Podcast: How to Navigate the Wild World of Ethical Animal Tourism

In our second episode of “Unpacked by AFAR,” wildlife journalist Byron Pace shares tips on how to have magical animal encounters that protect the creatures (and places) we visit.

Podcast: How to Navigate the Wild World of Ethical Animal Tourism

One key aspect of ethical wildlife tourism? Don’t engage in travel experiences that offer physical encounters.

Photo by Byron Pace

In our new podcast, Unpacked by AFAR, we explore the world of ethical travel in a friendly, accessible—and dare we say—fun way. Every other Thursday join us as we answer your ethical conundrums from how to engage with animal tourism (“I know I shouldn’t ride an elephant, but can I swim with dolphins?”) to travel that doesn’t harm the Earth (“What is zero-waste travel—and is it even possible?”). Here’s the transcript from our June 30 episode.

Listen now. And be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

BYRON PACE, HOST: This is Unpacked by AFAR. I’m Byron Pace, a British filmmaker, photographer, and podcaster, and today I’m exploring the nuances and complexities of ethical wildlife tourism.

It would be fair to say that what I do for work—and for fun—is almost always in the great outdoors, and it’s rare that it’s not focused on wildlife in some shape or form. I am forever delving into the stories of how humans and the wild others of this planet interact—often this isn’t in a positive manner. While the world is burdened by stories of biodiversity declines and species extinctions, the increasing enthusiasm of people to connect with nature and embrace ethical wildlife tourism can be a force for good. But how can you make sure, as someone who wants to experience nature’s wonders, that your actions don’t tip the balance and be detrimental to the very thing that you want to see?

I have witnessed good and bad practices all over the world, but I hadn’t ever tried to define what ethical wildlife tourism looks like. So that’s how I began this journey, and in the process, I sought out the voices of a diverse group of people so I could best form a balanced view. Very quickly I realized that what we are talking about has a name: ecotourism.

DAN BLUMSTEIN: We really want people to go outside and experience nature, so that they will value nature, so that we collectively can do things that preserve nature. And there are a lot of different types of nature-based tourism, some with an emphasis to not only see nature, but also help nature—and help the communities in which nature lives to persist and to value those communities. That’s called ecotourism. And then there’s just simply going out and, you know, seeing nature.

BYRON: That was Dan Blumstein, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California Los Angeles. He is also coauthor of the book Ecotourism’s Promise and Peril. He identified to me what would become an underlying theme across the discussions for this show: the tussle between the wants and needs of different interest groups in nature-based tourism—there is often a trade to be made.

DAN: Ecotourism tries to maximize three things, which—we know maximizing three things is impossible. [But] it tries to maximize things that are good for the animals and the plants in nature, tries to maximize things that are good for the local communities in those areas, and tries to maximize profits.

BYRON: OK, so, even with noble intentions which consider nature conservation and local communities, there will be challenges when trying to maximize all desirable outcomes. But there is another element, and that comes from the sliding baseline of what different people feel is ethical in nature-based tourism.

MELISSA CRISTINA MÁRQUEZ: My name is Melissa Cristina Márquez. I am a marine biologist and wildlife educator based out of Perth, Western Australia, where I’m currently looking at shark habitat use. So figuring out why sharks are where they are and our relationship with them and how that’s changed over the years.

One of the biggest difficulties is with the definition of what somebody thinks ethical animal tourism is. What a person personally believes is ethical could be something completely different from what the next person thinks is ethical. And so I think when it really comes down to the nitty-gritty of what is ethical, what is responsible animal tourism or animal interactions, it comes down to how you interact with those animals and where you put your money. Who are you going with? Are they reputable? Are they an organization that does things by certain rules or by certain laws? Or is it someone who’s kind of greenwashed and said, “Oh yeah, we’re ethical and we’re ecofriendly,” but not really.

BYRON: A thought-provoking example of personal ethics comes from Alex Oelofse, owner of Mount Etjo Safari Lodge in Namibia, Africa. His late father, Jan, was a renowned conservationist, and invented the Oelofse game capture method credited with helping repopulate much of the continent’s historically depleted game populations. As well as being actively involved in wildlife conservation and game capture today, Alex runs a photographic tourism lodge as well as a sustainable hunting operation—we will touch more on that in just a moment.

