You may remember that during Covid the virtual safari was the only safari anyone could experience. Camera traps normally used purely for conservation purposes became a source not only of information about animal behaviour but also pleasure. And in enjoying the raw and real-time footage, we were constantly reminded that our largest wildernesses still existed and that all the factors that protect and grow them were deeply affected by the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
I’m shooting from the hip here, but as in so much that we learnt about the capacity for technology to keep things going through something like a worldwide pandemic, the enforced ‘remote travel’ enabled by the internet and camera traps has opened up a new space that allows people to experience wildernesses in a way that the traditional animal documentary will never be able to match, whatever the brilliance of its story or production.
While impossible to compare against the real-world experience of travel in African desert, savannah and forest environments, the upsides of such remote travel are considerable. A lower bar of entry makes for much more democratic experience, with potentially tens of thousands of people visiting protected areas that in the real world would only be able to accommodate a few hundred, and which only those within certain income brackets can afford. At the same time, except for that entailed by the technology, remote travel’s cost to the environment is nothing compared to that incurred by real world travel.
As a thing, it’s on the rise, with many an on-the-ground outfit widening the remit of the technology initially used purely for scientific and conservation purposes. Social media feeds are great and obvious platforms, as are ‘live’ web pages. However, when thinking about how to leverage remote travel as a conservation tool, I’m really looking forward to seeing what models such as those employed by the likes of Uganda-based conservationist company The Naturalists’s The Home of the Gorillas can do. In response to the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place pressure to increase the number of trekking permits to help fund the protection of gorilla habitats, the Home of the Gorilla Initiative leverages technology used to track gorilla families to sell remote treks. A subscription-based model, enabled by a My Gorilla Family app, with 50% of profits raised ploughed back into traditional conservation channels, it promises to provide a genuine and viable alternative to real world trips.
The growth of remote travel vis-a-vis real world travel is not a zero sum game. They complement each other. Many of the advantages of real-world conservation-travel are unique – nothing replaces being on the ground, the real-world relationships formed, the multi-sensory experience, the chance to travel ancestral environments, and the fact that it is by being, so to speak, on-site that those of us interested in philanthropic endeavour begin to really dig into a given project. However, the virtual safari is a wonderful development, in and of itself, as a conservation tool, a provider of greater access, and a taste of the real thing.