Wildlife watching is an essential human activity. We did it back when finding enough to eat was the main concern of each day. We did it when real science began to rapidly expand our comprehension of the natural world. We do it now because, well, sometimes the zoo just doesn't cut it.
The wildlife watcher willing to make the long trek to Komodo National Park in Indonesia is rewarded with sightings of the six- to eight-foot-long Komodo dragons, the largest lizards in the world and a species that's found nowhere else. While related to monitor lizards, the Komodo dragon reaches its huge size because it has no natural enemies in its isolated range. On the islands in the park where the dragons live, guided treks range from three hours to full days, and bring visitors close to these beasts whose horrendous bite commands caution.
Here, and at most of the park and programs highlighted below, profits are put back into the park to support conservation work and community-based tourism development. According to its director of tourism, Marcus Matthews-Sayer, there are plans to eventually introduce overnight visits. “We’re looking at developing a luxury camping option that would allow visitors to explore that island in the company of a ranger, guide and porter who would carry and set up a tent for overnight stays in the park—something not currently available to guests.”
Another big beast unique to its location is the coastal brown bear of Alaska. The McNeil River Sanctuary, on the southwestern coast, is supported by public and private funds and permit fees. Few places allow human eyes to gaze upon as many brown bears in a single location, accessible by easy hiking. The bears gather on the river to dine on spawning salmon, and give viewers plenty of time to observe their social interactions and fishing methods. No matter how strong a connection you might feel to these brown bruins, or how easy-going and even human-like they may seem, getting close to the bears isn’t an option. The brownies need their space, and bear watching at McNeil is restricted to very specific locations. Bring binoculars and a telephoto lens.
For those who want to see one of Africa’s greats—the elephant—a Tanzania safari coordinated by the World Wildlife Fund presents multiple opportunities. Sightings of lions, giraffes, hippos, wildebeests, hornbills, water buffaloes and numerous other species are frequent in various parks and preserves where the number of human interlopers is carefully regulated.
“With the big African animals, you do really need to keep your distance,” says Debra Eliezer, director of WWF Membership Travel. "No one is venturing too close, and the wildlife viewing is done from vehicles because it’s not all that safe to go out on foot." The largest problem facing conservation-oriented programs is their popularity. "[C]ertain destinations attract huge numbers of people and too many people ruin the experience. Antarctica is a major example of that. Wildlife-viewing operators are always trying to find the balance where we don’t feel like we’re part of the problem.”
You can get a good deal closer to Rwanda’s mountain gorillas without negatively impacting their habitat. Guided treks up the dense mountainsides of northern Rwanda’s Parc Nationale des Volcans reward the wildlife watcher who can move carefully and quietly, and sit still for significant periods of time. Here, you’re in the gorillas' living room. The program requires conservation fees from visitors, but these funds are channeled back into the community.
“We started out just trying to save gorillas," says Bill Weber, a senior conservationist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and author of "In the Kingdom of Gorillas," a book about his involvement with the program. "But you have to share that money with local people." This particular program, he says, “has lived up to its reputation." In fact, five percent of the program's revenues are shared with ten communities living around Rwanda’s national parks.
Weber offers basic rules for wildlife watchers trying to arrange an environmentally responsible trip. 1) Find an operation that carefully controls the number of visitors and their activities. 2) Make sure the funds collected are used to help national and local authorities improve conservation efforts within the country. 3) Check that local communities are helped by or involved in wildlife watching and conservation.
With careful planning and responsible travel, wildlife-watching expeditions can not only feed the animal impulses that are increasingly dormant inside us, but may even benefit the surrounding environment.