Spotting Giants: Responsible Wildlife Watching Adventures in Asia

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To develop guidelines promoting responsible wildlife observing, World Animal Protection conducted a series of assessments of wildlife destinations across Asia focusing on areas where tourism has the potential to enhance the livelihoods of communities and benefit wildlife. The group tracked a range of wildlife species using a variety of live observation methods. Employing a standard wildlife-watching tool to record their observations, the team collected data about the composition of sightseeing groups, the time they spent near each group of wildlife, whether they responded to the wildlife when the latter did not engage with them, and whether they were commended to the site to wildlife by guides. They then scored wildlife destinations as well as the type of overall experiences related to live observation.

In Asia, many wildlife species are under severe threat due to habitat loss, poaching, pollution, and human-wildlife conflict. Some Asian governments now accept that the eco-tourism industry can help offset these threats and have invested in the creation of protected areas such as nature reserves or national parks. These are essential to saving endangered species. As government authorities continue their efforts to preserve wildlife, another critically important tool for sustainable conservation is ethical wildlife tourism. By ensuring that tourism can benefit wildlife in a responsible and ethical way, the conservation potential is greatly increased. For eco-tourism to succeed and benefit wildlife, the design of wildlife viewing must have the wildlife’s best interests.

Best Practices for Responsible Wildlife Watching

Be respectful. Observe quietly, avoid sudden movements, and stay together in a group. Most animals are less likely to be disturbed if approached steadily. Don’t get too close. Keep at a respectable distance from the animals – for their sake and yours! Humans can actually stress animals and make them sick if they get too close, especially in the case of primates like the gorillas some of our clients might see in the wild. If the animal changes its behavior or freaks out, you are too close. Always observe wildlife only from a distance to minimize stress on the animals. Be mindful of noise levels. Whistling, hooting, screeching, and loud chatter can disturb wildlife, especially around nesting sites. If you do bump into wildlife unexpectedly, avoid eye contact and back away slowly.

Do your research. If you want to see wildlife in Asia, consider attending one of the many wildlife and bird festivals taking place across the continent. These festivals aim to raise awareness about the importance of conservation by offering guided nature walks, bird watching trips, talks, presentations, photo exhibitions, and community events, giving participants the opportunity to learn from renowned Mexican and international bird experts. “We create a space for education and consciousness about the conservation of birds and biodiversity,” commented Amado Crotte, executive director of San Pancho Bird Observatory in Mexico. “Every year, the festival provides attendees with a fun learning experience and motivates the community to protect San Pancho and Riviera Nayarit, increasingly accommodating sustainable tourism models that directly benefit the area.”

Consider these tips and best practices for your next wildlife watching experience:

Choosing Ethical Wildlife Tours

Responsible wildlife tours are not the cheapest option for a holiday, and there are several reasons for this. The first reason why responsible tours are more expensive is which facilities they use. All ethical facilities breed their animals in the wild, at their own pace. This means that the price you pay is spent on all the following: the transfer to the hotel/village (most responsible facilities are located in remote, jungle locations), maintenance of a semi-wild area for the animals, food and enrichment of the animals, maintenance of the animals, and medical care for the animals. Unethical facilities that offer direct human contact with wild animals have been taken from the wild, where they have gone through a long and exhausting process to prepare them for tourism. Even a couple of hours of elephant riding or a dance show require months of mental and physical abuse before they can interact with humans. Since more staff are usually required for a tour to be responsible, the team is larger, and it is important to compensate each member of the team with a fair salary.

Initially, it was very difficult to understand which wildlife tours are truly ethical. Obviously, I did not want to find out later that the elephant riding I had participated in through Thailand for so long was not good for the elephant, but I had to think of a way to ensure that future animal encounters were as responsible as possible. In most cases, the wildlife day tours that can be booked at the popular tourist places are the least ethical. The more days your tour lasts, the wilder the experience. Private tours are usually more expensive, but promise a better experience, as they can be adapted to your needs. Most day tours include the round-trip transportation from the selected location, most of the important attractions, and lunch, allowing everyone to invest in a more sustainable type of tourism.

Respecting Animal Habitats

Minimizing environmental impact: To minimize environmental impacts, when visiting parks and protected areas, responsible travelers try to make minimum waste and recycle whenever possible, pick up any trash found, stick to marked trails to avoid trampling vegetation, use main roads whenever possible, and obey rules and regulations. Tour operators try to procure products and services from responsible providers as well as encourage efforts to promote sustainable practices. With respect to the visit to an animal shelter, don’t visit a shelter that allows you to touch, bathe, or take photos with animals, not even if it is in the name of conservation or raising awareness for wildlife.

Tourism can bring great benefits directly to the management of parks where wild animals can, in turn, have considerable strength. It is always better to visit parks that are managed by responsible entities, as well as adopt responsible behaviors while visiting these parks. Keeping safe distances from wild animals is essential to reduce stress, especially for species that become habituated to human presence. The habitat of animals must be respected, without venturing through vegetation to get better photographs. Fuel, especially waste, is enemy number one and must be collected and disposed of properly. The directives of the park personnel must always be respected, as only they have the necessary information to understand when and how to approach the animals, if available. Digital disposable products, both food and packaging, should be minimally used or completely eliminated as they can extremely pollute some environments.

