How climate change is transforming wildlife holidays

Heather Richardson
Unpredictable migration patterns bring thrills as well as disappointments for nature lovers - Grant Faint

Whale-watching, safaris, Arctic cruises – all are changing as a result of our shifting climate

From June to October, just yards off South Africa’s Western Cape, it is common to see southern right whales and their calves basking on the surface or breaching.

In 2018, more than 1,000 were counted in an aerial survey by the Whale Unit of the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute – a record. But in 2019 only 200 were spotted along the same stretch of coast.

Preliminary results indicate “strong correlation with climate conditions in the Southern Ocean and fluctuations in food availability, and therefore energy reserves.” It seems many whales don’t have the strength to travel all the way to South Africa – and similar trends are seen in South America and Australia.

Walker Bay and the De Hoop Nature Reserve, three hours from Cape Town, are the top spots for land-based whale watching. But as wildlife continues to adapt to climate change, tourism operators cannot rely on animals such as whales showing up on cue.

Climate change will – and does – affect everything: marine life, terrestrial mammals, insects, birds, people. Also at risk is a wildlife tourism industry that contributed £93.3 billion to global GDP in 2018 and supports 21.8 million jobs. 

The number of southern right whales spotted on South Africa's Western Cape has dropped Credit: getty

“Bucket list” tourism is likely to suffer at the hands of climate change (not necessarily a bad thing). Consider the Great Migration in the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara. Every year, from June to October, more than a million wildebeest cross the Mara River, dust billowing as they thunder down the banks towards crocodiles awaiting their annual feast. It is an iconic event attracting thousands of tourists.

The rains dictate the migration and, while the timing of the river crossings has never been entirely predictable, climate change – especially longer droughts – will make it harder to call. Over the past three decades, the Serengeti has warmed to about 0.2C above the 0.6C global mean temperature increase.

Booking a safari purely to see a river crossing is risky, especially considering the expense involved. Tourists would be smart to treat a crossing as an added bonus rather than the sole reason to travel. Turn a safari into a more wide-ranging, informative experience at Njozi Camp, for example, where guests are guided by Tanzanian biologists who specialise in big cat research in the Serengeti.

In the Arctic, melting sea ice is expanding the season and the range of cruises available. But when the ice disappears, so will polar bears – the big-ticket attraction – and tourists, too. These “last-chance” opportunities should serve as warnings, rather than cause for a frantic flight search.

But for every wildlife opportunity lost as a result of climate change, a new one emerges – notably around our own shores. A recent paper by the Zoological Society of London found that, over the past decade, at least 55 species have moved to new locations within the UK. The study harnessed social media to collect data – and this “citizen science” is a growing trend in responsible tourism. 

The rains dictate the migration and climate change will make it harder to call Credit: getty

“People in the UK are really into their wildlife,” says lead author Nathalie Pettorelli, who set up the Species on the Move Twitter account to encourage people to share their findings.

“They tend to post pictures of things that they haven’t seen before.” She used these observations, along with scientific articles and reports from wildlife agencies, to identify the 55 relocated species.

Among them are purple herons, European bee-eaters, horseshoe bats, wasp spiders and Jersey tiger moths, which appeared in London. Moving location to adapt to climate is natural, Pettorelli explains, but “what is different on this occasion is the speed at which it has happened.”

Getting tourists to engage with changing wildlife patterns in this way turns them into “actors for monitoring”, Pettorelli adds. Given the rapid rate of change involved, researchers need the extra reach this gives them – especially from those who are “walking in the countryside, doing any kind of trekking, or going places where there are very few people,” Pettorelli adds. “It’s such valuable information.”

These new wildlife sightings offer great opportunities for the tourism industry. Smart operators can package whale-watching or birding trips with explanations from experts on why these species have moved to new territories.

“Witnessing changes in wildlife during your lifetime helps you understand that climate change isn’t just about temperature,” Pettorelli says. “It has an effect on living things.”

In the Arctic, melting sea ice is expanding the season and the range of cruises available Credit: getty

This in turn may encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint by taking at least one UK holiday a year. By doing so, they can take advantage of novelties such as the Hebridean Whale Trail launched by the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust (HWDT) last June.

The waters of western Scotland are home to minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, harbour porpoises, grey seals, basking sharks and orcas, among other species – and their habits are changing too. 

Over the past 15 years, sightings of the common dolphin have increased twentyfold. “The reason is not entirely clear,” according to HWDT’s Hebridean Marine Mammal Atlas, “but we do know sea temperatures have risen by up to 0.4C per decade in the Hebrides.”

For cetacean sightings around Britain, 2018 was a record year, with ever-increasing sightings of humpback whales. Ongoing research is crucial to monitor these changes, which inspired HWDT to launch its citizen science tourism initiative.

Visitors can travel to 30 sites along the trail to spot whales and dolphins from land – reporting their sightings via the HWDT website or the Whale Track app – or they can join the crew on board the Silurian research vessel for trips lasting seven to 12 days.

“Conservation is driven by people,” says HWDT director Alison Lomax. “Thanks to citizen science projects, people are more involved than ever.”

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