As the desire for up close and personal wildlife tours increases, concerns have grown about how to help protect animals in the wild especially in the face of climate change, irresponsible wildlife encounters, and an increase in poaching of certain species. Thankfully the demand for ethical wildlife tourism is on the rise and Natural Habitat Adventures, a global leader in responsible nature travel is helping pave the way.
Since 1985, Natural Habitat Adventures has been a leader in sustainable adventure travel and ecotourism. From polar bear tours in Churchill to small-group Galapagos cruises, Natural Habitat Adventure’s journeys reveal the planet’s most extraordinary nature destinations. As the world’s first 100-percent carbon-neutral travel company and the conservation travel partner of World Wildlife Fund, Natural Habitat Adventures offers eco-conscious expeditions from Antarctica to Zambia with a multitude of adventures in between.
I had the opportunity to interview Court Whelan PhD, Natural Habitat Adventures’ Director of Sustainability and Conservation, and here is what he had to say.
When were you founded, by who and why?
Natural Habitat Adventures was founded in 1985 by Ben Bressler, with the intent to bring ecotourism to places where economic infusion could help make habitats and wildlife worth more alive than harvested as resources.
As a young boy, Ben spent endless time exploring nature right out in his backyard in suburban New Jersey. Though Ben had no idea then that his life’s work would take him to the planet’s most far-flung wild places, he discovered early on the life-enhancing power of exploring nature. And his experiences would spark something bigger: the inspiration for a nature travel company that would become his life’s work and a global leader in conservation travel.
Natural Habitat Adventure’s (Nat Hab) first trip was to see baby harp seals (“whitecoats”) on the ice floes in Quebec. We worked in collaboration with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The idea was to replace seal-hunting dollars with seal-watching dollars, supporting the local economy by taking tourists to view and photograph adorable furry white baby seals instead of clubbing them for their pelts. The approach synched with the newly emerging concept of ecotourism. In 1989, Nat Hab expanded further with brown bear viewing at Alaska’s Brook Falls, small-ship voyages in the Galapagos Islands and mountain gorilla safaris in Rwanda.
Emerging as a global leader in responsible nature travel, Nat Hab earned an alliance with World Wildlife Fund. Establishing an innovative partnership in 2003, Nat Hab became WWF’s conservation travel partner, adopting the tag line “Discovering Our Planet Together” in a shared mission to explore and protect the world’s wildest places.
What is your mission?
In a nutshell, our mission is to make people feel their most alive! Through an intimate immersion in nature, close-up wildlife encounters, an experience of the wild world in a quiet, small-group setting, in some of the world’s most remote and spectacular places.
What makes you unique in the field?
We are nature travel specialists, and we have been since our inception. With that singular focus, we do it very, very well. We provide unique itineraries you won’t find anywhere else, use amazing professional naturalists as our guides, offer the smallest groups in the industry (averaging nine guests), and an experience of a lifetime. To learn more about what makes us special check out our list of 12 reasons to travel with us.
How do you help endangered species with your eco- trips?
In the face of disappearing habitat and depleting animal populations, travelers may have more conservation power than you think. Natural Habitat Adventures takes travelers to destinations where some threatened and endangered wildlife species are actually doing better in recent years.
According to the United Nations, travelers are a driving force for positive change when it comes to sustaining biodiversity. The revenue from tourists’ park fees, permits and donations made in-destination contributes to greater conservation achievements. Likewise, the increased appreciation for nature that comes with seeing a gorilla or a tiger in person also has an impact in circles of social influence. Simply put, the more visitors that wildlife attracts, the more incentive governments and private enterprise have to protect them.
What are five examples of species that are steadily making a comeback, thanks in part to ecotourism
Bengal Tigers of South Asia
The endangered Bengal tiger is found in pockets of India, Nepal and other Asian countries, and while its habitat continues to decrease, the tiger population—currently around 3,900—has been rising since 2010, thanks to vigorous protection within India’s tiger reserves, intensive anti-poaching programs, and coordinated efforts between governments, NGOs and local communities to build habitat corridors and reduce human-tiger conflict. Recently, Nepal has nearly doubled its big cat population, reporting an estimated 235 wild tigers in 2018—up from 121 in 2009. What’s more, conservation efforts bolstered by a rising demand for tiger tracking on safari have inspired a pledge called the Global Tiger Recovery Program, which would see participating countries double the world’s wild tiger numbers by 2022.
