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4 Ways to Respectfully Observe Wildlife When Travelling!

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As avid travellers, we know that one of the most exciting things about discovering new destinations is the array of curious and captivating wildlife you can often find there!

Depending on your budget (and your appetite for adventure), you can spot orca pods off Vancouver Island, orangutans in the dense rainforests of Borneo or golden eagles soaring over the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland.

But while these experiences can undoubtedly be spectacular, they’ll only be possible for future generations if we respect, preserve and protect the varied species we encounter on our travels, from the microscopic to the mammoth. If your travel plans are likely to include something a little on the wilder side this year, make sure you know how to enjoy everything the natural world has to offer while minimizing your impact on it. 

Here, I’ve included 4 essential tips with the help of Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to help you respectfully observe wildlife while you’re travelling, this is especially helpful if you have kids so you can teach them what to do and what not to do.

Best Way To Observe Wildlife

how to protect wildlife
Whale Spotting in Dominica was an amazing way to see Whales whilst not getting too close!

1. Do your research

Though wildlife tourism provides vital income for its communities and can often aid local conservation efforts, there can be negative consequences for the environment (and the wildlife itself) if it’s not done with care and respect. Wildlife tourism doesn’t always equate to ethical tourism. Before you travel, make sure you research your trip thoroughly so you’re not unwittingly endangering yourself or the local wildlife. 

In many far-flung destinations, tour operators offer a multitude of experiences that allow travelers to have up close encounters with the local wildlife, from cage diving with sharks in South Africa to elephant safaris in Sri Lanka. These experiences can be unforgettable, but don’t go ahead and book with doing a little digging first. Is the tour operator reputable? Do they prioritize the safety of tourists as well as wildlife? Read reviews from previous clients, and lean on the knowledge of locals.

Ecotourism (which involves sustainable travel, often in the name of conservation and education) is a great way to combine incredible wildlife experiences with a focus on the protection and preservation of animal populations. You can even volunteer overseas (from sea turtle conservation in Mexico to howler monkey rehabilitation in Argentina) if you’re especially passionate about the plight of a particular animal or species. 

how to protect wildlife, sea turtle conservation in Mexico
Sea turtle conservation in Mexico is a really popular way to help!

2. Look, don’t touch

This should go without saying, but rule number one when encountering wildlife on your travels is to remember this: it’s called wild-life for a reason. Though it might be tempting to get up close and personal for a more intimate experience, it’s always best to keep your distance and observe from afar. Get too close, and you risk putting yourself and the animal in potential danger. 

If a wild animal feels threatened, it could become distressed or even aggressive (the most innocent-looking critters can pack a serious bite when cornered), while there are obvious health risks to consider when humans come into contact with animals. To avoid unnecessary danger or distress, pack a pair of binoculars from a reputable place like RSPB and get that ‘up close’ experience from a safe distance. 

 how to protect wildlife, binoculars
Binoculars are a great way to get close to an animal but not be close!
 how to protect wildlife, baby elephant

3. Don’t feed

Though Paddington Bear might have taught us otherwise, animals rarely have a taste for human food. So while you might think it’d be fun to watch a wild animal munching on a marmalade sandwich, feeding them is rarely a good idea. Since they often have very complex, specific diets, human food isn’t likely to be very nutritious for our wild companions, and in fact it can be very harmful

Giving snacks to wildlife also runs the risk that those animals come to associate humans with food. Many animals (even the cutest, furriest ones) can become a little more overconfident when there’s food around; did you know, for instance, that squirrels are the number one cause of injuries at the Grand Canyon (mainly because they’ve become accustomed to pestering humans in search of a snack)?

Not only that, but feeding can also alter the distribution patterns of animals. If they’re drawn to a particular area by the promise of a regular (but unhealthy) food source, these unnatural conditions could cause confusion or injury, particularly if a large number of animals are gathering there. It’s best to keep the snacks in your bag and out of the reach of hungry critters.

 how to protect wildlife, Swan at park
You don’t have to be somewhere exotic to think about this point, not feeding the ducks at the local pond applies here!

4. Leave nothing behind

The final piece of advice (and one of the most important) is this: if you bring it with you, take it with you. Litter and other items left behind by humans can entrap, entangle and, in the worst cases, even kill a wild animal, not to mention the devastating effect it can have on the natural landscape (and not just from an aesthetic point of view).

Some of the statistics we’ve come across regarding discarded litter make for pretty grim reading. Like this one: if you lined up all the cigarette butts that are dropped on the floor every year, they’d stretch to the moon and back 117 times (that’s 90 million kilometers!). Cigarette butts, glass bottles, plastic bags, tin cans, food wrappers, even chewing gum: all of these have the potential to endanger wildlife if you don’t dispose of them properly.

If you’re picnicking on an idyllic beach, for example, make sure you pack away or dispose of your rubbish when you leave. There’s something like 150 million tonnes of plastic already in our oceans, so don’t add to that by leaving behind plastic bags, bottles or containers. These can take hundreds of thousands of years to fully break down, and pose an ongoing threat to the futures of marine wildlife and coastal ecosystems.

 how to protect wildlife, garbage in park
Don’t contribute to this!

Before you set off on a wild adventure this year (whether it’s trekking the Dorset coast or hiking the mountains of Pakistan), take a moment to think about your potential impact on the natural world around you. Being able to observe wildlife in its natural habitat is a privilege, so please make sure you respect it — otherwise it might not stick around for future generations to enjoy!