1. What was it that first sparked your interest in conservation and ecotourism before it became the ‘in-thing’?
From early childhood I spent a lot of time with our pet dogs and other animals, loved walking along beaches finding shells and sponges and trying to imagine their lives in the water, visiting forests and zoos, and reading books about animals and jungles. Seeing trees felled and harmless spiders killed always troubled me, and seeing so many people bored with life baffled me when there are so many fascinating things on our planet. As a teenager I spent a week at a holiday farm that was very poorly run but could see the potential, and after leaving school I started (long story) and ran a holiday farm for almost three years, including nature studies and games, bushwalks, horse-riding, campfire
singalongs and a small natural history museum. Later when fulltime academia was impossible (another long story) I wanted to start something between a field study centre and a holiday farm, heard the word “ecotourism” and started running ecotours to show the government there was economic value in wildlife and wilderness, and to encourage our guests to appreciate them for their
own intrinsic values.
2. You have so many incredible years of experience in conservation and sustainable tourism. To date, what has been the highlight of your career?
It’s hard to choose just one, but it has been gratifying to hear that my book on wildlife tourism has been used to train guides in several countries, which means that others may be assisted in their own efforts to achieve the same goals, thus having a wider influence than just what I can do personally.
3. You’ve conducted numerous research throughout your career. Which research has been
your favourite one conducting?
Frugivory and seed dispersal because I can indulge several interests – behaviour, ecology, evolution and conservation, and it involves the complexity of thinking not just of particular species when planning conservation management strategies but interactions between species. Can I briefly mention a second” I spent some time studying the play behaviour of chimpanzees in zoos, and regret I was not able to get an opportunity to do so in the wild.
4. What are your views on sustainable and ecotourism at present time compared to many years ago? How much has things changed since then?
I still see ecotourism as important for the reasons above. Ecotourism appears to be taken more seriously by tourism agencies nowadays. When we first started I was told it was just a minor niche, and that so was birdwatching. Many travelers are now far more aware of conservation, and tourism effects on local communities, and thus to be interested in ecotourism, although there are still many who assume it will involve an uncomfortable form of travel and accommodation or long boring lectures, causing some tourism operators to avoid the word.
The practice of ecotourism and sustainable tourism in general is improving in many quarters, and Ecotourism Australia is constantly developing and improving certification processes. Unfortunately the term “eco” is sometimes used politicians and others simply to mean nature tourism without the provisos of being educational and contributing to the environment and natural communities. The word ‘sustainable’ is also used to mean different things, for instance economically or environmentally sustainable: both are important, but it is not always clear which is being mentioned, and sometimes the environmental aspect gets lost. We need to keep educating travelers, travel
agents and governments.
5. As Chair of Wildlife Tourism Australia, how do you approach and encourage sustainable tourism in your country?
We encourage good practice by continually adding to the advice and information on our website on sustainable wildlife tourism for both tourists and tourism operators, providing academic references on sustainability wildlife tourism practices both for researchers and for others who are interested in applying the results of such research, asking prospective members about their commitment to environmental and educational aspects of wildlife tourism, representing WTA on various aspects of sustainable wildlife tourism at conferences in Australia and elsewhere, running a variety of conferences and workshops throughout Australia, including negative and positive impacts of tourism and how to use guiding as an enjoyable way of getting conservation messages across. Before the inauguration of Wildlife Tourism Australia I was involved with the Wildlife sector of the Australia-wide Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism. Wildlife Tourism Australia grew out of this, and was originally research based but grew to include many wildlife tourism practitioners, and at all our events we try to keep communication going between academics and operators to the mutual benefit of both and to keep tourism progressing towards environmental sustainability.
6. Can you tell us more about any sustainable tourism or conservation projects that you are currently undertaking?
The main project this year is running a WTA conference where we will explore the delicate balance between the needs of wildlife (both conservation and welfare aspects,of both wild and captive wildlife), the needs and expectations of tourists, the needs of tourism operators (including guides,wildlife parks and ecolodge managers) and the needs of local communities (who can be impacted in both positive and negative ways. The proceedings will be published as a pdf that can be downloaded from the WTA website, and copies will also be sent to various politicians, tourism organisations and relevant individuals.
I’m also still trying to develop a wildlife research network amongst tour operations, academics and, where appropriate, travelers interested in doing some citizen science in the regions they visit: the main problem is not having enough time to do it as thoroughly as I’d like.
