SEEtheWILD: Empowering travelers to become wildlife heroes

EEtheWILD – Protect Endangered Wildlife Through Conservation Travel

SEEtheWILD offers meaningful adventure vacations that help protect endangered species across the globe. After three years of successful conservation tourism projects focused on protecting sea turtles through, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols and Brad Nahill formed SEEtheWILD to support a wider variety of destinations and endangered species. Since 2008, SEE Turtles has generated more than $200,000 for local turtle conservation programs in Costa Rica, Baja Mexico and Trinidad.

SEEtheWild currently offers various adventures featuring opportunities to view and help protect Wild Cats, Bears, Birds, Turtles, Sharks, and Whales. SEEtheWILD and SEE Turtles are non-profit projects of the Ocean Foundation.

Interview with Brad Nahill, Co-Founder & Director

What makes SEEtheWILD unique?

SEEtheWILD is the world’s first wildlife conservation travel website. It’s the only place travelers can go to find wildlife tours and volunteer expeditions that have been evaluated by conservationists and contribute directly towards the protection of wild animals. For every trip booked through the site, at least 5 percent of the trip cost will go towards local conservation organizations, which is five times higher than the standard set by organizations like 1% For the Planet.

Tell us about what you aim to achieve through SEEtheWILD.

Our primary goal is to increase the amount of funding from tourism that goes to wildlife conservation efforts. Nature tourism generates billions of dollars for companies and governments around the world while species go extinct and non-profits struggle for funding. We also want to encourage travelers to become ambassadors for conservation when they return home by using their voice, buying habits, and spare time to advocate and volunteer for animals.

How do you think wildlife conservation travel benefits the traveler?

Seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat can be one of the most inspiring experiences in life. Hearing the shrill call of the elephant or watching an enormous whale glide by inspire emotions that no zoo or aquarium can recreate. This type of travel can help to assure travelers that their favorite animals will be there the next time they visit and that their grandchildren can have the same opportunity. Wildlife conservation travel also aims to educate people on the threats that animals face and empowers them to contribute towards ending those threats.

How are the SEEtheWILD operators selected?

We developed a list of criteria that we use to determine which tour operators truly support wildlife conservation, including strong financial support, carbon reduction, emphasis on local businesses and guides, and low impact lodging. Every operator listed on has gone through a comprehensive application process. We started with five US-based operators and non-profits who have demonstrated industry leading practices: Earthwatch Institute, Wildland Adventures, Maple Leaf Adventures, Reefs to Rockies, and Geographic Expeditions. Eventually we will expand to include operators and non-profits based outside of the US. You can learn more about our partnerships with travel organizations here.

How are the ‘benefiting organizations’ – or the conservation projects to which 5% of the tour price is donated – selected?

All of the benefiting organizations are connected with specific wildlife tours or volunteer programs. These organizations must be conducting conservation work on the focus species of the tour in the destination. In many cases, we work with our operator partners to support organizations that they trust. Where there aren’t any current established relationships, we search out the most effective local organizations with the help of our colleagues in the conservation community.

Brad Nahill has worked in sea turtle conservation and ecotourism for over 10 years. While living in Costa Rica, he worked with four sea turtle nesting beaches and worked with or consulted for several ecotourism companies, including EcoTeach and Costa Rican Adventures. He helped to found the EcoTeach Foundation and worked with Rare on a project building community-based ecotourism enterprises in World Heritage sites. As co-founder of SEE Turtles and SEEtheWILD, he leads marketing efforts, including working with tour operators, giving educational presentations, fundraising,and developing promotional materials.

How children benefit from an ecotourism experience

Just because you are going on a family vacation doesn’t mean that learning should take a break too. Ecotourism is full of what educators call teachable moments or, more definitively, unplanned opportunities to explain a concept that has unintentionally captured a child’s interest.

Whether it is touring the rainforests of the Amazon, observing blue footed boobies throughout the Galapagos Islands, or understanding the water issues that surround the Okavango Delta in Botswana, ecotourism is a vacation experience that provides boundless opportunities to teach younger generations about the fragility of ecosystems and the significance of heritage.

Who among us has not witnessed the common occurrence while visiting the local zoo, going hiking through the wilderness, or even watching a local artistic exhibit of younger children looking with absolute wonder and amazement at the spectacle of music, art, flora or fauna? There is delight followed by an onslaught of illuminating questions about people and the natural world.

These teachable moments mark milestones for a child’s personal growth and development. And, the value system that is at the core of ecotourism can be a positive influence on all age groups, not just the very young.

Specifically, children can benefit from an ecotourism vacation because the experience offers an opportunity for:

  • Instruction about indigenous wildlife – ecotours are not only small group tours that allow for up-close-and-personal views of nature, but ones that are generally led by a naturalist that have been trained to understand plants, birds, insects and animals of the region and their relationships to ecosystems, thereby bringing education alive.
  • Increased awareness about environmental degradation – an important component of ecotourism is to inform tourists about ways to minimize waste, soil erosion, air and water pollution so as not to disturb the environment – lessons that no doubt will stay with children.
  • Involvement with conservation efforts – whether it’s helping to record sea turtle activity in Greece or understand the destructive role of invasive plant species in the wilderness, ecotourism allows for deep knowledge of the fragility of the natural world.
  • Focus on the depletion of natural resources – whether its learning about how an eco-lodge harnessed solar or wind power for their operations or how countries are implementing renewable bio-energy to power engines, ecotourism teaches how the impact of tourism is affecting sustainable land development, public transportation choices, and how other countries are using low-carbon technologies today.
  • Exposure to cultural experiences – from tasting new foods to learning phrases in a foreign language, ecotourism interprets cultural traditions and experiences that provide long-lasting impressions about the world.
  • Inspiration for a life’s passion – while snorkeling through a coral reef or observing animals in their natural habitat in Africa, ecotourism sparks the imagination to dream about a career or even find a solution to an environmental problem

Ecotourism even offers opportunities to incorporate your family vacation with your child’s science, social studies, foreign language, even art and music lesson plans. One of the most helpful and free resources available now is on the Rainforest Alliance site, which offers a Kindergarten – 8th Grade curriculum guide.