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When looking for a nature-based travel experience, aim to find a local company that puts conservation front and center.

Photo by Byron Pace

ALEX OELOFSE: You have the question of ethical tourism. People think that they can come and it’s like going to a petting zoo—you can go pet a lion or pet a rhino, but that isn’t natural, that isn’t nature. And yet you have so many people that, that’s the first thing they ask: Can I touch it? We tell them, those are wild animals. It’s not a pet, it’s not a petting zoo. So you do get that.

BYRON: But still, many people seek this kind of hands-on interaction, and this has undoubtedly been perpetuated by the rise of social media. Research by the World Animal Protection organization in 2017 showed a 292 percent increase in the number of selfies with wild species since 2014, and around half of these show physical contact—every estimate suggests this has only increased since then.

There has been much discussion in recent years about the draw of Asian elephant tourism, which centers mostly on animals performing for humans, be that riding tours or circus-type events. This was covered in graphic detail in an investigation by Natasha Daly for National Geographic in 2019, which raised serious moral and animal welfare questions. I am going to assume the kind of nature-based tourism that an Unpacked listener wants to engage in doesn’t involve unnatural scenarios where wildlife is performing. However, the motives of some wildlife experience operators are not always transparent.

In the three years leading up to the report released by Lord Ashcroft in 2020 on the captive lion-breeding industry in South Africa, an undercover team was investigating. It turned out to be a world of deception, intertwining the practice of canned lion hunting with the lion bone trade—used for traditional Chinese medicine—and the lion cub petting industry frequented by travelers from all over the world. Peter Carr is chief operating officer and cofounder of the Endangered Species Protection Agency and headed up the investigation. For the first time, he speaks on the record. Often what they found was distressing scenes of horrendous animal welfare, but the sinister aspect of the industry was the smoke and mirrors.

PETER CARR: [There are] mercenary-minded individuals, organized crime networks—you know, pretty dangerous characters. The tourists coming through there, some of them would pay thousands to work on a conservation project for lions: mucking these lions out, feeding them, and thinking that they’re gonna release them back into the wild, which is just an untruth in every sense of the word.

BYRON: Pete went on to explain horrific conditions many of these big cats were kept in, and how many of the lion cubs travelers would interact with in these pseudo sanctuaries, would soon outlive their use as a tourist attraction, and once big enough would be euthanized and boiled down to extract their bones for the demand in Asian markets.

PETE: I think tourists should look for bad practices and good practices. It’s like just don’t go to lion-petting facilities that are offering walking with lions experiences or lion-petting, because they’re all involved in the illegal bone trade. They’re all involved in exploiting lions as a species, just purely for profit.

BYRON: The takeaway here was simple. There are very few good reasons to physically interact with wild animals, so think very carefully about the motives of the operators when this is offered. Melissa also shared some thoughts on this.

MELISSA: I would love to just cuddle with a baby lion [laughs] or an adult lion or a snow leopard. They just look very—if you ignore the fact of the sharp, pointy teeth—they look very cuddly. And the claws, we ignore the claw as well. But it’s one of those things where, whenever I see those kinds of opportunities pop up in a tourist setting, I sit back and ask myself, “What is the benefit?” Not just for myself, but also for the animal. So for myself, “Cool, I get an Instagram photo and I get to say, ‘I pet a lion,’.” But is that really worth the discomfort that that animal is going through?

BYRON: While the example from Pete may serve as extreme, it does provide a warning—always question the experience you are engaging in. But the desire to be up close and personal with nature is understandable.

SARAH ROBERTS: I’m Sarah Roberts and I have spent the last 10 years communicating environmental issues to lots of different audiences. I have an outreach project. I’m an ecojournalist and my background is in animal behavior, so I’ve also worked around the world with a few different species too.

I mean, we’re basically bold monkeys in clothes, aren’t we, when it comes down to it? We have come from primates and come from that line so we are naturally tactile and inquisitive as a species, and I think that’s best demonstrated with our desire to have pets and our desire to stroke and touch.

