When the Wow Trumps the Message

Have you ever spent an hour with mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes following trails once traveled by Dian Fossey? Have you had your photo taken with baby pandas in a Sichuan panda reserve where George Schaller once studied these amazing animals? Did you climb out of your panga in the Galapagos to walk in the footsteps of Charles Darwin among blue-footed boobies? Have you watched elephants for hours from a few feet away, as they graze blissfully unaware of the impending threat to their survival on the planet from poaching and loss of habitat.

pandasThere are world-class tourism experiences that have amazing WOW power. The memories may last forever like photos in your personal collection. But they may also rest there virtually untouched, devoid of a lasting message that invites you to become more involved. I have had the pleasure of participating in each of the experiences described. However, an enduring message about conservation and my ability to get involved was lacking in all four situations.

Tourism experiences built on a world-class WOW experience often lack a thoughtful message, usually because guides in those settings tend to lack interpretive training. Without the encouragement of their employers, they may not mention the rich history behind the tour based on devoted researchers, missing the opportunity to invite you to be a donor, sponsor or volunteer. The tourists and their money will continue to roll in with no prompting due to the power of the experience. But the enduring value of bringing a thoughtful message to the experience is simply missed.

Organizations and tour companies that plan such events often have no knowledge of the power of social marketing or interpretive planning. They hope the WOW of what they are doing has enough value to override the need to create more lasting relationships. Is there anything wrong with that? Perhaps, if there is a real desire to sustain the resources that create the opportunities for profits. We left our tour of the Galapagos Islands with an empty feeling that we had shared the “sizzle” of seeing marine iguanas, boobies and sea lions and missed the stories of importance of the legendary islands and endemic wildlife. Our guides had no message. They were bored with us, and bored with the resource. They identified birds when asked, but left us with no lasting connection with the past or future of this unique place. What could have been done differently?

elephantsIn 1997 Dr. Sam Ham worked with Lindblad Expeditions in the Galapagos Islands to help their tours use improved thematic messages in support of the Charles Darwin Research Centre. The impact of his work was dramatic. Improved guide training and messages led to a 270% increase in donations to the research program, helping to ensure the future of the Galapagos Islands and the creatures found only there.

In Rwanda the sale of gorilla permits in 2013 declined from 2012 due to an increase in cost from $500 to $750. The gorilla guides are skilled in taking care of people and delivering an informational briefing about the gorilla family to be visited, but they have not been trained in interpretive skills. Without the additional understanding that the increased fees are necessary to support mountain gorillas 365 days a year, 24-7, that $750 just seems like a lot of money for a one-hour experience.

What we’ve learned over the years is that most guides want to do a better job of connecting visitors to charismatic wildlife. Many of them receive content training, but their key role in helping people understand bigger issues that surround the resource is often missed. Interpretive training requires financial support from conservation organizations, individual donors, and sponsors, but it’s money worth spending if Dr. Ham’s research is an indicator of its value.

The future of many of these species and their habitats may depend on the tourists that come to enjoy an experience with them. But that message must be shared for any action to result. Information about the animals is not enough. Those of us who enjoy the privilege of getting close to these animals should be asked to help. There’s more to say than, WOW!

– Tim Merriman

Is Habituating Wildlife the Right Thing to Do?

Lisa N JesOur little friend Jes, the vervet monkey, visits our classroom in Rwanda each day. She doesn’t say much, but she definitely has a story. Akagera park officials learned that a young monkey had been taken as a pet, a violation of the law, so it was taken from the people and brought to the park. Over time it was reintroduced to wild vervets and it lived with them for many months. One day it returned to park headquarters on its own with a badly damaged hand, which led to amputation of the limb almost to the elbow. So Jes has become the unofficial headquarters mascot. She’s free to return to the wild anytime, but because of her injury and the stunted growth that is probably the result of malnutrition when young, it is unlikely that she will thrive or be accepted in a completely wild monkey troop. When she gets comfortable with you, she will sit in your lap and let you pet and preen her. She will return the favor and check you carefully for fleas and dirt. She’s a real charmer, but sadly, she is no longer equipped to be a wild monkey.

Most of us know that making pets of wild animals is not a good idea and it is illegal in most places. Finding a solution for an injured animal like Jes may be easy in a city with a zoo or nature center, but it’s a real challenge at a park. We enjoy Jes, until she steals our markers and chews on them or digs through our lunch looking for bananas. She’s like a two-year old child, demanding continual attention.