Minimizing Disturbance to Wildlife

This barrier makes it difficult to talk about the implications of any given wildlife tourism experience. Determining the ethics of wildlife tourism is particularly challenging for the traveler, deliberate planning aside. Although there are numerous checklists, rankings, and certified operations that promote responsible wildlife tourism—defined widely as activities that conserve, educate about, and advocate for animals and are undertaken under the guidance of caring and conservation-minded organizations—potential visitors to wildlife sites may not have the background, experience, questions, or basic know-how required to gauge the implications of their wilderness experience. Furthermore, when planning a wildlife trip, visitors are often thousands of miles away and are not familiar with the local operators, nor the guidelines that they have on offer to ensure that folks keep their distance and respect the animals seen. As a result, eager tourists may unintentionally and obliviously engage in wildlife disturbances, despite avowing high levels of interest and admiration for wild creatures.

Wildlife watching can be enjoyable, educational, and even inspiring. It can deepen our appreciation and understanding of nature, and encourage the conservation of species and places. However, wildlife watching also carries the potential for significant negative impacts, particularly when wildlife is exploited. Many die-hard wildlife lovers and bird watchers balk at the thought of exploiting the animals they love, but don’t consider the lasting implications of behavior that looks benign in comparison to, say, wildlife poaching. One of the challenges in highlighting the impact that wildlife tourism can have on both animals and the environment is that effects are often long-term and unpredictable. They may not be readily and consistently observable like poaching.

Popular Wildlife Watching Destinations in Asia

Kanha: Jungle safaris.

Bandhavgarh: The very best place to see wild tigers in India.

NWNP: Birdwatching, drives inside the park, tiger spotting, and a visit to Chambal sanctuary.

North to South Activities – All the 4 parks offer many activities to understand the rich flora and fauna of the country, as well as the challenges encountered by the poor people living around the park. Village walks, safari drives, elephant rides, birdwatching, canoeing, and generally enjoying the serene surroundings.

Chitwan National Park: Located in the Terai Lowlands of Nepal, the park has a subtropical jungle that is home to many species of unique flora and fauna. The park is best known for its Bengal tiger, as well as the habitat of the one-horned rhinoceros. Chitwan has a community-based visitor program called the Community Based Anti-Elephant Tiger Task Force, where a team of elephants and their mahouts help the rangers control wildlife crime in the park. Interesting fact: Chitwan National Park was the first national park in Nepal, established in 1973.

India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indo-China, Malaysia, and Islands: The heart of the Indian subcontinent is home to a variety of species, from charismatic mammals like tigers and leopards to bird species like kingfishers, parrots, thousands of buntings, as well as amphibians and reptiles. Do consider a visit to the valleys of the Himalayas in Nepal and Bhutan to photograph the Himalayan range, visit monasteries, as well as spot blue whales off the islands on the coast of Sri Lanka and Maldives. Please remember to behave responsibly at all times where wildlife is concerned.

Exploring the Jungles of Borneo

There is no better way to experience Borneo than staying in virgin forest at the award-winning, world-renowned Borneo Rainforest Lodge, which is booked exclusively through your tour operator. Like other tours promoted by your responsible travel company, enjoy an outdoor event in a nearby rural village where about 200 people of a minimum of 30 families reside. By having a short stay in one of the homes in the village, you will be able to interact with families, learn about their customs, way of life, their farming methods for cash crops, and wild honey. Also, your responsible tour operator believes in helping the community to help themselves through eco-tourism by providing nature guiding services as an alternative source of income.

Spread across three countries, Borneo’s jungles are home to a fantastic variety of wildlife, from clouded leopards to pygmy elephants. A haven for birdwatchers, Borneo is home to eight species of hornbills who make an unforgettable sight when wheeling through the sky in pairs. Visiting the Borneo Rainforest Lodge offers wildlife enthusiasts a luxurious way to explore the jungles. Walk along a canopy walkway to bird spots, cruise along calm jungle rivers, and become an intrepid explorer spending a night in the jungle with the Field Centre. Those who are more adventurous at heart but are restricted by time can enjoy a three-day, two-night Kinabatangan Wildlife Adventure.

Witnessing Elephants in Sri Lanka

Witnessing Elephants in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a small, tropical island nation off the southern tip of India. It is known for its diverse landscapes that range from rainforest and arid plains, to highlands and sandy beaches. It is equally famous for its ancient Buddhist ruins, including the 5th century fort at Sigiriya. The country possesses several millennia worth of culture and history, making it a fascinating destination to experience. Moreover, wildlife, including elephants that feed on a diversity of vegetation that spans both very wet and very dry forests that are present on the island, are a very common sight. Indeed, among the terrestrial animals, the elephant is the most prominent, along with the leopard. Although there are other places, there is only one country in the world where you might spot elephants while on the road, by sticking your head through the open window of your rented car. True to Sri Lanka, surprisingly, and possibly slightly dangerously, no sign warns you that a spontaneous elephant gathering will be around the corner. However, the presence of more than 7,500 elephants is quite explainable.