Obviously, you’re going to want to do it, right? You see these animals and it looks like such a rare opportunity to be able to get up close and personal. And it’s always presented in a way that that animal looks like it’s having a great time, it’s really enjoying it. But I think the reality is: A lot of these species just aren’t meant to be interacting in that way.

BYRON: But Sarah went on to describe our often-distorted view of the kind of interactions we seek—petting lions, riding elephants, stroking dolphins—as a “Disneyland effect” perpetuated by our increasingly urbanized world, ever more disconnected with nature. We are seeking something we have lost.

LUCAS BUSTAMANTE: Because when we’re thinking about nature in general, not just in tourism, as humans we have during the last decades [gotten used] to seeing nature completely disconnected. We are just in our cities and say, “I want to see wildlife.” And basically the only thing that comes to our mind is pristine wildlife, pristine ecosystems. Sometimes, even a religious view: “I’m going to travel to paradise where there’s just very untamed and raw nature and completely unexplored and wildlife blooming all over.” But that is far from reality.

BYRON: That is Lucas Bustamante, a biologist from Ecuador, who cofounded an ecotourism business, Tropical Herping, 13 years ago. Their ethos is simple: to preserve tropical biodiversity through tourism, photography, and education. The trips he designs puts wildlife and local communities first, channeling economic benefit towards conservation projects in critical regions of the tropics. He emphasizes the importance of understanding that Indigenous communities often exist alongside nature, and areas which would appear wild and free of people, are normally a complex web of local interactions with wildlife. Game capture specialist Alex explains that, in a similar way, this is often the case in Africa.

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Travelers can also look for conservation experiences that allow them to assist researchers (orphaned rhino rehabilitation is one such opportunity).

Photo by Byron Pace

ALEX: I think many people coming over have kind of a misconception of what things are like in Africa now. A lot of people still have this idealistic view of what Africa used to be a few hundred years ago. But with the population increase, wildlife has basically been pushed into smaller areas, so everything needs to be managed and it’s a constant job. And then with fluctuations in weather and droughts—sometimes you have to feed your animals because you’re going through a drought. You have to manage populations.

BYRON: And that management often involves the relocation of animals between reserves. The continent of Africa represents a diverse mix of both private reserves and national parks, with a spectrum of remits for their management. Alex explained that in many cases, private reserves are actually better managed, with more abundant game and conservation success, because unlike national parks they have to create a business operation which first and foremost protects their greatest asset—the ecosystem and wildlife. I have seen this myself in a number of countries, from Kenya to Namibia, where the controlled access of travelers and careful economic planning has resulted in incredible successes bringing wildlife back which had once long disappeared. Grumeti Game Reserve in Tanzania, in the Serengeti is one such example of this.

In some private reserves and community-run conservancies, such as those in Namibia, they combine consumptive tourism with nonconsumptive tourism; that is photographic-based tourism with limited sustainable hunting tourism. While this would require an entire episode in itself to unpack, it’s important to understand the activities which shape the landscape we are visiting.

Interestingly, while we often think of wild protected areas as those we only preserve, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (the IUCN) view the sustainable use of natural resources, including restricted timber harvesting and hunting, as a way of alleviating poverty while securing both social and environmental objectives. And it can be more environmentally friendly to source food from the local landscape too. The kudu or eland, or even the giraffe you find on your plate at an African photographic safari lodge, will have come from a sustainable surplus of wildlife and be far less detrimental to the ecosystem than rearing beef cattle, which don’t naturally occur there anyway.

But let’s take a step back from the heavy mind acrobatics of what you have heard so far, because being in nature is incredible. It’s good for our mind and our soul. Melissa has dedicated her life to marine science and conservation, and she had so many amazing experiences to tell me about.

MELISSA: I think probably my most exciting animal interaction, I just had it actually last year. We were open ocean kayaking and we got checked out by a pod of sperm whales. It was really, really cool because they were quite far away and, obviously, whales are quite skittish. It is that scientist in me and that conservationist in me where I’m like, “I’m going to give them their space, even though I really, really want to see them.” There were quite a few curious ones who were just like, “What the heck is this bobbing in the middle of the ocean?” And [then], we just lost them. We were like, “Oh, they dove down.” Thank God I looked below the kayak, because suddenly—I let out some expletives—because I just saw this giant gray thing coming up from underneath.

