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Is Wildlife Travel on Your Clients Bucket List?

I’ve made a living selling wildlife and nature trips for the last 27 years – working with travel and safari companies that have programs to visit iconic bucket list species from mountain gorillas to rhinos to jaguars.

Not only are the agents who sell these trips making high commissions, but if the trip is done correctly, they are also helping to save those species. These agents have tapped into a whole group of avid travelers who aren’t counting countries – but are tallying animals they have seen in the wild.

A Growing Area of Tourism

Tourism wasn’t developed to save the planet. But that’s exactly what certain sections of the industry find themselves doing in the 21st century — aiding and abetting the conservation of certain species (and by extension, other flora and fauna that live in their ecosystems) through a collaboration of national parks and governments, private companies, conservationists, and local communities who have a vested interest in the survival of these animals.

As a result, there is a baby boom of mountain gorillas in East Africa, rhino populations are stabilizing or increasing in some areas of Kenya (but the situation is still dire), and jaguar numbers are reviving in parts of Brazil. But what does this have to do with the travel industry? And as an agent, are you working to promote trips that truly make a difference?

Mountain gorillas are the perfect example of a fragile success story. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the number of mountain gorillas in three nations where they exist in the wild (Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) have risen from 620 in 1989 to around 880 today.

People who want to visit gorillas in their natural habitat pay $700 to $750 per day (per person) in three of the national parks in Uganda and Rwanda. Add that to the cost of transportation, hotels, and guides, and you’re talking big money flowing into the region.

One of those national parks is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in southern Uganda, where gorilla numbers are slowly increasing, as is the welfare of the local people. Nonprofits that support rural health and agriculture — as well as tourism programs to visit indigenous groups like the Batwa — are benefiting from tourism dollars. There are so many success stories, but a favorite of mine is Dr. Gladys.

Tourism Aids Gorillas and People

With money earned from gorilla tourism, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) was able to fund a veterinarian to monitor and oversee the health of these animals. They hired Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikuso, a young Ugandan with degrees from the Royal Veterinary College in London and North Carolina Sate University. She quickly ascertained that gorillas were susceptible to catching human diseases (such as scabies) from the local people.

Dr Gladys (as she is known throughout Uganda) realized they couldn’t help the gorillas without helping the local people and she decided to create a nonprofit called Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH) with outreach programs for communities around the national park. By teaching the local people simple things such as washing their hands, there has been a measurable increase in the health of the gorillas – and the area’s human population.

CTPH has since expanded into offering vaccines and family planning programs. And the story comes full circle, as now tourists can go gorilla trekking with Dr. Gladys or her veterinary team (for a hefty fee), learn about the health of the gorillas by actively participating in the research effort, and see firsthand the work they are doing in local communities. One of the programs offered by Kampala-based safari operator Adventure Consults is an “Intimate Gorilla Experience” with Dr. Gladys that includes all of these activities.

Jaguars Bounce Back

A relatively unknown success story is the fate of jaguars in the Pantanal of southern Brazil. The world’s largest tropical wetland — bigger than the Everglades and Okavango Swamp combined — sprawls across an area the size of Great Britain. Since the birth of tourism in the Pantanal around 25 years ago, the big cats have made a remarkable comeback.

According to veteran guide Judy Drunha, who leads Pantanal trips for Florida-based Terra Incognita, the region’s jaguar population has grown from around 400 animals when she first started guiding in the early 1990s to around 1,000 today. In the process, the Pantanal has become the go-to place for those who want to see and photograph jaguars in the wild.

Because humans have been shooting them with cameras rather than guns for a quarter century, the magnificent cats have become habituated to having people around. As long as those people are in boats, of course. It’s possible to get within 20 yards of a jaguar without having it bolt for the undergrowth or otherwise freak out.

While some of this can be attributed to the Brazilian government getting serious about cracking down on jaguar poaching and the changing attitude about wildlife amongst younger Brazilians, there is no doubt the major “engine of change” in this case was upscale animal “bucket list” tourism.

How can you get a piece of this lucrative business?

Over the years, I’ve met many agents who say they want to sell more exotic trips, but don’t know how. Their clients don’t ask for them or are going elsewhere to book them.  Here are a few tips on how to generate and win some of that business:

  • Ask your clients for their animal bucket lists. You can’t sell it, if you don’t know what they want.
  • Start educating yourself on wildlife trips. Read brochures and watch webinars on the topic; browse safari and wildlife travel company websites.
  • Find a tour operator who can help you sell. Many tour operators are happy to get on the phone with you or your client to explain the animal-centric trips they can offer. For instance, Sandy Salle of Hills of Africa Travel in North Carolina has a list of questions for clients that helps define their bucket list.

Much like the vets, guides, and conservationists who are helping to save rare and endangered species, travel in the 21st century requires thinking outside the box. So don’t assume your clients have but a single bucket list. Next time you speak with them, ask what creature they’ve always wanted to see in the wild. And show them how to make it a reality.


Jane Behrend July 2016 headshot An expert in adventure and wildlife destinations worldwide, Jane Behrend started her own travel marketing company in 1989 after learning the business as an account executive in public relations and advertising sales. In 2008, Jane rebranded her business as Emerging Destinations, a company that represents cool companies in cool places around the globe. She chose the name because her passion is working with areas where tourism is relatively new and still off the beaten path. Contact her at jane@emergingdestinations.com or at emergingdestinations.com.

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