Spotting Giants: Responsible Wildlife Watching Adventures in Asia. The chapters included in this book reflect the diversity of cruises and safaris in Asia. They span from watching wildlife while sailing along big rivers, up to spotting animals amidst some of the most spectacular sceneries in the world, to observing rare species of mammals and birds in pristine habitats. Touching the aspect of responsibility, it is, incidentally, our aim to introduce the reader to options with a more favorable ecological and social balance than those most tourists may end up with. Many people are not aware of the impacts some methods of watching wildlife may have on the visited destinations, on the species that the tourists travel to see, and on the tourists themselves. It is, therefore, useful to consider, in the inspirational phase of trip booking, thoughts about the cruises and safaris we are promoting with this book. The highlights of a wildlife adventure are not limited to exotic animals. The following chapter takes us to a place that is considered a living paradise on earth by many people.

Tracking Tigers in India

Tiger tracking was banned for years, and the conservationists did not subscribe to the idea that the locals shared a symbiotic relationship with the tigers. They believed that the former had endangered the animal’s life by continuously laying an ambush to kill them. The Forest Department banned the entry of the locals and their cattle into the forests so that the animal felt that the forests belonged to them alone. However, recent studies suggest that the improvement in the condition of the tiger occurred only through conservation measures and not because of strict anti-poaching measures. After such disasters, today the Indian government and such bodies related to wildlife countries encourage eco-friendly projects and safari trips that involve locals to benefit from the tourism and support the conservation of tigers.

In India, tigers and humans have a long and complex association. The people have always had awe and reverence towards the tiger and have lived in harmony by sharing the forests with them. This is why many village deities are given the form of tigers. In fact, half of India’s tigers roam in the area around River Ganga in Northern and Central India, and the locals boast of an ancient world where the tiger was so abundant that the human and the beast coexisted. Both revered each other, and in such a scenario, the Royal Bengal Tiger is seen as an asset.

Spotting Orangutans in Indonesia

Thankfully, there are safe havens that rescue injured or orphaned orangutans. The best such facilities combine animal welfare with eco-tourism. In Sumatra, which also hosts orangutans, the best-known rehabilitation centre at Bukit Lawang is located in the Gunung Leuser National Park. Support it by venturing upstream of Bukit Lawang to enjoy a jungle breakfast of boiled eggs, then float downstream on inner tubes. Only consider tours of the Gunung Leuser National Park by recommended agencies. These adventures would also immerse you into the orangutans’ rainforest abode. The centre in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, that’s closest to Singapore would be the one at Matang, only minutes away from rich coastal mangroves and the same distance from Kubah National Park, a forest reserve with a stunning assortment of frogs.

Along with the Amazon rainforest and the wilds of Africa, Indonesia’s rainforests are among the last regions of wilderness. They are also the only remaining habitat of the magnificent orangutans. These great orange apes – the only apes native to Asia – are also rainforest gardeners that play an essential role in rainforest regeneration. However, that role is at risk as the orangutans fall prey to logging operations and the palm oil industry. Further pressure on the orangutans comes from a black market in illegally acquired pets. Unlike the African gorillas, which can be far more easily raised in captivity, orangutans prove fierce and difficult.

Conservation Efforts and the Future of Wildlife Watching in Asia

As the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our health, jobs, and lives, it has also devastated the travel, hospitality, and tourism industry worldwide. This especially put marginalized rural communities at risk of relapsing after years of hard-won conservation gains, particularly when illegal hunting might rise in response to decreased wildlife watching revenue. Therefore, it is even more important that we choose to spend our tourism monies with wildlife tour operators who uphold responsible principles through positive conservation impacts of their tours that not only satisfy the requirements of a discerning wildlife watcher but also the community that coexists with their wildlife. Be wary of free-for-all or defunct wildlife watching experiences offered by unscrupulous wildlife tour operators. Over the years, some operators have unethically over-commercialized wildlife viewing sites, where large numbers of tourists overrun ecologically sensitive areas and sensitive wildlife. With no regard for the consequences on our global wildlife populations, these wildlife watchers are often guilty of uncontrolled off-road driving, excessive noisy behavior, and the tossing of harmful cigarette butts, trash, and leftover food, causing further damage to the preserved natural heritage of wildlife in Asia.

It is clear that as visitors to Asia, we play an important role in conservation efforts and Asia travel necessitates responsible tourism to protect the region’s remarkable species. Direct and indirect benefits from wildlife watching have been critically important for many species and habitats in Asia. The number of conservation success stories, and the increase in wildlife populations surrounding protected areas in Asia due to nature tourism, are testimony to the fact that the benefits of non-consumptive tourism are considerable. Wildlife often serves as a flagship for broader ecotourism ventures, which in turn help raise awareness and funds, further promoting the sustainability of these wildlife conservation projects. Thus, as a critical and influential player, your choice of wildlife tour operator for permissible photographic activities in Asia has far more positive implications than you might imagine. Their support reassures that these hard to spot, rare and distant often Ian mammals have uncovered an important contribution to the local tourism industry.