5 Things to Consider Before Choosing a Wildlife Conservation Vacation

NOTE: This is a guest post from Brad Nahill, Co-Founder of SEE Turtles and SEEtheWILD.

Ecotourism, green travel, sustainable tourism — call it what you will. Whatever its title, reducing the negative impacts of travel is one of the fastest growing parts of the tourism market and one that has the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions, support low-income communities, and benefit efforts to protect endangered animals.

Unfortunately, so far, the impact of travel (whether good or bad) on wildlife has been an afterthought for most travelers. Tourism and the infrastructure it requires can destroy wildlife habitat, worsen climate change, result in litter and other pollution, and increase stress on wild animals. When done carefully, however, what we call “wildlife conservation travel” can also help wildlife in several ways, including generating funds for local conservation groups and providing volunteer help. Perhaps the biggest way that conservation travel can help endangered animals is by creating economic benefits for local residents who otherwise would earn a living by fishing, hunting, or other activities that harm animals.

As you plan your next vacation, here are some things to think about before you decide where to go and what activities to do.

1. Is the destination a wildlife hotspot?

According to Conservation International, about half of the world’s species live in “biodiversity hotspots” which take up less than 5 percent of the world’s land. If you go to one of these spots, read up on which animals live there and look for opportunities to visit research and conservation programs. Some of these programs may offer short-term volunteer programs where you will get an experience that few travelers get to participate in. Many of these programs work through tour operators that offer these experiences while taking care of your transport, food, and accommodations.

2. Does Your Tour Operator Support Conservation and Local Communities?

If you decide to travel through a tour operator, do your research to make sure they actively support environmental and social projects in the places they go. Some operators will offer discounts for travelers who donate to funds that they set up to support these community groups, a great example is the Travelers Conservation Trust set up by Wildland Adventures. Most of the operators who truly support these programs will be transparent about who they donate to.

If you don’t see that information, make sure you ask the operator what they do to support wildlife conservation. After all, if their business is based on travelers going to Africa to see lions or India to see tigers, shouldn’t they want to make sure those animals will always be around? If they can’t answer that question, let them know that you’ll be looking elsewhere; there’s no better way to motivate a company to improve their practices.

3. Does Your Operator Go Beyond Donations?

Giving money is one of the easier ways to support wildlife. Other questions to ask operators are if they support environmental protection and residents in ways other than donations. Do they offer volunteer programs? Employ people from nearby communities and use locally-owned hotels and restaurants? Do they advocate for wildlife protection or participate in efforts to improve tourism practices? One of the best examples of going beyond donations is Canada’s Maple Leaf Adventures. In addition to donations, their founder Kevin Smith has been a leader in setting tourism standards for the Haida Gwaii Islands and promoting bear watching over bear hunting in British Columbia.

4. Do Your Vacation Plans Include Activities That Could Harm Wildlife?

Now that you know the animals that live where you are going and how much your operator supports them, the next thing to think about is if the activities you do and places you stay might impact local wildlife. Are you staying in a high-rise chain hotel on a turtle nesting beach? If so, you might want to look for a locally-owned cabin away from where the turtles come. If you plan to use jet skis or boats, make sure to stay away from habitat for manatees and other animals, drive slowly, and obey all regulations. Check out our Turtle Watching Guide for ways to prevent impacts to turtles on nesting beaches and at sea. The Coral Reef Alliance also has several guides for travelers.

5. Stay Off the Beaten Path

Many of the most popular places to see wildlife become overrun with tourists, encouraging uncontrolled development which impacts wildlife habitat. However, by doing a little research, you can usually find other places to see that animal that don’t get nearly so much traffic. There are dozens of turtle nesting beaches in Costa Rica, yet the vast majority go to Tortuguero National Park. Instead of following the crowds to see lions in Kenya, think about places like Mozambique or Namibia’s Communal Conservancies for your next African safari.

About SEE Turtles – Brad started SEE Turtles with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols to build the market for sea turtle conservation tourism. Since its launch in 2008, the project has generated more than $250,000 in support for turtle conservation and nearby communities, educated millions about turtle conservation travel, and our volunteers have filled more than 1,000 shifts at turtle nesting beaches. Brad co-founded SEEtheWILD in 2011 to offer travel experiences that support wildlife conservation efforts.

Photo by Neil Ever Osborne


Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Can the impact on the environment be minimised?

Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Asiatic Lion
Asiatic Lion5 years ago

the big corps always bully the little ones...its happening here in india too....

Danuta W.
Danuta W5 years ago

Thanks for the information

Urban A.
Urban A.5 years ago

Indigenous populations need to be protected too, and not suffer in the name of wildlife protection as have the Kalahari Bushmen: On the grounds that their hunting and gathering has become obsolete and their presence is no longer compatible with preserving wildlife resources, they were persecuted by the government in order to make them leave the reserve. To get rid of them, they have had their water supplies cut off, they have been taxed, fined, beaten, and tortured as per land clearing requests by De Beers.

In Botswana, a long dispute has existed between the interests of the mining company, De Beers, and the relocation of the Bushman tribe from the land, in order to exploit diamond resources. The Bushmen have been facing threats from government policies since at least 1980, when the diamond resources were discovered.
A campaign is being fought in an attempt to bring an end to what the indigenous rights organization, Survival International considers it to be a genocide of a tribe that has been living in those lands for tens of thousands of years.

Richard S.
Past Member 5 years ago

The choice between "leave these environments alone, leave them to nature", and "spending responsibly" to support conservation is a difficult one. My experience, over the years, has been that a good number of natural wonders, and indeed historic ones, have only survived human expansion because people will pay to come and see them. They have become important sources of employment and income to the local people. They are conserved because they are valuable.

Tread soft on the land. Make your visit as low impact as possible, and make sure that as much of the money you are spending as possible goes into the local communities and into support for the environment you are visiting.
There are now quite a few travel operators specialising in this kind of travel, and I've personally found Responsible Travel a great clearing house for trips of this kind. I've also found that low impact eco-travel actually ends up giving you a more connected experience with the environment than you might get from an all singing, all dancing, luxury holiday, and you tend to get to share more time and experiences with the locals.

Genoveva M.
Genoveva M M5 years ago

Great article, and useful information. Thanks

Aoife L.
Aoife L5 years ago

great article, thanks

Danny Wilson
Danny Wilson5 years ago

Wow that's a big turtle!

Will Rogers
Will Rogers5 years ago

If all you people really cared, you would not visit any of these places. The only problem these animals and environments have are you lot, fat tourists want to see a snow leopard in it's own environment. Look just because you want to see it doesn't mean that you have to see it! Really it doesn't. Especially when the impact of these observations are known to be destructive. Look there's enough footage of everything, we can see everything if we want. Honestly it's like watching 5 year olds oohing and awwing. Big smelly sweaty 5'10 babies stumbling through kicking and scuffling every untrodden path, coming back and boasting about where they've been, what they saw, showing you the bits of coral that they've broken off, a trinket made out of horn, a bracelet made from elephant hair, an aeroplane made from shells etc. Where we find poor countries geared up to please and satisfy rich tourists who don't care about the places they're visiting. You know... You have been visiting a place for years and you love it because it is unspoilt and backward, the people are poor and barefoot and polite, also friendly and helpful, wonderful! But when you go back the next year. The view you see on your beautiful morning walk is now marred by new shacks and houses and is becoming more like your homeland every day. Then you come back home and tell me that you will not be going there any more because it is not unspoilt anymore, you are going to have to find somewhere else to go and how bad it is that