Australian Wildlife Tourism Network
A network to link:
- Tour operators across Australia conducting wildlife research or interested in doing so
- Tour operators conducting monitoring (e.g. of habitat restoration sites) or interested in doing so
- Tour operators keeping lists of natural history observations during tours
- Tour operators willing to assist academic researchers (including post-grad students), e.f. by offering free or discount transport, accommodation or park entry
- Academic and other professional researchers (including students) in any field associated with wildlife ecology (terrestrial, aquatic or marine) , conservation biology, breeding and care of wildlife species, wildlife tourism or ecotourism
- Tourists interested in assisting as volunteers in projects that allow this
Benefits of tourism-assisted research
Benefits to research, management, and conservation
Scientific benefits (especially but not exclusively of specialised research tourism) includes:
- A research capability that would not otherwise exist
- Increased funding and other resources for research
- Increased and faster monitoring, data collection and processing for research
- Increased spatial range for research
- Increased access to remote locations for research
- Significant conservation outcomes
- A diversity of tourist worldviews and skills that can assist the research process
- The involvement of commercial fisheries in management and conservation
Benefits to the tourist, the broader community, and educators
As a form of citizen science, research tourism in a wildlife tourism setting frequently provides the following benefits to the tourism industry, the community, tourists, and public education:
- New and interesting products for the tourist to choose
- Improves the tourist’s experience by exceeding their expectations
- Tourists feel they have contributed to something important
- Increased community awareness and stewardship of research and conservation issues
- The professional development of tourists in research, management and conservation
- A platform for nature documentaries that promote education and awareness
The relationship is synergetic as the wildlife tourism operator also benefits through:
- A diversification opportunity for tourism operators
- A prestigious marketing brand for tourism destinations
- A proven tourism product for attracting “experience seeker” tourists
- Potential funding for tours from conservation philanthropy
- Potential funding from research, management and education grants
- A platform for nature documentaries that promote the tourism destination
The value of tour operators and guides to research
Wildlife tour operators and ecolodge staff are often in an excellent position to add substantially both to basic scientific or other research (e.g. economics of wildlife tourism) and monitoring for conservation management.
Many scientific researchers would love to have the budget to be sending research assistants every week to islands, reefs, forests, outback stations etc. but of course most simply do not have such budgets (unless perhaps working for mining companies and the like). Conservation managers who want assessment of impacts by neighbouring developments, or results of habitat restoration, are often hindered by lack of time to collect baseline data or to follow up with well-planned standardised monitoring.
Tour operators and guides at ecolodges often visit interesting wildlife habitats on a regular basis and thus have an opportunity to collect useful information, and perhaps even call on the assistance of their guests in doing so.
Staff at zoos and wildlife parks also have excellent opportunity to observe behaviour day after day and even perform some unobtrusive experiments by subtle changes for instance by placement of food to determine feeding preferences.
Research and monitoring can be conducted on various levels. Some tour establishments – including wildlife parks, zoos, ecolodges and tour companies – are run by or employ people with scientific training who are well-equipped to design excellent projects. Others can (and do) team up with researchers in academic institutions to design surveys and if necessary receive some training or pincers to relevant literature or courses. If working in tourism, people with scientific backgrounds may lack the time to do as much research as they would like, so teaming up with other operators, scientists, tourists, and/or volunteers for cooperative research and (giving due acknowledgment in resultant publications) can be very welcome.
Research conducted within the tourism industry can be destined for scientific publication when it adds to our basic knowledge and understanding. Other information (e.g. local changes to wildlife abundance, wildlife responses to a new method of minimal-impact viewing) can be presented in other ways (non-science journals, websites) that will be useful to operators and conservation managers. Even collections of anecdotes and natural history observations, while not generally useful in a scientific sense, can ultimately show patterns leading to interesting hypotheses that can then be tested by true scientific method.
The advantages of having a network
Many tour operators, zookeepers, ecolodge staff and others are already conducting research, whether straight monitoring of presence/absence of species (e.g. birds seen at each site visited), following the movements of individuals (e.g. migrating whales) or as part of a more general research question (e.g. the most efficient methods for rainforest regeneration).
- coordination and collaboration (e.g. marking the progress of bird migration across latitudes – when do the first koels arrive in Cairns? Townsville? Gold Coast? and is this changing from year to year).
- ideas for further research – e.g. “that’s an interesting project in Victoria, I wonder if similar things are happening in WA”
- many tourists really want to do something towards conservation of the wildlife they see, and there are various levels at which they could participate. Some may be experienced naturalists, science student or retired professors and with a bit of quick training can do complex measurements or standardised observations of animal behaviour etc. Others can record whether or not trees and vines are fruiting or flowering and if anything is eating them, do simple counts, take GIS readings and photos, or just act as extra eyes and ears while looking for nocturnal creatures or even just carrying equipment and setting up transects.
Possibilities for research projects
- as leaders of the research (many of those in the wildlife tourism industry have science degrees)
- in collaboration with other operators
- through organisations such as Conservation Volunteers Australia or Earthwatch
- in collaboration with researchers at universities and similar institutions
Research fields that could benefit from involvement by wildlife tourism operators (and sometimes their tour guests) include:
- Conservation – e.g. are local animal populations or behaviour changing, and what are these changes correlated with? What kind of approach to particular kinds of animals causes least disturbance? What shy, cryptic creatures are being affected by our activities as we look for the more obvious target species?
- Ecology and behaviour. There is much we don’t yet know about basic behaviour and ecology of most species (especially when we include the invertebrates!). There is boundless opportunity here to add to our natural history and scientific knowledge and understanding
- Wildlife tourism marketing. What is the value of wildlife and their habitats, through tourism, to Australia’s economy?’ ‘What kinds of wildlife experience would encourage tourists to stay longer or revisit a region?
Involvement of tourists/volunteers in research
There is skepticism in some quarters on the idea of using tourists or volunteers, and some of this is well-founded. There are certainly people who will never grasp the basics of scientific inquiry enough to understand the importance of following standard procedures, some who will never be able to tell a crow from a drongo, who let their imaginations run away with them or are just plain lazy, unreliable, dim-witted or dishonest, who have perhaps discouraged some researchers.
There are many others though who may know very little about science but are motivated and reliable, and quite able to help carry equipment, detect and perhaps count animals (whether it be beetles, frogs or whales), and take decent photos that can be used for identification of a species or individuals, proof of an animal’s presence in a certain location, or the progress of a wildlife corridor planting.
There are also tourists who are very knowledgable or skilled in certain aspects (e.g. ability to identify most birds), and some who do have science backgrounds and may be able to assist with higher-level tasks such as recurring which animals are feeding on different specie of plant, or collating some of the results.
Tour operators and others working in tourism also vary from those with little knowledge of wildlife or understanding of science, through enthusiastic self-taught people who are very willing and able to work in with scientists and other professionals, to those who are themselves science graduates (including PhDs) with a background of research experience. If working in tourism they may lack the time to do as much research as they would like, so teaming up with other operators for cooperative research and also employing the assistance of tourists (giving due acknowledgment in resultant publications) can be very welcome.
Further background to use of volunteers in research can be found on:
A network of tour operators and others involved in or interested in research
Wildlife Tourism Australia is developing a network of people within the wildlife tourism industry involved in research so that those interested can in touch with each other for all of the reasons mentioned above.