7. What is the biggest challenge that you have faced or are facing today in the work that you do?
Personally, it is a challenge to keep my own business (Araucaria Ecotours) afloat while spending so many unpaid hours working for WTA and other organisations and not having enough time left over for promotion and development of our own business.
More widely though, the main challenge is just getting the sustainability messages out to as many people as possible in a way that will capture their interest, whether tourists, tourism operators, conservation managers or politicians, and also combatting extremism in various directions (e.g.“no animal should be held captive,” or “you can’t be a conservationist unless you’re vegan”). Extremism can lead to people with basically similar aims fighting against each other needlessly, and wasting energies that could be channelled into more productive activities.
8. What motivates you to continue doing what you do every day?
We live on a planet with life in so many forms, and so much beauty and fascination, I want it to stay that way as far as possible. Living as I do in amongst mountains, forests and a creek with platypus, it’s not hard to remember all that as I wake up each day. I also think it sad that so many people seem so bored with life and don’t seem to realise the fun and fulfilment they could find by appreciating and exploring the natural world. Since I was quite little I have felt the urge to awaken people to appreciation of nature and to conserve as much as possible of the wild creatures and the wilderness they live in.
9. What is the most fulfilling thing about your work?
I like seeing the enjoyment our tourists get from seeing wildlife and learning new things about their behaviour and their ecological relationships.
It is also very satisfying to realise that my book on wildlife tourism and some of my other writings (for instance on the Wildlife Tourism Australia website) and talks are being used by others to conduct wildlife tours and environmental education in several countries or to think about treading lightly in their own travels.
10. More and more youngsters are getting involved in tourism today. What advice do you have for those who want to take up eco and sustainable tourism as a career?
My father wanted me to be an accountant and I probably would have been wealthier had I become one, but I’m sure my life has been more enjoyable and fulfilling, and I hope useful, by following my passion for working with animals, especially wildlife, as a research ecologist, tour operator and environmental consultant. So many people are bored with life, and so many spend years doing jobs they really can’t just for the pay-packet. So, my first advice would be not to give up on your interests, even if you may temporarily need to earn money doing other kinds of jobs, and even if you risk ending up in a profession not as immediately productive in financial rewards but richly rewarding in other ways.
In the meantime, learn as much as you can, not just from formal education but from your own reading and observations. Read about the local animals, their behaviour and ecology, about local and global conservation issues, ways of presenting information in entertaining ways, and about the tourism industry (there’s quite a lot on the internet these days about trends) and sustainable practices (including new technologies), and also books about people who are doing the sorts of things you would like to do. Attend relevant meetings and conferences if you can afford to do so,and keep a record of people you network with and may wish to contact later: you never know when it might prove useful.
Spend time outside observing natural scenery, wildlife and outdoor activities, and give yourself plenty of time to sit and think and imagine what you might do in the future if not straight away, either as an employee or running your own business. Jump at chances to travel to new and different places, which can spur ideas. Get formal qualifications if you can, but when writing a resume also mention the other skills and experience you have accumulated. Get some work experience if you can, being careful not to make things difficult for the people running
the place you are experiencing. Find out all you can about the businesses you would like to work with, and when you contact them let them know what it is about their business that attracts you and why it is one you would be very happy to work with. You may start off with a job that is not quite what you want, but the experience and your efforts may well lead to something more interesting in the future.
11. If you had the power to change something in our world today, what would it be?
I could point to a number of actual actions, but fundamentally I’d love to see an increase in compassion for animals and people, and in an appreciation of the natural beauty and fascination of wildlife and wild ecosystems, leading to real efforts at intelligent problem-solving which will enable us to plan for both wildlife conservation and for the welfare of humans and nonhuman creatures well into the future.
12. Name one person who you look up to for inspiration, and why?
It is difficult to choose just one, as different people inspire me in different ways. I have great respect for the dedication and enthusiasm of Jane Goodall in her research and subsequent conservation efforts, also for others who have roused public interest in wildlife by entertaining books and films, such as David Attenborough, Demond Morris, Konrad Lorenz and Gerald Durrell, and those who have successfully started tourism businesses that do the same, such as Bernard O’Reilly, Arthur Groom, David Fleay and your own Albert Teo.
13. What is it that impresses you in your recent visit to Sabah? What do you think we do right and which areas do you think we can improve further?
