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I just got back from a group wildlife-watching trip I organized to California for the Audubon Naturalist Society and despite experiencing one of those ‘atmospheric rivers of rain’ for a few days, we saw over 100 species of birds and numerous mammals. What struck me the most when I got home and compiled the list of animals we saw, was how many of those creatures have been brought back from the brink of extinction. California condors, gray whales, Northern elephant seals, and sea otters to name a few. It was a positive trip with conservation message as its core theme. So it took my breath away when I learned that on Monday the last male Northern white rhino died of illness in Kenya. It had been under armed guard 24 hours a day for years because his horn (the same material as your fingernails, by the way) can rake in an astounding amount of money and it was a constant target of poachers.

Unfortunately, the extinction story is not new. It’s a sad and familiar tale, that leaves some of us feeling hopeless and helpless. But, there are people that work constantly to keep animals from going over the ledge of extinction, whether they are scientific researchers, educators, or one of the guards that protected that last rhino. I have come to believe, as you well know, that ecotourism can be a powerful conservation tool as well. If economic choices can drive extinction, then economic choices can also counter them. The personal economics of survival can steer people towards cutting down rain forests in Latin America or poaching rhinos in Africa, but interested tourists, who value seeing those animals and ecosystems, can be a strong economic alternative.

There are some recent trends in travel that are converging in interesting ways. They are transformative travel and what I recently heard called, “last chance travel”. Transformative travel implies that a travel experience transforms someone’s outlook, and that new perspective changes the thoughts and actions of that person when they go home. In “last chance travel,” people are seeking to see things that are disappearing, whether they be melting glaciers, a particular species, or even vanishing cultures. Of course, we don’t want to accelerate the demise of these disappearing things, by stampeding to see them, but perhaps if each individual that has a transformative experience can extend the value of that experience by telling others about it, encouraging others to visit, the effect on that transformative experience will inspire change.

We need scientists to do the research that helps us make informed conservation choices. We need educators to get the word out. We need people on the ground, doing the physical work of conservation, like guarding threatened animals and restoring habitats. But you can also have a role and it doesn’t mean standing between a poacher and a rhino, protesting in the streets, or even getting your hands dirty. It can be pleasant. By choosing to vacation in places that are sustainably managed and spending your money in ways that make it clear you value wildlife and wild lands, you encourage conservation. And finally, by sharing your experiences with others, you are not only able to relive your vacation, others may value and be inspired to visit those places as well.

Please contact us with questions or for help planning a nature trip:

Terry Lawson Dunn

For more about poaching and tourism, see:

Is Your Vacation Photo Contributing to Poaching?

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