In Akagera National Park, they ask people on safari to never feed baboons, vervets, birds or other wildlife. It leads to begging, unhealthy animals and normal behavior disappears. Clearly, we should not be habituating wild animals to beg at picnic areas or come close to tourists.

tim n gorillaOn the other hand, habituation of some gorillas and chimpanzees in Rwanda’s other national parks has a value in protecting them. Chimps are difficult to habituate because they move through the treetops and they seem naturally wary of humans. Jane Goodall perfected this kind of habituation several decades ago during her research studies. The Jane Goodall Insititute has helped train trackers at Nyungwe National Park, where chimps may be visited in Rwanda. Local people haven’t always been fans of the chimps, as the clever apes sometimes raid village gardens on the outskirts of the park, but tourism dollars provide community benefits through revenue sharing, tracking jobs and ranger jobs, encouraging local people to protect them and their habitat.

Meanwhile, in Volcanoes National Park, mountain gorilla populations have recovered from a low of approximately 220 animals in the late 1980s to the current estimate of around 900. Poaching and theft of baby gorillas for sale to zoos created a crisis for the mountain gorillas that has been turned around by tourism. Amy Vedder and Bill Weber tell the story of how mountain gorillas were habituated to tourists in their book, In the Kingdom of Gorillas. The daily visit of gorilla families in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park brings 80 tourists daily into the presence of gorillas. Each person pays $750 for the one-hour visit, supporting year-round protection of the gorillas by rangers, guides, veterinarians and porters. Tourists are observers only, allowed to take nothing into the forest with which to feed the gorillas, no direct contact due to the potential to spread disease, and instructed to keep voices low and cameras without flash to avoid annoying these magnificent animals. Unfortunately, most guides do not mention how vital the permit fees are to protecting gorillas. I haven’t heard any of them deliver the message that tourists are investing in the future of mountain gorillas and the communities around them.

To habituate or not is a difficult and complex issue. In Rwanda, under careful supervision, I think it has its place in protecting man’s closest relatives, the great apes. If experiencing elephants, tracking chimpanzees and coming face to face with mountain gorillas is not on your bucket list already, you might want to consider a trip to all three Rwanda’s national parks. The land of a thousand hills may hold the opportunity for some of the best experiences with wildlife you’ll ever have.

– Tim Merriman

Maslow on safari!

Guides work through a learning style exercise with a Lego puzzle.

Guides work through a learning style exercise with a Lego puzzle.

We are in a classroom at Akagera National Park at this moment and Lisa is facilitating a discussion about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with safari guides and game lodge workers. It’s a very rewarding conversation because most of these folks exemplify an understanding of this concept in their daily work, even if they have not heard of Abraham Maslow or his articles on motivation in 1954.

When you arrive at Ruzizi Tented Lodge and many other similar safari camps, they greet you with the knowledge that you have driven a long way over bumpy, dusty roads. You are greeted in a friendly manner with a warm wet towel to wipe your face and wash your hands. A cool glass of juice is offered to quench your thirst and give a little pick up from traveling. They point out the restrooms for our comfort while they register us after collecting passports. Our basic needs are met pretty quickly, using Maslow’s Hierarchy. Great lodges do this so well that you miss it when you stay at one that simply registers you for your room and sends you on your way or worse yet, makes the registration process a difficult ordeal.

At one lodge we were greeted very nicely, given a beverage and warm towel. We had arrived just at dinnertime, but after they registered us, the reception staff had us set off to our rooms in a pouring, windy rain with umbrellas. They had our luggage with them. By the time we found our room, our clothes were soaked and our luggage was wet. In the damp rooms of a mountain forest, there was no chance our clothing would dry overnight. It would have been better to take us to dinner and help us find our rooms after the rain passed half an hour later. The choice to insist that we go to rooms first made us miserable at the end of what had already been a very long day of travel.

Nowhere do basic needs become so obvious than on safari. People who fear snakes or worry about being robbed will have trouble relaxing unless a good guide or host assures them of the safety of the facilities, rooms, and the nation itself. Rwanda is now a very safe nation in which to travel, but knowledge of the genocide in 1994 may be on the mind of first time visitors. We took our guests to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre on the first day out, both to interpret the tragic story and to assure people that today’s Rwanda is a safe nation rebuilding from a turbulent past.