Sabah is a wonderful place for wildlife, and I was very impressed with Borneo EcoTours and the rehabilitation centres for orang-utans and sun bears, and with the information centre at the Botanic Gardens.
I was disappointed on my first visit to Sabah many years ago to see so much of the forest had been cleared, and I think even more has been cleared since. I would certainly like to see a halt to further clearing, and existing crops (e.g. oil palms) managed in such a way that they can remain productive for decades so no further forest needs to be encroached upon. It would also assist wildlife if habitat corridors could be established through existing plantations to connect forest fragments, and if non-lethal methods can be further explored (and funded) for keeping animals out of crops so that humans and wildlife can live in harmony.
I would also like to see some restrictions on behaviour of tour boat operators on the Kinabatangan River. It could be very frustrating to visitors to be quietly watching monkeys or hornbills when suddenly another boat speeds by or pulls up noisily beside them.
It is a pity that most Australians don’t seem to consider Sabah for a wildlife holiday, especially when it is so close, and that some seem to be wary of heading to any lesser-known place in Asia because of perceived dangers. This could change with more promotion on how companies like Borneo Eco Tours are so great at taking care of their guests from their time of arrival at the airport until their departure, what a great variety of wildlife they are likely to see, and that their journeys and accommodation will be comfortable and as safe as most of the more famous tourist destinations.
14. With climate change and impact of population growth, mass tourism on wildlife viewing, how do we minimize negative impact on wildlife?
The less fossil fuels we use the better, including energy-efficient devices, planning for less use (e.g. well-designed buildings that need less air-conditioning, travel routes that minimise distances) and of course increasing the use of renewable energy.
So many species and habitats will be impacted, we need more forest protection and restoration, conservation of threatened species, education, water conservation. Education of visitors about the dangers of climate change and what they can personally do or encourage governments to do is also useful.
Over-tourism can be a problem, but it is not just numbers of tourists. Sometimes 10 noisy visitors can do more damage than 100 quiet ones. Education of visitors on how to behave before entering wildlife habitat can thus help. We can also divert some tourism to other areas, or conversely confine it to particular small areas to allow other parts of the wilderness to be protected from visitation. We can also put a cap on the numbers allowed to enter national parks and other conservation areas on any particular day, and in some very sensitive areas only allow visitors to enter in small groups with a trained and responsible guide.
15. What is your view on tourist elephant riding, feeding of animals and tourists carrying animals for photography?
I agree with protesters that any operation responsible for actual cruelty, either during performances or training or in the way the animals are housed, should be closed down. Feeding of wildlife can cause many problems, which I have written and talked about elsewhere (e.g. population explosions of some species to the detriment of others, health problems caused by the wrong foods, animals becoming dangerous and needing to be removed). I also think however that some go too far by advising that no one should ever feed wildlife anywhere, even in captivity or where proper research has been conducted to ensure it is done without negative impact, that no one should ever visit wildlife parks that offer photos with animals, or that no animal should ever be held in captivity. Life in the wild is not always idyllic or safe, especially now there is so much habitat loss and so much poaching for illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts.
Captive conservation breeding, although not the ideal for the longterm, may be essential right now to keep some species in existence, and can be expensive. There are wildlife parks where the animals are very well cared for and the activities help to educate visitors and encourage them to care about the animals they encounter, and also pay for the care of both the animals in their establishments and for inured or orphaned animals brought in by the public. Regarding elephants, the brutal forms of training should end. The main problem now is what to do with all the elephants already being used, and their keepers: that is a more complex problem, and there may need to be a phasing out rather than an abrupt end. There is also one place I visited in South Africa where the elephants were rescued as babies from a culling program and apparently trained in a gentle, playful way, and now only work for about an hour a day in an educational session for tourists, only ten minutes of which includes riding, before being turned out into several hundred acres of woodland to just be elephants for the rest of the day. Similarly, there are places where animals are kept chained or in tiny cages between photographs, and sometimes drugged or otherwise mistreated to make them docile, and other places where they spend most of their days in roomy enclosures with trees and grass and ponds, and are docile because they have caring, gentle keepers. It would seem unfair to close down all operations where animals are treated well and where money so raised goes towards conservation efforts, because of the cruel practices used by others. Any interaction though should be accompanied by education of visitors as to what is and isn’t appropriate. I’d also like to see further research on what kinds of interaction are stressful to different kinds of animals.