It didn’t hit the kayak or anything like that. It was just so close. I was like, “Oh my, my heart left my body.” I’m pretty sure I possibly blacked out for a second and my soul lifted out of my body so I could look down and see this, ’cause it was really cool. It’s really humbling when you have a giant animal and you’re very, very tiny and it comes to check you out. I think that’s probably the most exciting animal experience I’ve had lately. And you know, we were doing everything right: We were giving it space. We didn’t have anything to attract it. We weren’t chasing after them or anything like that. They just came because they were curious and they gave us a memory that I’m going to be holding onto for the rest of my life.

BYRON: Welcome back to Unpacked by AFAR. Many of us can point to moving experiences in nature, and this emotional connection can help foster a deeper care for the natural world, and that can only be a positive thing. So, what does good nature-based tourism look like? The first step is local, says Ecuadorian biologist Lucas.

LUCAS: The first step to start doing ecotourism is to try to find a local company wherever you want to visit. Do your research trying to see that it’s a company that is local, that works with local people. Check: Which are the places or lodges or resorts that you’re going to visit—what is their impact? [Check to] see if they’re considered mass tourism exploiting local people or the environment regarding waste, fuel, everything. So that should be one of the first steps: Choose a local company.

MELISSA: I think a lot of people think that ethical tourism is one where it’s very hands-off and you don’t disturb anything. And I mean, wherever we go, we are disturbing stuff [laughs], be it the environment, be it the animals, be it their behavior—we are disturbing it. And so for a lot of these ecotourisms with certifications, they’re really kind of honing in on harm minimization, on education, and reduction of our negative impact on wildlife through that tourism.

BYRON: Of course, the easy answer would be to navigate every prospective traveler to a website of accredited ecotourism operators, but surprise, surprise, it’s not that simple. According to the Global Ecotourism Network, there are over 130 certifications for responsible and sustainable tourism globally, but less than 25 of these are considered credible and workable. As someone seeking nature-based experiences, be curious and invested in understanding the place you are going to, as Melissa goes on to explain.

MELISSA: Basically, you want to make sure that anything that you look up—be it accommodations or attractions—is backed by a strong, well-managed commitment to sustainable practices and provides high-quality tourism experiences. There’s a lot of criteria that, for these certifications, you can go through. And I think if you look through some of the criteria for some of these areas and [ask] “Does whatever I am looking into, does that fall into it? Yes or no?” And you can go based off of that. The same exact thing with the cultural authenticity programs, because in a lot of areas around the world, their cultures are very much tied into their wildlife and their wild spaces as well. And so making sure that those tours or accommodations or attractions are committed to protecting that cultural authenticity with integrity, have sound business practices, and they acknowledge Indigenous people’s spiritual connection to the land and water, I think is really important as well.

BYRON: Animal behaviorist Sarah Roberts worked as a grizzly bear guide back in 2016 at Great Bear Lodge in the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. In her opinion, this was a great showcase of where nature-based tourism is done right.

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The best way to view animals? From a distance.

Photo by Byron Pace

SARAH: The lodge I worked at was absolutely idyllic. The person that had set it up, Tom Rivers, he’s an absolute bear fanatic. So first and foremost, it was the bear’s welfare in our training that came first. We would be heavily criticized as a guide if we interrupted their natural behavior. And if there was a situation, you know, where you sort of got too close and you scared the bear, we were heavily criticized for that. We’d sit down and we’d go through it and we would have to see what we did wrong—how we can avoid that happening in the future?

Because first and foremost, you want the bears to be able to feed. You want them to be able to take on enough energy so that they can go through the mating, so they can carry any bear clubs they might have brewing, but also so they’ll last through the winter. That was the first and foremost. And, actually, the guests’ experience was one of the last things that we had to have in our priorities of running those trips. First and foremost obviously was the bear welfare, but then you also had to take into account safety. And the viewing experience was—it was up there, but it was much lower down than one might think when you go into a guiding role. But as I said, that was a very special place.