One example lesson plan for a Kindergarten student is entitled Biodiversity which challenges children to think about the diversity of local flora and fauna in local forests versus tropical forests as they classify insect and tree species, while the 8th Grade lesson plan entitled Guatemala’s Changing Forest has children learning about the Maya Biosphere Reserve by analyzing maps and determining recent changes in forest cover.

Dedication to the cause of the environment and its preservation can have a long-lasting impact on the way our younger generations feel more connected to ecosystems as well as view social involvement and economic success. Not only will children establish a deeper, longer-lasting connection with the region they are visiting during an ecotour, they will learn more about how they can make a more positive impact on the world.

Irene Lane is the founder & president of Greenloons, a company dedicated to providing nature enthusiasts and wildlife conservationists worldwide with trusted information about responsible, sustainable, and certified ecotourism travel vacations and volunteer conservation efforts both in the U.S. and internationally. For more information, see:

The Happy Planet Index as Travel Guide

Ethical tourism is not just about travel choices made on the road or steering clear of the over-capacity beaten path. It’s also about choosing destinations based on where tourism is most needed and deserved. In the past, calls for boycotts have tried to discourage travelers from visiting certain places, with mixed results. Perhaps a more effective approach is positive reinforcement – rewarding destinations that are making progress and doing things well.

The Ethical Traveler’s 10 Best Destinations

Each year, the Ethical Traveler comes out with a list of The Developing World’s 10 Best Ethical Destinations. The organization, which hopes to “empower travelers to change the world,” uses three main criteria. They consider environmental protection, social welfare, and human rights in developing countries, paying close attention to how they have recently changed and improved.

The lineup for 2011 is: Argentina, Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Latvia, Lithuania, Palau, Poland, Uruguay.

In this rating, countries make the list by demonstrating growth in all three areas. For example Costa Rica returned to the list after being omitted last year because it took real steps in addressing human trafficking issues. Meanwhile, Belize did not make the cut because of a growing problem with child sex tourism.

The Ethical Traveler does a great job thinking about tourism as economic clout that can influence policy and planning in a destination. But for longer-term travelers who live abroad for awhile, impact reaches far beyond spending money.

The Three Components of the Happy Planet Index

The Ethical Traveler’s list is a blend of three important variables – the environment, social welfare, and human rights. Over the past decade, another index has emerged with a similar idea. The Happy Planet Index (HPI) ranks countries based on life expectancy, life satisfaction, and per capita ecological footprint. The reasoning is to identify places that offer long, happy lives that don’t cost the earth.

The second ranking from the HPI was released in 2009, with troubling results. No place on earth is able to provide long, happy lives for its people while staying within environmental limits of “one-planet living*.” To achieve one-planet living, a country must keep its ecological footprint below the level that corresponds to its fair share given the world’s current biocapacity and population.

*”If everyone in the world lived like an average European, we would need three planets to live on. If everyone in the world lived like an average North American, we would need five planet to live on.” (One Planet Living)

The countries that come closest to long, happy lives with one-planet environmental impact are often middle-income countries. Latin America, for example, does particularly well on the HPI. The latest top-ranking countries on the HPI: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Guatemala, Vietnam, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador and Brazil.

The Happy Planet Index data on a World Map (

What does the HPI mean for travel? Travelers love to speculate about how happy the people of a destination are. It’s an important aspect of place. Looking at the ‘life satisfaction’ variable alone, good data exists to inform the speculation. Combining this with life expectancy as an approximation of health, “happy life years” can be quantified.

The usual winners emerge: Scandinavia, Western Europe, and Anglo-Saxon countries of Australia, Canada, and the US. If health and happiness are the only concerns, then maybe there’s no need to leave home. What sets these countries behind on the HPI is their disproportionate ecological footprint per capita. The longest, happiest lives are often the ones that are costing the planet the most.

Lowering Environmental Impact by Living Somewhere Else

Longer-term travel is a rising trend. Students from all over are following Britain’s example of a ‘gap year’ before university. Study abroad and volunteer tourism are also gaining popularity. International travel is occurring to more and more people as a way to spend a chapter of life rather than just a way to take a short break from it.

For an environmentally-minded long-term travelers who like to park their backpacks and call a place home for awhile, some important questions arise. Can living in a place with lower per capita ecological footprint decrease individual footprint? Are health and happiness compromised in the process?

Of course, individual carbon footprint is always a function of personal choices. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are if you’re driving a hummer, flying frequently, and eating imported meat for every meal.

What is it like to live in a country whose per capita ecological footprint is within the “one-planet” limit? The HPI could be seen as an atlas for those who want to find out. If a traveler lives like an average local resident for awhile, then theoretically their individual footprint will be similar to the local population’s. At that level, can high standards of health and happiness still be maintained? The HPI offers good insight about where in the world it is most possible to find the best of both worlds.

If you’re thinking about volunteering, studying, working, or just living abroad for awhile, check out Ethical Traveler’s list and the Happy Planet Index. They overlap in some interesting areas. Parts of Latin America are making a lot of progress that deserves tourism attention, and the region also does well in the HPI. Three small island countries appear in the top ten of both.

Find a destination where you can reinforce progress. If you stay long enough, your destination may even influence your own ecological footprint, health, and happiness.