For me, travel is so much about getting a little closer to the amazing variety of wildlife which inhabits our planet. When I spent 10 weeks backpacking in SE Asia, the experience of seeing some of the native species in the area was high on my bucket list. In Thailand, I was desperate to see gibbons, elephants, turtles and I saw all three – but as captives, tourist rides and in the case of the turtle, washed up on the beach in a sorry state.
Desperate to make up for the sense of disappointment and sadness I felt, I made sure to visit an endangered species rehabilitation centre in Vietnam, for a private guided tour of the work they were doing. Seeing the Sun Bears, Slow Lorises and Alligators being prepared for a life back in the wild (in a protected area) was one of the biggest highs of the whole 10-week trip, especially in a part of the world where so many species are in such rapid decline. I realised then how important it was for me, to build experiences like that in to every trip I take.
I was excited to read about a new partnership which aims to draw attention to the way in which these kind of trips and experiences can really make a difference to conservation efforts around the world. Environmental filmmaker and presenter Celine Cousteau, grand-daughter of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, has travelled all over the world to understand the effect humans and the environment have on each other. Most importantly, she has studied the conservation efforts we need to take to avoid losing some of the world’s most endangered species, and is now working with holiday provider Contiki to promote sustainable travel and the conservation of animals.
As part of the initiative, Celine and Contiki have created this list of some of the world’s most endangered species, along with some ideas of where you can go to support their conservation on your travels:
1. Leatherback Sea Turtles in Costa Rica:
Majestic leatherback sea turtles nest every year in the sands of the Tortuguero region, along the coast of Costa Rica in Central America, usually around March and April. These huge creatures reach over a metre in length and feed on jellyfish, helping control their population. Many however, mistake plastic bags and human rubbish for jellyfish, with a third believed to have ingested plastic at some point in their lives, often with fatal results. Although they have few natural predators, they are threatened by climate change, boat traffic, fishing equipment and human harvesting of their eggs. Their numbers are believed to have declined by over 90% since 1980, making them critically endangered.
What can you do to help? Try volunteering with the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Tortuguero to take a hands-on role in the conservation of these peaceful creatures by helping with their research.
2. Bengal Tigers in India:
Estimated to have a steadily decreasing population of less than 2,500, the Bengal tiger is regularly poached for its beautiful fur and other body parts. The species is also at risk from loss of natural habitat due to human actions and climate change. They are primarily found in the jungles of India, with some small populations throughout Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, China and Myanmar. The destruction of the Bengal tiger could have a detrimental effect to the fine balance of the jungles it inhabits; sitting at the top of the food chain means they control the population and diversity of their prey and, as a result, the local vegetation.
What can you do to help? Visiting Bengal tigers in safely controlled environments, like the huge Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, can help to fund the continued conservation of their species.
3. Sharks in the Galapagos:
A huge number of species of shark are considered to be vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, including the much misunderstood great white shark and the iconic hammerhead shark. Films like Jaws have done little for the reputation of the oftentimes shy and curious creatures that are vital to the health of our oceans – sitting at the top of the food chain they help to maintain the delicate balance of marine life. Threats from human activity like shark finning and commercial fishing, as well as risks from fishing equipment and changes to their natural habitats have led to their numbers diminishing greatly. Millions are killed annually and shark populations worldwide are rapidly depleting.
What can you do to help? Diving with sharks in conservation areas like the Galapagos with organisations such as Shark Savers is a perfect way to encourage conservation by showing local communities that their marine life is worth protecting.
4. Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda:
Mountain gorillas are classed as critically endangered, with a population of only around 880 left. As their name suggests, they live in mountainous forest and jungle areas around the Congo Basin. However, as humans take over more of the area to either live or for industrial work, their territory has been destroyed or restricted to higher regions of the mountains. These human-like creatures are also at risk from our own diseases, which they suffer more intensely – they can even die from the common cold. Good news for the mountain gorillas is that their numbers are slowly, but steadily increasing, showing that conservation work is helping their species and improving their chance of survival.
What can you do to help? Research has shown that mountain gorillas that are regularly habituated with researchers and tourists have survived better than unvisited gorillas, as they benefit from greater protection. Choose a responsible tour operator and visit them yourself in areas such as Rwanda or Uganda.
5. Giant Pandas in China:
A national treasure in their homeland of China, the distinctive giant panda boasts a beautiful black and white coat and a peaceful nature, despite weighing between 200-300 pounds. They live in the mountains and forests of Western China and consume huge amounts of bamboo every day, helping to facilitate its growth by spreading seeds where they roam. With only 1,600 known to live in the wild, these endangered creatures are regularly at risk from deforestation and fragmentation of their habitat, as well as poaching and hunting for their fur.
What can you do to help? Research centres like the China Conservation and Research Centre in Wolong Nature Reserve regularly need volunteers to help look after the creatures in their care and although direct contact with pandas is limited due to their sensitive nature, you can assist their carers with food preparation and research.
Celine Cousteau is working with Contiki as their Sustainability Ambassador, promoting responsible tourism, improving energy and waste management, and acting now to halt the onset of climate change.