Guidelines for wildlife watching

The opportunity to see wildlife is a huge draw for many holidaymakers, whether you’re in search of the Big Five, seeking wildlife between the trees in the rainforest, or heading out on a boat to spot whales and dolphins. Closer to home, too, there are national parks, wildlife reserves and other protected landscapes sheltering birds, badgers and beavers, amongst others. Encountering a wild rhino may be very different to encountering a rabbit, but wildlife is wildlife, and many of the guidelines for protecting it are the same whether you’re in East Africa or East Anglia. What’s more, wildlife conservation should extend to protecting habitats and local communities, too.
We spoke to Julian Matthews, founder of Tour Operators for Tigers (TOFTigers), and to Dr Matt Walpole, Senior Director of Conservation Programmes at Flora and Fauna International. Matt previously worked for UN Environment and was a judge of the World Responsible Travel Awards. They have both shared their tips for better wildlife watching, whether on a remote African safari, or in the woods behind your home.
Read on for a few important pointers for your next wildlife holiday, weekend break or ramble in the local countryside.

Rules & regulations

1. Read the rules
Ask your guide, tour leader, park authority or holiday company for the local regulations on watching wildlife. Most national parks and game reserves have them, as do many areas for seeing whales and dolphins. The guidelines will help you watch wildlife responsibly, and you can ensure your guide adheres to these regulations. If the guidelines are not available, ask why.

2. Follow the rules
Respect the times of day at which the regulations permit you to watch wildlife. In most national parks and reserves, nighttime safaris are not allowed. If this is something that interests you, seek out a protected area where this is permitted. If you are driving yourself, keep to the permitted speed limit and maintain your distance from the animals. Be sure to keep to designated roads or tracks and respect any rules regarding off-road driving.

Other rules are likely to forbid feeding or touching wildlife, dropping litter (take all waste with you if possible), damaging the habitat (be careful not to damage plants and don’t pick flowers, take shells etc) and starting a fire unless you are specifically allowed to do so. Keep pets away from wildlife, or keep dogs on a lead with wildlife that is more accustomed to people.

3. Stick to designated viewing areas
Many game parks and reserves will clarify how game should be viewed – whether on foot, from vehicles or other locations. If there is a hide or platform it is probably there for a reason. Do not wander away from this or leave marked trails unless you are advised it’s permissible.

4. Respect your guides
Many guides report incidences of clients putting pressure on them to ‘get a big closer’ or drive off road to see wildlife. There is a power imbalance between clients and guides (who might benefit from tips). Never put pressure on your guide to break regulations, and help support them if another guest asks them too.

Minimise disturbance

5. Be considerate of wildlife
Minimise disturbance by being quiet or speaking in a low voice when watching wildlife. Remain calm and try not to make sudden movements. If the wildlife you are watching appears to be disturbed or stressed by your visit it might very well be. Ask the warden or your guide for their opinion, and withdraw if appropriate.

“Do not try to interact with wild animals, for example by seeking to attract their attention or touch them. Also, try not to surround animals, whether on foot, in boats or in cars/safari vehicles, as this can be stressful for them.” – Dr Matt Walpole

6. Keep an eye out for baby animals
Be especially aware of parents with young. The bind between the two is very important and can easily be disturbed, especially in the early days. It can also be dangerous for you if you are standing between a mother and baby, for example.

7. Report incidents
If you find a dead or dying animal, report to the authorities – unless the cause of death is predation, for example.

8. Consider when you travel
“The astounding growth of nature tourism over the last decade now means that in some countries, nearby cities empty into the countryside during the numerous holidays and festivals. This is when the reserves and lodges are filled to capacity and often means a less wild experience as you jostle with jeeps and people on your game drives. If you have no choice over your travel dates, use these high days and holidays to explore outside the parks.” – Julian Matthews

Beyond the wildlife

9. Think before you buy
Be careful to ensure that any souvenirs you buy – including shells, coral, feathers, bone or ivory – are not creating a market to destroy the very thing you came to see. Do not buy souvenirs made or hard woods or other natural resources that might result in habitat destruction. In addition, trade in some of these items may be restricted, in which case they could be confiscated or you could receive a fine or worse. If in doubt, don’t buy!

10. Research your accommodation
If you are staying overnight in or near a protected area, choose accommodation with a responsible tourism policy that minimises waste, water and energy use and supports the local community.

“The growth in tourism has created a development boom around many parks. As a result, what you think will be a fabulous wilderness experience can leave you disappointed. Even worse, it could be compromising the long-term health of the parks and the communities who live there.” – Julian Matthews

11. Support local communities
“Communities that coexist with wildlife or live adjacent to national parks often bear a cost for little reward; much of the tourism dollar goes elsewhere. Finding ways to maximise benefits for, often very poor, local communities and local enterprises is part of responsible travel and can help to increase local support for wildlife.” – Dr Matt Walpole

Most wildlife viewing takes place in protected areas. In certain destinations, communities who once lived in these areas, or relied on these areas as a resource are now prohibited from doing so, in order to promote conservation and to make way for tourists. These communities are often very poor and may also suffer damage to their crops, homes or even lives, as a result of living alongside dangerous wildlife.

It’s very important that they derive some financial benefit for facing these ‘costs’. By thinking local (guide, accommodation, food etc) or booking a trip with a holiday company committed to responsible tourism, you can ensure local economic benefits are maximised.

“The animals may be the main draw, but the most memorable parts for many travellers often come from the interactions with local people. A great guide can turn an average nature holiday into an extraordinary one. They’re worth every penny, so don’t compromise – ask for the best you can get. They’ll focus on the star attractions, but get them to show you the ‘little five’ too: go on a nature walk, learn about animal tracks, bizarre insects or the colourful birdlife. For kids especially, this bit is the ‘real wild show’.” – Julian Matthews
Invest in a good field guide and bird book. You can sometimes get them at your lodge or at the park gate, but you’d be best to buy them early and read up first.
- Julian Matthews

Sharing the benefits

12. Spread the word
Share your knowledge about responsible wildlife viewing with friends and other travellers. Report any cases of irresponsible behaviour.

13. Know what’s right – and what’s not
The following things are NOT responsible: captive orca and dolphin shows, petting or walking with lion cubs, animal selfies.

14. A longer legacy
Consider joining a wildlife conservation organisation, where you can learn more about, and support, conservation issues and campaigning. Some of them, such as The Wildlife Trusts in the UK, also run expert talks and day trips to see local wildlife. Alternatively if your accommodation or holiday company has links to good, local conservation organisations in the place you’ve visited, consider supporting them.

15. Volunteer
Invite your friends and colleagues to join you for a day out conservation volunteering. At Responsible Travel we do this each year.

16. Support conservation
Find out if there is a conservationist or conservation program nearby that you can visit. There is nothing like meeting a real expert to learn about wildlife, I’ve had some of my best ever wildlife experiences this way, and you might consider ways to support their work.
Written by Justin Francis
Photo credits: [Page banner: AdA Durden] [Guidelines intro: Paul Krawczuk] [Minimise disturbance: Peter Swaine] [Beyond the wildlife: Parth Joshi]