Watch out! with More and More Tour Companies Offering Travellers the Chance to Visit Rare and Exotic Animals, Questions Are Being Raised about the Adverse Effects of Wildlife-Watching Holidays. So How Can You Ensure That Your Trip Is Admirably Animal-Friendly?

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No matter how many wildlife documentaries you've seen, nothing can prepare you for the moment you first see a mountain gorilla in the wild. Squatting among the dense foliage, weighing some 200 kilograms and nearly two metres tall (when standing upright), with deep set eyes, a mass of coarse black fur and bulging muscles, an adult silverback mountain gorilla is a fearsome sight. Yet once you've reeled from the terror of being so close to this huge wild animal, you quickly become mesmerised by it. The shock turns to awe. Most people spend their entire allotted time (usually one hour) transfixed.

Where once observing raw animal behaviour in remote locations was the privilege of patient wildlife film-makers and scientists, an increasing number of guided wildlife trips will take you to observe some of the most amazing creatures on Earth. However, while many wildlife-watching holidays, such as the gorilla trips in Rwanda and Uganda, are responsibly managed, not all wildlife encounters are as good for the animals as they are for you.

ADVERSE EFFECTS

A report published in 2006 by the UN Environment Programme and the Secretariat of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals looked at the benefits and risks of tourism for wildlife. Some of the featured case studies included butterfly watching in Mexico, turtle watching in Brazil, cheetah safaris in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park and shallow-water snorkelling with stingrays in the Cayman Islands. As well as highlighting best practice, the report noted that 'wildlife watching tourism can have adverse effects on wildlife in three main ways--by causing changes in their behaviour, to their physiology, or damage to their habitats' and concluded that 'with the continued expansion of wildlife watching, and the increasing impacts and risks this poses for watched animal populations and their habitats, it is important to ensure that future management of wildlife watching tourism, and associated development of tourism facilities and infrastructure, is better planned and far more systematic than has often been the case in the past'.

As well as the risk associated with tourists getting too close to wild animals, the report said that 'the general background levels of activity in areas where wildlife watching takes place can have significant effects on watched animal populations ... One detailed study found that general patterns of behaviour of dolphins in a popular dolphin-watching site in New Zealand were affected--showing less feeding and social interaction--even when animals were not being observed by tourists.'

OVER-ENTHUSIASM

Grahame Madge, spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), says there's concern that some populations of birds in Europe and North Africa are being disturbed by over-enthusiastic birdwatchers. He points to the threat from birdwatchers to the dwindling population of bald ibis in Morocco as a classic example. Fewer than 300 birds remain, yet Madge says there have been allegations that the colony has been disturbed by birdwatchers trying to get a closer sighting or a better photo. 'We would want to restore the population, and any additional disturbances, such as pushing birds off the nesting ledge, where they may be vulnerable to predation or other factors, is a serious concern,' he says.

Madge says the RSPB's advice for how to be a more responsible birdwatcher is twofold. 'First, we say try not to put the wildlife that you've gone to see under additional stress in order to get photos or a better view. Sometimes you just have to make do with a distant view. The second thing is to be careful about additional threats that you may pose to the species, for example bringing nonnative species to the area that you are travelling to. A major concern at the moment is people taking hand luggage, camera bags and other equipment that may inadvertently be spreading non-native species through seeds attached to mud on socks and walking boots, and the Velcro fastenings on equipment. …