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Shining a Light on Wildlife Tourism: An Interview With Asha de Vos and Martha Robbins

National Geographic Explorers Asha de Vos and Martha Robbins share how conservationists in the field keep their distance and respect the wildlife they're observing.

National Geographic magazine’s June 2019 issue covered the dark truth of wildlife tourism, raising questions like these: Why is it critical to keep wildlife wild? How can we respect the spaces and lives of animals? And how do wildlife conservationists balance working with wildlife and keeping their distance? We interviewed two National Geographic Explorers, marine biologist Asha de Vos and gorilla conservationist Martha Robbins, about how to respect animals in their homes.

Why is it important to give wildlife space?
Martha: It is important because wildlife are wild. As humans, we all like our personal space, and we expect strangers to give us that personal space. Wildlife are the same.

Also, wildlife—for example, wild gorillas—are naturally afraid of humans. Therefore, even if they are habituated to having humans at a close distance, they still have some inherent fear of humans. Getting too close to wild gorillas is a frightening, stressful experience for the gorillas and potentially dangerous for humans. Also, humans can transmit diseases to wildlife if we get too close.

Asha: Fundamentally, when we visit wildlife, we are visiting them in their homes. So it is more a matter of being respectful in their homes just as we would want to be respected in ours. Being respectful involves giving them space to do what they need to survive. More selfishly, we need to give wildlife their space so they can continue to provide the ecosystem services that we benefit from and that allow us to survive. This is a topic I care a lot about, which is why it was the subject of my Explorers Festival 2018 talk.

Marine biologist Asha de Vos in the field. Photo by Yasha Hetzel.

What precautions do you take when working with wildlife in your field?
Asha: When my team works with whales, we do what we can to minimize our impact on their behaviors. Either we find a group of whales and switch off our boat engines and observe, or if we need to track whales, we do so from a distance and thereby minimize our impacts. This is important to us as we try to understand why they behave the way they do. If we are fortunate to encounter a mother-calf pair, we switch off and do not follow them as we do not want to separate the pair—this could be life threatening for the calf.

Martha: There are set guidelines established by the IUCN for gorilla tourism, including no flash photography and no food or drink. You can’t smoke or litter. You must maintain a minimum distance of seven meters, and there is a maximum of eight visitors to each group of mountain gorillas.

These are just a few of the rules designed to help visitors respect the gorillas and keep the gorillas safe.

How can taking selfies with wildlife be harmful?
Martha: We live in the age of selfies, in which some people document their activities with photos on a regular basis. I can understand people’s desire to show their friends and family that they were able to get close enough to a wild gorilla to take a selfie, but taking such photos does not abide by the rules of staying at least seven meters away. Therefore, these selfies are likely causing the gorillas or other wildlife stress, increasing their risk of disease and also putting the people at risk.

My question is, if you want to be respected in your homes, why can’t you respect these animals in theirs?Asha de Vos

Asha: Selfies result in social media likes. Unfortunately, social media likes are social capital in today’s world. So people will go to any length, including breaking rules, to get more likes. Selfies make people blind to the reality of their surroundings, the risks they are taking and the impact they are having. Selfies with wildlife are always popular and accumulate likes easily because the species are often cute, exotic, rare, endangered…the list goes on. What most people don’t stop to think about is that in their effort to get more likes, they are causing stress to the species at hand and having a negative impact.

What should people know about how to responsibly and respectfully observe wildlife?
Martha: It is a privilege to see gorillas in the wild. Habituated gorillas let us into their world, and we should respect that. Wildlife tourism, specifically gorilla tourism, is a conservation strategy. It has been a successful means to help conserve gorillas. However, it also poses a risk to them and could be detrimental if not done properly. Therefore, gorilla tourism and all tourists visiting them should strive to put the gorillas’ well-being first, before money or an individual’s desire to get a little bit closer. Respect their personal space and the guidelines so we have gorillas for people to appreciate far into the future.

Asha: At the moment, most of our interactions with whales are akin to you or I inviting our family and friends over for a wonderful Sunday lunch, and a stranger comes crashing through the front door playing loud, cacophonous music and throwing garbage everywhere. It’s noisy, it stinks, the garbage is in your food and you are so afraid. My question is, if you want to be respected in your homes, why can’t you respect these animals in theirs?

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

National Geographic’s June cover story on wildlife tourism was funded by the National Geographic Society through Wildlife Watch, an investigative journalism project that reports on wildlife crime and exploitation.

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