Are you a wildlife tourist? [Research]

  1. Why should you care?

Ever been on a vacation where you have had the opportunity to get upclose and personal with some native wildlife? Perhaps you went to Hawaii and saw a sea-turtle laying lazily near the beach. Maybe you went to the Galapagos and got to hang out with some sun-bathing iguanas. Or maybe you simply visited a local zoo where you were surrounded by wild animals in captivity. Regardless of what type of wildlife encounter you experienced – have you ever considered what impact this could have to both the animals being viewed as well as yourself and others?

While you might have simply thought you were getting to hang out with some cool wildlife, what you were actually participating in is a widely studied environmental topic known as Wildlife Tourism. Wildlife tourism is defined as “tourism based on encounters with non-domesticated (non-human) animals… that occur in either the animals’ natural environment or in captivity.”

The focus of such encounters should be to positively impact your knowledge of the wildlife you are viewing and its importance within its natural ecosystem. Additionally, wildlife tourism is now created to increase yours (and other tourists’) emotional connections to nature. However, many scientists are still trying to understand just what impacts wildlife tourism has on the public, how to improve those impacts, and how to prevent possibly overexploiting animals while attempting to educate the public. (As you can see – this activity you were participating in is a much bigger deal than you probably realized at the time!)

By combining hands-on wildlife encounters with thorough educational messages, wildlife tourism has the potential to create more long-term prowildlife attitudes amongst the public. However, it is also imperative that the impact humans have on wildlife during tourism activities is firstly considered. Without consideration for the well-being of the animal, even the best educational messages can prove harmful for wildlife. Picking up, getting too close, or overwhelming animals in captive and or natural environments might seem fun to us – but can actually be frightening and damaging to the animals themselves.

A proper balance must be creted when using wildlife as tourism focal points. This balance should increase tourist knowledge of wildlife value while reducing any potential negative impacts to wildlife while doing so. Without consideration for human generated impacts to wildlife, tourists can unintentionally be mislead by “unnatural” behaviors displayed by wildlife under stress. For this reason it is important to consider the pros and cons of wildlife tourism before creating a program involving wild animals.

So, next time you are on vacation and engaging in wildlife tourism related activities – remember to carry the messages you learn back home with you and to take action! But while you experiencing that amazing wildlife encounter –  consider the long-term impact you will have on the  wildlife you are viewing – just as the wildlife will impact you!

2. Why was this study carried out?

 Because wildlife tourism is aimed at positively impacting the attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge of humans towards wildlife – it is important that exactly how tourists are impacted after wildlife encounters is understood. Without a clear understanding of the long-term impact of wildlife tourism – creating safe, sustainable, educational, and valuable wildlife tourism based operations will remain a challenge.

This study identifies how human attitudes and actions are impacted by wildlife encounters while providing information on how to continue designing and managing sustainable and effective wildlife tourist experiences.

3. How was the study carried out?

Tourists to either an aquarium, a marine-based theme park, a turtle viewing encounter, or a whale watching trip were asked to respond to a survey four months after participating in one of the above wildlife based activities. A total of 240 tourists responded to final surveys providing a large amount of textual data to be considered. This data was analyzed using qualitative methods to determine what were common themes, ideas, and impressions that tourists brought up regarding their different experiences.

4. What were the results of the study?

Four main categories emerged through survey response analysis. Examples and brief explanations of responses within each of the four categories from certain individuals are listed below:

1.     SENSORY IMPRESSIONS (what visitors saw and heard during their wildlife tourism event)

  •   “… the strength and grace, the swimming motion of the whales…”
  •  “Being able to touch the sea creatures in the rock pools…”

In particular, being able to touch the animals during certain activities made a lasting impression on visitors. Interestingly, visitors also included the importance of their surroundings towards the experience – such as the feel of the breeze and the sound of the waves.

 2.     EMOTIONAL RESPONSES (what visitors felt during their wildlife tourism event)

  •   “My strongest memory while viewing the turtles was the feeling of watching this incredible experience unfold before me.”
  •   Seeing a straggling turtle hatchling fighting its way out to sea…”

The emotions felt by some visitors conveyed a sense of empathy and emotional connection with the animals. Many suggested that they understood the animals feelings and well-being when viewing an animal up close.

 3.     REFLECTIVE RESPONSES (what visitors thought during their wildlife tourism event)

  • “I saw the turtles walk to the see and I felt that humans need to protect them; the world is for all of us.”
  • “The feeling of insignificance that I had as a human watching the wonderful creatures… It made me much more aware of the cycle of life that surrounds us…”

When combined with emotional responses, reflective responses appeared to have the most powerful impact on visitors. The wildlife experience also created appreciation for the many environmental issues surrounding the wildlife being viewed. Interestingly, information given about the dangers facing wildlife was remembered more often than simple facts about the wildlife themselves.

 4.     BEHAVIORAL RESPONSES (what actions visitors have taken since their wildlife tourism event)

  •   “I certainly do not use as many plastic bags and I am very careful about what goes down our drains.”
  •  “I refuse to buy anything Japanese until they stop their senseless slaughter of whales.”

Certain respondents explained they had taken direct action towards decreasing their impact on the environment due to the wildlife tourism event they participated in. Many also desired to seek further information and ensure that they informed others of the need for environmental change. Others also began to take more personal responsibility than they previously had for their actions impacting wildlife.

 Overall results suggest that long lasting memories can be created when strong emotions are felt at the time of wildlife encounter. Emotional experiences provoked deeper thought, leading to a deeper concern for wildlife and nature as a whole. Interestingly, the extent to which visitors reported reflecting on their wildlife experiences predicted their likelihood of having more long-term memory of the event.

 Final Thoughts:

When designing wildlife tourism programs – tourist sight, sound, smell, and touch must all be impacted. Visitors should be able to get close to animals without compromising animal well-being or view the animal in a more “non-captive” setting. Encouraging visitors to reflect on their wildlife encounter and talk amongst others is also beneficial to the purpose of wildlife tourism. Lastly, visitors should be provided with outside resources that can extend their learning and provide ways that they can stay motivated and involved.

5. Want to know more details?

What do you think? Any questions? Please send them my way in the comment box below and I will do my best to find out the answers for you or to just respond back.

Also, check out the original article, Visitors’ Memories of Wildlife Tourism: Implications for the design of powerful interpretive experiences, if you would like to view a more detailed version of the information summarized in sections 2-4 above.

Authors: Roy Ballantyne, Jan Packer, Lucy Sutherland

Published: 2011 by Tourism Management

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