Operators behaving badly

What should we do when we see tour operators acting against the interests of wildlife?

Denise Goodfellow (WTA’s vice chair) starts this discussion:

saltwater crocodile

In the early 1990s, a group and I witnessed our boat driver on Yellow Waters, Kakadu National Park, ram a crocodile.  On sighting the 3.5 m animal he ran the boat straight at it, hitting the crocodile hard in the middle of its body.  The crocodile leapt half its length out of the water in fright before disappearing.  We were all appalled.

The group was from a prestigious American academy of natural sciences, and included the president and several prominent scientists and writers. This was a pilot trip, the first of many, but the crocodile ramming put a stop to that.  The organiser had previously told me that the Academy had stopped their trips to Kenya after 20 years, because of the way people there treated wildlife.  Now the Northern Territory was being treated similarly.

The visitors and I weren’t the only people appalled at such behaviour, and yet, according to the driver, the ramming of crocodiles was “common practice”.  He told me that they, meaning the other guides “all did it”…. to give visitors “at thrill”.  The traditional owners of Kakadu were so angry at this and other mistreatment of their wildlife that they stated “better the tourists go and the crocodiles stay”.

To complain I first took the official route, raising a motion at the local tour operator’s association, that guides and operators use “non-intrusive methods” of showing guests wildlife.  It was soundly defeated, probably not helped by the fact that the boat driver’s employer was also president of the DRTA.  When I told the driver I’d be taking the matter up with his employer, he replied that his boss would back him up, and he was right.

I approached the parks authorities, the government and finally the police and the Ecotourism Association of Australia.  Nobody was prepared to take any action.  I wrote to Ros Kelly, then Federal Minister for the Environment, who virtually accused me of lying.  But I had witnesses, about twenty of them.

In the end I ran a campaign, writing to every prominent newspaper, magazine and journal.  The response from ordinary people, travellers, interstate parks associations and Aboriginal organizations was very supportive.  Several newspapers made a feature of the letter, and Australian Geographic asked me to write an opinion piece.  The New York Times and the BBC Wildlife Bulletin also featured the letter I was told (although I didn’t see it myself).  The only publication not to print the letter was the NT News  – the editor considered it libellous.

I was blacklisted in the NT because of the campaign, and since then, when I’ve tried to raise the issue of certain operators behaving irresponsibly, I’ve been accused of “professional jealousy”.

So I decided to alert potential visitors instead, writing a guide to guides for Earthfoot, a famous American website for cultural and natural history tourism.

Have others also experienced wildlife being mistreated? And if so, what can be done about operators and guides who behave badly?

Please leave a comment with your thoughts


  1. Thanks for finally writing about > Wildlife tourism operators behaving badly – what should we do?

    < Liked it!

    • We can let tour operators know directly that we don’t like the way animals are treated, and why, especially if it might just be a one-off occasion. If it seems common practice, or the incident was especially bad, they can be reported to tourism and/or animal welfare or conservation organisations. Right Tourism is an international group that keeps tabs on operators who do it right and those who don’t. We can also campaign for more stringent regulations and policing throughout the industry. Most wildlife tourism operators do have a genuine regard for animal welfare and conservation, and are a major force in educating the public, but there are others out there who lack the commitment or are simply ignorant of the needs of animals.

  2. yes, the only time I pick up animals in our own tours (Araucaria Ecotours) is if a reptile or frog (or occasional young lapwing) needs to be removed from the road for its own safety. There’s quite a lot on the WTA website you could start twith to find out about us, e.g. https://www.wildlifetourism.org.au/about/, https://www.wildlifetourism.org.au/about/guidelines/, https://www.wildlifetourism.org.au/blog/events/using-wildlife-for-tourism-national-workshop-2012 (details of our recent workshop), or just have fun exploring the various menus starting at https://www.wildlifetourism.org.au. Also our various blog entries.

    Apologies, I need some sleep now – attending the Global Eco Conference and about to give a talk tomorrow on what we would like to see over the next 10 years in wildlife tourism, and how we can help make it happen.

    Please feel free to ask any more specific questions any time, and if you are considering joining, go to https://www.wildlifetourism.org.au/membership-wta/join/,

  3. having been in tourism for about 10 years it is stupid to put it lightly what some guides do just to show there pax something different I have been eco guide accredited and doen other cerditation for myself but it all doesnt mean much when the one that runs after the animal then corners it and shows his group as it dies of heart attack in his hands is the one the operators want. I have always been a advacate of watching from a distance and take pictures but I will not pick up animals to show people it just scares the hell out of the animal.
    Can you please tell me more about your organisation as I am very interested how can I be invovled??

  4. As both a human being and an American I am absolutely disgusted by the tour operators behavior. If I had witnessed this in person I would have absolutely reported them!

    I have been on several backpacker tours and I was lucky to have had
    wonderful and very much respectful to nature and wildlife guides. In fact I
    remember one of them specifically telling us that his personal goal was to
    let us see Australia and it’s natural beauty — but to try to leave almost
    no trace of us being there. This should really be the mantra of all tour
    guides, everywhere.

  5. Hello,
    While I was not on the boat at this particular time, I have to say that I have been on the Yellow Waters Cruise several times since 1993, approximately 5 times and I have only seen the utmost respect for the animals and the environment in those times.
    Please don’t feel that I am disregarding what you witnessed or that I am defending the Yellow Waters Cruise operators, but I just wanted to let you know that I have not seen any ill treatment of any animal on the tours. Maybe your campaign worked?
    Good on you for taking it so far to protect our wildlife. Thank You.

  6. Sometimes my fellow man makes me sick to the core.
    I would contact A Current Affair or 7.30, together they reach most of the Australian audiance and they are always looking for good stories.

    cheers & good luck


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