Planning and managing wildlife encounters
Guidelines to help develop visitor interpretation with a view to conservation.
Natural Experiences. Provide as natural an experience for the visitors as possible. This is good for the wildlife, and research indicates that it is what international visitors paying to participate in nature-based experiences increasingly seek.
Avoid Handfeeding. In general, avoid handfeeding or handling of wildlife living in natural areas. Explain to your guests that this is important for the animals’ welfare and maintaining a natural ecosystem. Where feeding does occur, ensure that it is minimal and uses nutritionally appropriate food.
Do Research. Do research on your local wildlife species and populations. This includes reading about them, talking to local experts such as national parks staff and wildlife researchers, and spending time searching for and observing the animals yourself. For example, information on changes in behaviour through the day and distribution and use of habitat will help you to find the animals without the need for any handfeeding or habitat manipulation. Knowledge of their social organisation will help you understand what the animals are doing so you can explain to visitors. Understanding wildlife behaviours will help you to plan to minimise disturbance with your visitors.
Use Technology. Find out what technology is available to assist you in providing satisfying wildlife encounters and learn to use it properly. Good use of spotlights and binoculars are particularly important, and creative use of remote viewing systems have been used to good effect. Where possible, assist your guests in the proper use of binoculars.
Be Flexible. Plan for flexibility in your tours and do what you can to adjust the tour to your guests’ interests. Most of your groups may not have a special interests, however by knowing where certain other populations are you will be able to respond when you do have such a group. This also makes it more interesting for the guide!
Habituation. Take steps to habituate the wildlife without use of food or other rewards. The best way to do this is to make sure that your group keeps quiet and still. Keep enough distance to encourage the animals to resume their natural activity, then continue watching for a few minutes. When you leave, do so slowly and in a direction that is away from the animal. Do not try to hide, the idea is to let them know you are there but that you are not a threat. Over time, you will find that the distance at which they resume their activity gradually decreases.
Wildlife Spotter. If you have more than one guide with a group, it may be useful for one guide to go in front as the ‘wildlife spotter’. Once they have sighted an animal, they can ensure that the rest of the group approaches carefully and does not disturb the animal.
Minimal Disturbance. A good principle for minimising disturbance to wildlife, and providing satisfying visitor experiences, is to behave in a way that does not cause the animal to move away. Ideally, the animal will nearly always initially stop what they are doing and look at you, then resume their previous activity while you are present. Sometimes it is not possible to avoid the animals moving away; in such cases do not attempt to pursue them. A minimum approach distance or other criteria varies with species, habitat, degree of habituation, weather conditions, activity, and many other factors. Instead learn to predict how close you can get under different conditions. Anticipate the animal behaviour. Do not allow visitors to continue approaching when animals show the first signs of disturbance by becoming alert.
Conservation. Contribute to the conservation of your local area and wildlife, and use this in your promotion. Where possible involve your visitors in these activities. For example, operators who run tourism activities on their own land can undertake habitat restoration or enter into conservation agreements such as the Land for Wildlifescheme. Operators can become involved in wildlife research or monitoring, and involve their visitors in these activities. Operators can become involved in local natural resource management and conservation issues, and lobby for increased resources for such management. Income from tourists can be channeled into an environmental cause, either through voluntary donations or as a small proportion of the tour/attraction price.
Build Relationships. Build positive relationships with wildlife researchers and protected area managers working in the area based on mutual benefits. They can provide you with information to incorporate in your interpretation, and help with methods to help find and observe the animals, and can be a relatively time-efficient way of improving your wildlife knowledge. Their cooperation may also help you in securing access to good wildlife viewing areas. You can provide researchers with ongoing basic monitoring of the animals and habitat. You may also become involved in management decisions that may affect the animals and help ensure that your tourism resource is protected.
Tracks, Scats and Traces. In providing an interesting wildlife experience for visitors, signs of animals can be as interesting as the animals themselves. Use a field guide to help you. Signs include tracks (especially if you learn to interpret their behaviour from tracks), droppings (from which you can show visitors what they eat and how to distinguish them from other species), shelter and lying areas, paths created through vegetation, and skeletal parts. Signs can be of particular value in cases where you have difficulty finding large numbers of wildlife. One wildlife tourism operator in Tasmania, who is also a highly skilled naturalist, carries around a wildlife kit containing items such as skeletal parts, a bird’s nest, and materials for creating plaster casts from wildlife tracks. He reports that these provide great interest and are very handy at times when wildlife encounters are few.
Education. If necessary, educate your visitors that wildlife are wild animals and it is important not to disturb them.
Safety Warning. If your guests are traveling through areas of wildlife habitat when they leave you, remind them to drive slowly and keep their eyes open for wildlife, especially in the dusk and dark.
Use of Cameras. Encourage visitors to use zoom or telephoto lens on their cameras for photography. Do not allow flash photography directly into the faces of nocturnal creatures, especially those that fly or glide.