wildlife and people be better off if all quality zoos and aquariums were closed tomorrow? I seriously doubt it. It is important to point out, however, that even the best of zoos and aquariums cannot offer the same experience as does responsible wildlife travel. And this is why many zoos and aquariums have established travel programs in addition to their animal exhibits and on-site education programs. As I said in a recent interview for the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s member magazine Connect, “Zoo and aquarium travel programs open a window on the world that is not otherwise possible, even in the best of institutions. To observe wildlife in its natural habitat and immerse oneself in other cultures is the educational experience of a lifetime—one that greatly increases the traveler’s appreciation of both nature and humanity” (Lewthwaite, T. 2014. Making connections: An East African adventure. Connect March: 48-50).
I am a strong proponent of having real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in life and one cannot have such experiences from the comfort of one’s easy chair. Having a living, free-ranging lion staring you in the eyes in close proximity is simply not the same as seeing one on TV or observing one in a zoo enclosure. While you remain safely inside your safari vehicle, the chills running up and down your spine are palpable and real. And this is precisely the kind of intense, personal experience that can lead people to lifelong commitments to wildlife and habitat conservation. Of course, I do not want to undervalue the importance of seeing and understanding our own wildlife here in North America. In the United States or Canada, you can also have great wildlife experiences by visiting a National Wildlife Refuge, state park or national park, where it is possible, often with much patience, to study and photograph wildlife unique to your own region. Places like Yellowstone or Denali National Park are classic wildlife locations where one can still experience the primal drama and wonder of nature. But you’re not going to see wild Galapagos tortoises, marine iguanas, kangaroos, platypuses, quetzals, giraffes, lions, ostriches, or poison dart frogs in their natural habitats. That requires travel to the places in the world where these creatures exist.
I also do not want to oversell the reality of wildlife tourism, which is highly dependent on luck and serendipity. The behavior of free-roaming wild animals is unpredictable and one must often be both observant and patient to maximize one’s experience in the field. For example, visitors to wildlife areas are not going to see lions or cheetah hunting or killing wildebeest or to be able to view and photograph their favorite or hoped for birds on every trip. Honest tour operators can truly guarantee little except the chance to encounter wildlife and to get you into the right places at the right times. The more time spent in the field, the better the chance of actually seeing what you are looking for. In addition, a knowledgeable, experienced driver-guide can greatly increase your chances of experiencing or photographing the desired species or events. It is always best to not have unrealistic expectations, but to be flexible and experience things as they unfold.
Jordan: Can you put into perspective for our readership, just what impact the wildlife industry has on the global economy or for the economy of developing nations, like Kenya or Tanzania? You have traveled to many great wildlife destinations and currently co-own a travel company and work for another. Can you talk about some highlights or tourism activities that may warrant special attention for their exceedingly successful and/or sensitive conduct in your opinion? I’m thinking of those that particularly contribute to conservation or share a conservation ethic demonstrative of what we hope for.
Michael: The economic impact of wildlife tourism on premier wildlife destinations in developing countries is substantial. In places like Kenya and Tanzania, wildlife tourism is one of the most important sources of foreign currency and is critical to their economic future. There is one principle I would emphasize, however: The profits from tourism must benefit local businesses and people if they are to provide the needed economic incentive for wildlife and habitat conservation. Far too often, the true beneficiaries are wealthy investors from developed countries. The companies I co-own and/or work for, Safari Professionals and World Safaris make a point of partnering exclusively with locally-owned companies to provide guides and vehicles and, where possible, use camps, lodges and hotels that are owned by and/or hire from the local communities. We also partner with local companies who fully understand their responsibilities towards wildlife and traditional cultures and who are committed to following all applicable rules and regulations for tourism that promote wildlife conservation, human welfare and dignity.
Both Safari Professionals and World Safaris tithe 10 percent of their net profits to wildlife conservation and to associated social welfare projects, such as supporting clean water and education. Unfortunately, not every travel company lives by these principles, but perhaps if more did, the beneficial impacts of responsible wildlife tourism would be even greater. The other organization I work for, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), is currently experimenting with another way of directly linking tourism to wildlife conservation. ABC has established, with local partners, a growing number of in-country reserves for threatened and endangered birds in Central and South America (American Bird Conservancy 2010. The Latin American Bird Reserve Network. The Plains, VA: ABC). Recognizing that the costs of operating these reserves will not be sustainable without generating some form of regular income, ABC and its partners hope to develop and promote the reserves as responsible wildlife tourism destinations. Bird watching is big business, generating billions of dollars of revenue in the U.S. alone, and ABC and its partners are hoping to turn the intense interest of bird watchers and photographers into a reliable source of income that will be able to maintain these important habitats in perpetuity.
Jordan: What does the future hold for wildlife tourism?
Michael: That is an extremely good question. One thing is clear: Responsible wildlife tourism and the many jobs and local economic benefits that come with it cannot continue to exist in the absence of effective wildlife conservation. The business is entirely dependent on having live animals to observe and photograph and on maintaining the complex habitats that support them. The business will thus survive only if wildlife survives, and there are some big challenges ahead. In Africa, for example, there have been many recent problems with the poaching of elephants and rhinos to fuel the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn for art and traditional Asian medicine. Fueled by corruption and organized crime, these illegal acts are literally draining the lifeblood from the economies of African nations. Many developing countries have to choose between short-term economic gains from mining, oil exploration and other forms of development to address rampant poverty and unemployment. Unfortunately, such short-term solutions typically benefit only a few, whereas if done properly, wildlife and nature tourism can offer long-term economic benefits to a wider range of people.
Of course, this is only possible if middle and upper class residents of developed countries decide to spend their money on wildlife travel. This is another challenge, as with continuing global urbanization, fewer people are visiting national parks and maintaining an intense interest in wildlife and nature (Louv, R. 2005. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books). Like it or not, if international wildlife tourism dries up, it will be easier and easier for the pro-development forces to win the coming battles for conservation. There are many other challenges, of course, including the looming threat of climate change and growing human populations leading to further development and loss of wildlife habitat, many of which have been discussed in my previous interviews. However, many people, especially those in the U.S., do not realize that one of the absolutely best actions they can take for global wildlife conservation is to engage in responsible wildlife travel and thus help to provide local economic incentives for wildlife conservation.