But once basic needs are met, advancing up the hierarchy of needs requires some nuance and careful attention to detail. For the most part, we have found guides in Rwanda and Tanzania to be thoughtful and concerned hosts who go out of their way to ensure a great experience for their guests. Less experienced guides focus on sharing their knowledge only, while more experienced ones understand how to help their guests understand and appreciate the landscape, people, and animals. Good training helps reinforce the many ways in which guides can influence the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of their guests by providing interpretive opportunities along the way. Helping a guest have a great experience in the short term can lead to long- term commitments to conservation when a safari guest, enabled by a great guide, reaches the pinnacle of self-actualization.

Since Maslow published his motivation article, many have added the term, transcendence above the pyramid, to describe the rewards of being a facilitator who helps others self-actualize. We are both honored and humbled by the guides we meet here. It is a transcendent experience for us to be here training with dedicated guides and hosts in Rwanda.

– Tim Merriman

Guide Training in Rwanda – a Rewarding Venture

DCIM100GOPROIn October 2012 we made our first trip to Rwanda to work with Nyungwe Nziza, a USAID funded project with Development Alternatives International (DAI) to help the fairly new Nyungwe National Park (2005) reach its potential as a tourist attraction and valued nature preserve. It has been a national forest since 1933, but the change to a national park designation added a much deeper level of protection.

Visitors to the park are required to take a guide on all hiking trails and pay from $30 to $90 per person (resident Rwandese pay much less). The fee for foreigners sounds a little extreme to many hikers, but getting lost or meeting a poacher in remote African rainforest is no joke. With only about 10,000 visitors a year, the fees help to make an important investment in the future of this wonderful place.  The thousands of hills in Rwanda are at their best in Nyungwe, allowing visitors to explore stands of huge tropical trees, waterfalls, 148 species of orchids and 13 primates including three chimpanzee communities. Guides provide safety and great advice along with continually improving interpretation of the unique park flora, fauna and history. Chimp tracking now has an amazing 97% success rate as the chimpanzees become more accustomed to daily visitation in their territory.

Our role at Nyungwe has taken place over the last eighteen months in three separate trips. In October of 2012, we first assessed the guides’ performance and the overall visitor experience in the park and then suggested next steps for training the 22 guides and improving the guest experience. In February of 2013 we returned to train all of the guides as National Association for Interpretation (NAI) Certified Interpretive Guides (CIG). Each of them passed the course, demonstrating a great deal of enthusiasm for their continuing professional development. We also trained a number of students attending the local tourism college, hotel staff, and community cooperative members who offer tours in beekeeping operations and cultural villages, certifying a total of 27 guides and 18 hosts.

guides assessNyungwe guides are natural storytellers, which makes time in the field with them a special pleasure. Interpretive training suggests some priorities in how they approach leading people through this challenging landscape of hills and streams and delivering important conservation messages as well as information about the plants and animals of the forest. This year, we are involved in developing an interpretive master plan for Nyungwe National Park and assessing the guides’ progress over the last year in implementing what they learned from our previous training. We’re also providing some advanced coaching and training based on our observations of their performance. The guides are very serious about how to get even better. Education and training is greatly valued in Rwanda and opportunities to grow and learn are met with enthusiasm and dedication.

Guiding is a valued job in each of Rwanda’s three national parks: Nyungwe (noted for its outstanding variety of primates and birds), Volcanoes (known for the population of mountain gorillas), and Akagera (a savannah landscape with elephants, giraffes, and other large grazing animals). The guides’ important role in sharing this amazing landscape and nation with visitors should not be underestimated. Their conservation messages can help to remind visitors that protection of Africa’s parks has far-reaching consequences for the entire planet.

National Geographic recently suggested Nyungwe as one of the top 20 parks to visit in 2014 around the world. Ratings of the park experience by reviewers at TripAdvisor.com were very good in 2012 and even better in 2013. Park staff and guides are dedicated to making this a very special experience for guests.

On a birdwatching hike today, we saw about two dozen new species for us, including one of the 26 endemics, found only in the Albertine Rift area of Africa. I am personally delighted to have seen nine of the 13 species of primates in a matter of a few days. Nyungwe Nziza means “beautiful Nyungwe” in the kinyarwandan language. These talented guides will help you appreciate its beauty in the best possible light.

–       Tim Merriman

We are collecting used laptops (Mac or PC) to bring to guides in Rwanda over the next year. Most do not have one and it is a key link to information, scholarship opportunities and colleagues working in conservation. Your old laptop might bring a little money on Ebay but it will yield great opportunities for a park guide and conservationist in Rwanda. Contact me at tim@heartfeltassociates.com if you have one to contribute.