Wildlife Viewing Spectacles: Best Practices from Elephant Seal (Mirounga sp.) Colonies

Abstract: Wildlife viewing spectacles that are accessible to the public are immensely popular, raise revenue, contribute to livelihoods, create awareness, and often support conservation. When spectacles are in the commons, they are vulnerable to overuse and ruin. Our aim was to identify best practices that provide access to the animals without disturbing them. Herein, we examine spectacles where thousands of people may view thousands of wild animals at predictable sites and times. We describe the viewing programs at three distinct sites where elephant seals (Mirounga sp.) breed: Año Nuevo and Piedras Blancas in California, and Península Valdés in Argentina. We compare the viewing operations with respect to mission, resources and accessibility, and the relationship between viewer number and colony growth, and then we report on the quality of the viewing experience. For best practices, we drew on 67 years of summed field research on these animals by both of us and with our familiarity with viewing programs at these sites. We conclude that five practices reduce viewer impact and enhance the viewing experience: (1) restricting visitor numbers and access to the animals; (2) monitoring impact of viewing on the animals and their habitat; (3) encouraging fundamental research of the animals on site; (4) using trained volunteer guides to interpret the attraction when possible; and (5) requiring independent oversight of commercial operations. All wildlife viewing operations could benefit from adherence to these practices when applicable. At their best, wildlife viewing spectacles are a showcase for sound conservation management and provide an inspirational experience that, for many, is akin to visiting the most sacred cultural places of humankind.

Key Words: wildlife watching, wildlife tourism, elephant seals, Mirounga sp., Año Nuevo, Piedras Blancas, Península Valdés

Document Type: Research article

DOI: 10.1578/AM.39.2.2013.132

Page Numbers: 132-146

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