BYRON: But it’s not just directly about the wildlife. For conservation and sustainable tourism practices to work in the long term they need to consider and include benefits to local communities. As Lucas explained to me, ecotourism in South America often provides locals with an alternative to environmentally damaging industries.

LUCAS: Tourism is one of the markets all over the world that is trying to give an alternative to economies that are based on extraction. Let’s say that in the way that we are creating money or funds, we don’t consider the impact of our economic production. So basically tourism comes as an alternative. If it’s handled properly all over the world, people spend money in local places that they visit, supporting local people. And this can be an economic alternative for local people, instead of extractive activities.

BYRON: And ecotourism gives wildlife and the ecosystems they exist in a tangible value to local people—in that way it encourages the care and protection of the environment. Lucas explained to me that when the economic benefit of tourism is kept locally, it can not only benefit nature and the local communities, but it also enhances the traveler experience.

LUCAS: When we were doing the scouting, we saw that all the money that the tourists leave to this community with their visit, stays in the same community. [One example] is just 40 families living in this place, they own a territory of like 21,000 hectares, because they are Indigenous people. And despite not being inside of a national park, the money that they get, they use to fund scholarships within Ecuador or outside Ecuador for preparing the youth in whatever they want, if they want to study languages, if they want to study guiding for tourism, or environmental architecture for building more cabins in the lodge.

When we see and talk with the clients that visit these places, they’re just absolutely fulfilled. Because in addition to having a nice holiday and seeing a lot of animals, it’s very nice and you really feel that you are supporting a local initiative and it’s a genuine experience.

BYRON: Much of our discussion around good practice and ethics has steered you away from physical interactions, but there are opportunities to fulfill this desire while actually benefiting wildlife and greater conservation. Professor Dan again.

DAN: Well, there are certainly a lot of opportunities where people can help out, Earthwatch-type projects where people can help out with research. And in some cases, this involves working as a researcher for a couple of weeks and working closely with researchers and really sort of seeing how the research gets done, contributing to the research. So those sorts of things that, when well managed, are a form of ecotourism that really help the animals out in some meaningful way. There are other restoration projects where people go out and help restore habitat and are working in restoration. And that’s a nice form of ecotourism as well.

BYRON: And I have done this myself over the years, participating in projects from orphaned rhino rehabilitation to the relocation of cheetah and the active monitoring of lions to avoid human wildlife conflict. These kinds of opportunities may be less readily available, and often very limited, but fulfills that natural desire Sarah Roberts talks about—to interact intimately with incredible creatures. But the focus has to be on the conservation of the species in the landscape.

So what about red flags? What should we be actively avoiding when researching the next nature-based holiday? Well, one of the most common, ethically questionable practices is food provisioning. Dan has written extensively about this.

DAN: Feeders are something that I’m pretty down on because it creates all sorts of challenges. Bringing birds into feeders or provisioning other animals so that you can see them is an easy way to see animals and it’s a great way to see animals up close. But what you’re doing is you’re bringing animals into a concentrated resource. You’re increasing aggression between animals, potentially stress as well. You’re creating opportunities for interactions between species that might not normally interact. You’re leading to the potential of predation. And you’re certainly increasing the probability that diseases will be transmitted.

One of the downsides of bird feeders is that there’s increased disease transmission between species, if something’s going around. So that’s a real problem. So guides or places that you might go to that have feeders are maybe fraught—or people that go out and provision animals. Going on a diving trip and diving with peas to feed fish sounds like fun, but not a great idea.

SARAH: One issue that you have is the association with humans and food, and that is a very, very big problem across lots and lots of species around the world. You can go as far as looking at monkeys, for example on Gibraltar, or places where they feed monkeys regularly. And those monkeys then become a pest ’cause they start stealing from people. We can pretend as much as we want that the animals aren’t going to associate us with food or the sharks aren’t going to associate us with food, but generally speaking, it does increase the risk.

Read more on the AFAR Guide to Wildlife Tourism.

BYRON: And the problem for humans can be much more serious than just a monkey stealing food. Sarah was quick to emphasize the potential direct risk to humans associated with heavy food provisioning in the shark diving industry.