Search for the elusive predator for yourself on Nat Hab’s 12-day Grand India Wildlife Adventure, or visit one of the world’s best place to view tigers – Ranthambore National Park—on Nat Hab’s most tiger-intensive safari: the 7-day India Tiger Quest, guided by conservation-focused Expedition Leaders.
Mountain Gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda
Last year marked 40 years since famed researcher Dr. Dian Fossey predicted the extinction of mountain gorillas by the year 2000, due to habitat destruction, disease and civil unrest. While those threats are still very much a reality today, Fossey left a lasting legacy for protection: the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reported in 2018 that gorilla numbers have increased to nearly 1,004 from 680 in 2008, and changed their “critically endangered” status to “endangered.”
With gorilla trekking becoming more popular among travelers, tourism boards and government organizations are also increasing the price of the permits required to see gorillas, in the interest of bolstering preservation efforts. Nat Hab’s naturalist Expedition Leaders, who are trained by WWF scientists, take travelers to witness these incredible creatures on a 10-day Great Uganda Gorilla Safari and a 13-day Ultimate Gorilla Safari that includes both Uganda and Rwanda.
Jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal
Despite being listed as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN due to habitat loss, decrease in wild prey, and conflict with cattle ranchers, jaguars are being seen with increasing frequency in Brazil’s 42-million-acre Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland—which also happens to be a popular tourism destination with even greater wildlife density than the Amazon.
In 2017, a university study found that jaguar ecotourism represented a gross annual income of USD $6.8 million across the Pantanal, and can be a conservation tool to incentivize more harmonious cohabitation between farmers and the big cat. Similarly, the Caiman Ecological Refuge, a private reserve included in Nat Hab’s 11-day Jaguars & Wildlife of Brazil’s Pantanal trip, has dedicated 10 percent of its 130,000-acre property to conservation, and the jaguar population within the area has rebounded to such an extent that guests of the refuge are almost guaranteed to see them on safari.
China’s Giant Pandas
Found only in small pockets of bamboo forest across southwestern China, giant pandas have been experiencing habitat loss due to China’s ever-growing human population for decades, yet the IUCN still reclassified them from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016, following major conservation strides. Captive breeding and community-based conservation programs are working with local people to use ecotourism as a source of revenue, helping the panda’s numbers continue to rise.
In 2018, Chinese officials announced that the wild panda population had increased nearly 60 percent (from 1,114 to 1,864) in only a decade, and that wild panda habitat has also nearly doubled in 10 years. View pandas and visit wild panda habitat on Nat Hab’s 12-day The Wild Side of China: A Nature Odyssey, or capture close-up images while visiting panda research bases on the 12-day Wild Side of China Photo Adventure.
While an ecology study in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park indicated a rise in Patagonia’s puma numbers due to an increase in government protection, its numbers are now believed to be in decline due to high levels of poaching and conflict with sheep ranchers who live just outside the park. However, there is hope that travelers could make it possible for ranchers and pumas to coexist in this region; tourism revenue raised from visitors looking to track pumas throughout the park could potentially compensate ranchers for any loss of livestock.
In the meantime, puma sightings are indeed increasing in Chile—so much so that Nat Hab has added a third day in Torres del Paine National Park to its Peaks, Lakes & Glaciers of Patagonia adventure, which takes guests into puma hunting grounds with help from a local guide.
What makes you a sustainable, responsible tour company?
What is the World’s First Zero Waste Adventure?
Learn more about Natural Habitat Adventures?
Check out their website at www.nathab.com and follow on social media:
Court Whelan is the Director of Sustainability and Conservation at Natural Habitat Adventures. Born and raised in Florida, Court spent much of his youth outdoors fostering a strong love and appreciation for nature and wildlife. This fascination led him to attend the University of Florida, where he received his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees in both Ecotourism and Entomology. Today, Court continues to guide the world’s best nature expeditions with Natural Habitat Adventures, while also heading up Nat Hab’s sustainability efforts, elevating it to become one of the most sustainable and eco-conscious travel enterprises in the world. Court leads Nat Hab’s “Green Team,” the company’s enterprise to conserve the natural world through best practices in sustainability, both in our office and field operations.
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