Tour guides should behave better for wild animals' sake

Local tourists at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. [David Gichuru, Standard]

My recent visit to Masai Mara was breathtaking. From the awe-inspiring sunrise and sunsets to the abundant African wildlife, it was a sight to behold.

Sadly though, a major concern that emerged during this trip was the ill-mannered behaviour of tour drivers and guides going against park guidelines meant to protect both tourists and wildlife. In fact, a video to this effect had surfaced online, eliciting a heated discussion.

It is unfortunate that such misbehaviour is on the rise with all manner of condemnations by netizens but without any substantial response from the tour operator community or government officials.

Clearly, tourism has many components. Its promotion requires the co-operation of a variety of players whose roles and responsibilities contribute to sustainable tourism. Globally, tourism accounts for $3.6 trillion in economic activity and 8 per cent of jobs worldwide, making it one of the largest sectors in the global economy. By positively influencing tourist behaviour at a destination, tour facilitators such as drivers and tour guides play a significant role in promoting sustainable tourism.

There are several ways in which harmful animal-watching tourism may adversely affect wildlife. It alters their behaviour, changes their physiology, and destroys their habitats. During breeding periods and juvenile stages of their offspring, wildlife species tend to be especially vulnerable to disturbances. When courtship, mating and offspring suckling behaviours are disrupted, overall breeding success may be reduced. There is a serious threat to the survival and maintenance of the population.

For example, cheetah and leopard cubs become vulnerable to predation when they become separated from their mothers. There is often great interest among tourists in watching mother-offspring groups, so tourism should be carefully limited and controlled around them.

Tour drivers and guides must understand their role as intermediaries between tourists and providers of tourism services and the development patterns of destinations. Tourism operators play a crucial role in achieving sustainable tourism goals and protecting the cultural and environmental resources vital to the tourism industry’s future.

In addition to providing guiding and interpretation services, tour drivers and guides can either positively or negatively affect the visitor’s behaviour and contribute to unsustainable tourism. Therefore, strict compliance with park rules and regulations, proper waste management, maintenance of vital ecological processes, integrity, and responsible interactions with nature are essential.

Wildlife-watching practices need to be controlled and properly managed if tourists are to enjoy high-quality wildlife-watching without endangering animals and their habitats. To minimise the disturbance tourism causes to wildlife, firm limits need to be set on tourist developments.

The writer is chief executive officer at African Wildlife Foundation