SARAH: Accidents definitely happen. A lot of the time they’re hushed, but they definitely happen. I am aware of quite a few in the shark world. But then you can also go right the way around to where it’s constant provisioning. So you have some dive sites in the world where it is 24/7, back-to-back with divers in the water. And there are multiple operations in the same place and there are big tuna heads or big fish heads sort of hidden around the area that get the sharks really excited. And it means that the behavior of these sharks completely changes, not only do they then associate people with food, which builds up over time, [but they also], within these areas, have started to approach people that aren’t even on these dives.

BYRON: And that association with people, whether we are talking about bears or sharks, or anything in between, increases the risk of human wildlife conflict occurring. In the worst cases, people can be hurt or killed, and this usually results in lethal action towards the animal in question. We saw this earlier in the year with a shark attack in Australia—this was quickly followed by calls to cull great whites sharks locally. Attacks by any species can damage their reputation unjustifiably and turn people against them. The irony of course is that some of this behavior may have been caused by us—by food provisioning. Ultimately, there are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife interactions, and if there are, ask questions.

MELISSA: One of the things I’ve learned as a wildlife scientist is that no one can guarantee wildlife interactions, unless they’re doing something a little bit shifty on the side. I think a lot of people forget that for wildlife scientists, a lot of our job is just waiting for things to show up [laugh].

BYRON: But there are other impacts from wildlife tourism as well, and one of the great challenges is that successful operations, reserves or parks that offer magical, nature-based experiences, become popular. Game reserve owner Alex Oelofse explains that when a place becomes more and more popular, that in itself can be a problem.

ALEX: An interesting example is if you look at the migration in the Serengeti. Everybody wants to see that, and that’s also become something that’s become overrun with people. You see videos of people and cars racing to the riverbanks to see the crossings, and the car almost runs into the wildebeest because there’s so many people just racing down there. They’d actually block off some of the crossing points, making it harder for the animals to cross. And you need to ask yourself to what point do we need to go into nature and push, and actually force animals to do something else, just because we want to take a picture of it.

BYRON: And in the world of birding, there is something else to consider.

DAN: For example, many people like to go out and bird. Well, it’s great if you’re going out and birding, but when you get into dense tropical forests, often you need some help birding. Sometimes people play back vocalizations of animals to call them in. They get closer so they can see them where they can hear them call back. This might be a good way to census wildlife, a good way to census and count. Really, what you’re doing is a home invasion going into someone else’s territory and threatening them. So if a lot of people are doing this, that’s not really a good thing for the animals. And that’s just one example of many.

BYRON: Dan went on to emphasize a point Melissa had made: You can’t observe nature without changing it in some way. By merely moving through a landscape, we cause animals to change their patterns.

At home in Scotland, I see this all the time with hill walkers, sometimes unknowingly pushing red deer herds out of an area. Particularly in winter, when food reserves and energy preservation are at a premium, this could increase mortality, particularly among younger animals. And there are less obvious impacts as well—the accidental introduction of invasive species, such as zebra mussels carried on the hulls of boats, or disease transported through clothing and equipment which hasn’t been cleaned properly.

Recent studies have shown that primate tourism, particularly the visiting of endangered gorillas and chimpanzees in their natural habitat, has led to the transmission of a range of respiratory diseases as well as measles, often resulting in high mortality rates. A paper published in Science in 2006 showed evidence that an Ebola outbreak, transmitted from humans, led to the death of up to 5500 western gorillas between 2002 and 2003 in Lossi Sanctuary in Central Democratic Republic of the Congo. That’s more deaths in one study area than the entire population of mountain gorillas today.

Now, there is no way to tell if this was linked to tourism or other human interactions, but the habituation of wildlife, common in frequently visited areas and species, increases the risk of close contact and disease transmission. The more we can be aware of how our presence can impact environments and wildlife, the better equipped we can be to spot bad practices, and the more likely that we can weight nature-based tourism experiences so that the benefits outweigh the environmental costs.

And there are broader environmental considerations as well. We are all too well aware of the impact plane journeys have on our efforts to curb climate change—are you doing a carbon offset for your trip?—but what about the actual destination you may be staying at? During her bear guiding career, this was something Sarah and the rest of the team had to consider in every aspect.

SARAH: For example, that lodge, no wonder people were upset if they didn’t see the bears, ’cause quite often they’d save for a long period of time to be able to go out there and do that for the three or four days. But all of the food that they were fed mostly was sourced [locally], like I used to have to go and manage the crab pot [laughs], so it was caught very, very locally. The electricity, we had hydro power and wind power and solar power, and all of our recycling was taken off with the tourists to be fully recycled. We now know what we’re supposed to be doing to offset our impact. So is that possible out there? The little island that you [visit], do they have any recycling facilities at that little island?

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Make sure that tour operators don’t engage in food provisioning, which can upset ecosystems.

Photo by Byron Pace

BYRON: According to Sarah, it’s not always the case, and she gave me a handful of examples of poorly managed shark dive operations which shipped in all their water for guests in plastic bottles, with no recycling or disposal facilities—instead, just landfill sites on the islands—some of which have been breached in storms in the past and ended up in the ocean. But nature-based tourism can be done right, and everyone I spoke with agreed, despite the difficulties of balancing impact with overall benefit, ecotourism was an important tool for conservation.

MELISSA: I am usually an optimist. And I do hope and believe that people come together so we can have those bests of both worlds where we’re in a community that isn’t suffocating under the influx of millions of people coming in for a short amount of time and then leaving and deserting this area and having that local community struggle with kind of the repercussions of them being there for that tiny little bit of time. I’m of the belief that we’re very smart [laughs] when we want to be as a species. And we can come up with some innovative ideas.

BYRON: Melissa is right. Effective ecotourism is about continually evaluating and evolving to ensure we are accounting for the impacts and benefits to nature. One of the ways we can do that is to think a little less about far-flung destinations, and look a little closer to home for our nature fix. Dan Blumstein was very much of this option.

DAN: If you just open your eyes and begin to appreciate nature around you. It’s thrilling to go to Africa and see big animals. It’s thrilling to go to a coral reef and snorkel or dive and interact with animals underwater. But, you know, it’s also thrilling to watch a bird nesting on your house or squirrels in your garden, or whatever’s around you. So I think that creating opportunities, maybe with game cameras—local tourism, local appreciation of nature is as important.

BYRON: As travelers we have the power to define the kind of nature-based experiences which exist. If the demand for ecotourism increases, where more emphasis is placed on the benefits to nature and local communities, more operators will shift towards this kind of offering. Whether we like it or not, economics is often the driver of change. If there is a demand for petting lions and riding elephants, there will be someone to offer that.

We have heard from so many brilliant people in this show, and while I probably have more questions now than I have answers, there were some universal takeaways:

Takeaway #1

Choose a local company.

Takeaway #2

It’s all about doing your research. Invest the time.

Takeaway #3

Avoid anything that offers a hands-on animal experience, unless you are certain about the objectives.

Takeaway #4

Avoid any company that offers guaranteed animal sightings—and be prepared to be disappointed. Remember that your dollars are helping this species and the ecosystem to exist.

Takeaway #5

It’s not just about sustainable animal practices, it’s about sustainability as a whole. Does the company clearly state their broader environmental objects: for example, recycling and waste disposal?

Takeaway #6

Consider why you’re looking for this animal encounter. What do you hope to gain?

Takeaway #7

Animal encounters begin at home! And that’s possibly the most sustainable animal experience out there.

Thanks so much for joining me on this episode of Unpacked. If you’d like to learn more about me and my work—including my own show, The Into the Wilderness Podcast—head over to modernhuntsman.com/podcast to check out the back catalog and also read stories about our complex relationship with the natural world. Travel safe, and maybe I will see you around the campfire some day.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit us online at afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, we hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And please be sure to rate and review us. It helps other travelers find the show.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene, Adrien Glover, and Robin Lai. Postproduction was by John Marshall Media staff Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhoades. Music composition by Alan Carrescia.

And remember: The world is complicated. Being an ethical traveler doesn’t have to be.

>>Next: Podcast: Let’s Scale Back That Revenge Travel, Shall We?

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