A Mammalwatcher’s Code of Conduct

A little over a year ago Richard Webb triggered a lively discussion around a mammalwatching code of conduct. Although opinions differed on some of the content, many of us felt it was an important initiative. So – with Richard’s agreement – I decided to take it forward, and consulted with a few biologists and conservation people to get their comments. This may have been something of a biased sample as these people are all also mammalwatchers!

This has taken me far longer that it should have – all entirely my fault – but here is my attempt at a Code of Conduct. Thank you very much to Andrew Balmford, Rohan Clark, Will Duckworth, Charles Foley, Mac Hunter and Fiona Reid for their comments, many of which have been incorporated here. But all opinions  – and mistakes – are mine not theirs!

This is a work in progress though and please do continue the discussion here that Richard started and let this community know what you think about these. For me the bottom line is that we should be doing more good than harm, and these guidelines aim at maximising the former and minimising the latter.

Jon, Feb 2020

Introduction

Mammalwatching – enjoying the observation of wild mammals – is becoming more popular in many countries. The term spans a broad range of activities. Some are popular: an African safari or a day’s whale watching for example. Some are a little more niche: spending a year travelling the world to look at bats. But these guidelines are aimed anyone who watches mammals anywhere.

The overarching rationale behind these guidelines is to help ensure that mammalwatching is a force for good in conservation. In other words, mammalwatchers should do more good than harm when we interact with nature. The guidelines should be interpreted with this in mind: the potential negative impacts of every action on an animal being watched should be weighed against the possible benefits to the species that might come from new knowledge. We don’t believe the ends always justify the means. But sometimes the means can be adjusted if the ends are sufficiently important.

Almost every time we enter an animal’s habitat we run the risk of disturbing wildlife. Indeed it is almost unavoidable that we will affect the animals we have come to watch. And yet many of us have an opportunity to benefit places, people and science too, especially when we visit remote areas that seldom see tourists (and their economic benefits) or have rarely been studied by science. Every responsible mammalwatcher should try to minimise our negative impact while maximising the benefits. An obvious example is to offset our carbon footprint every time we fly by purchasing carbon credits, preferably in a forest like Gola in Sierra Leone that is important for many rare mammals.

Quite how to strike that balance will vary from place to place and can be debated. Much of this code of conduct should be interpreted somewhat differently in different areas according to local laws, customs, scientific knowledge and more.

General

  • Avoid unnecessarily disturbing mammals and/or their habitat.
  • Familiarise yourself with, and obey, the laws of the country – or area – you are in. Legislation on small mammal trapping in particular varies widely around the world. In Australia for instance it is forbidden to trap for any native species of small mammal without a permit or formal approval.
  • Stay on roads, trails and paths where they exist to keep habitat disturbance to a minimum. Always respect local rules and customs about entering private land.
  • Stay a sensible distance away from the animal both for their safety and yours. What is “safe” will depend on the species and whether you are on foot, in a vehicle or on a boat. Formal approach distance regulations exist for cetacean watching in many areas.
  • Pursuing a clearly stressed animal, approaching nests or dens too closely, or placing yourself between a mother and her young can endanger both the animal and you.
  • Using recordings, e.g. to call in primates, or lures to call in predators, can have a negative impact on animal populations. It should be done sparingly, if at all, especially in locations where mammal watching activities are frequent and the impacts are likely to be cumulative.

Spotlighting

  • Use the lowest wattage/lumen light necessary to spotlight in the relevant habitat. Lower power lights are generally adequate for detecting eyeshine in forested habitats and indeed are often more effective as some animals avoid the light. Thermal scopes and thermal scanners are less invasive than spotlights.
  • Where possible reduce the light’s intensity once you move from finding to observing a mammal, or switch to green or red filters. Ensure that highest intensity area of the light beam is not directed into the eyes (i.e. the mammal should be towards the edge rather than in the centre of the beam).
  • Avoid shining the light on an animal for more than a few minutes particularly at sites where spotlighting occurs regularly.

Small Mammal Trapping

  • Trapping should only be carried out in countries where it is legal to do so. In many countries (or areas within them) licences or permits from the national or regional wildlife management authorities are mandatory.
  • Small mammal trapping should only be undertaken by those with sufficient experience to avoid unnecessary risk to wildlife. If you plan to trap it is important to first gain experience with experts, for instance by attending small mammal trapping training offered by local naturalist groups and conservation organisations, or volunteering to assist with small mammal surveys (many members of the mammalwatching forum can advise on local opportunities to do just this).
  • Even if you have experience, and are legally permitted to do so, carefully consider the need for this activity before carrying out small mammal trapping. Even the most careful small mammal trapping is invasive and creates a risk of mammals being accidentally injured or even killed.
  • Traps should have suitable food for any species likely to be trapped, including insectivores. which require more food than rodents.
  • The biggest risk to captured animals comes from extreme temperatures: traps should have adequate bedding to enable captive animals to remain warm in cold conditions. Traps should also be positioned to avoid exposure to early morning sun. Traps should be checked regularly: the appropriate interval will depend on the species likely to be captured and weather conditions. But this often means checking the traps late at night and first thing in the morning. Traps should not be left open during the day given risks of exposure to heat from direct sunlight and potential for by-catch such as reptiles and small birds.
  • Traps should be routinely cleaned, especially when moving them from one location to another.

Baiting

  • Baiting should only ever be undertaken sparingly. Repeated baiting at a site increases the risk of disease and predation and can create a dependency.
  • Live baiting is cruel and unacceptable. Anyone encountering live baiting should encourage those carrying it out to stop and where appropriate report it to the appropriate authorities.

Bat Roosts

  • Avoid disturbing bat roosts particularly at hibernation sites or when bats have young.
  • Ensure that you wash clothes and boots thoroughly between visiting bat roosts (especially caves in the USA) because of the risk of spreading diseases such as White-nose Syndrome. Boots should be washed with dilute bleach.
  • Never handle bats without the required licences and vaccinations. Catching bats, especially in mistnets, can potentially harm animals. It should only be undertaken by those with experience, permits and a wish to contribute to conservation.
  • Do not use bright lights in bat roosts. Flash photography will also disturb the animals, especially at large roosts.

Reporting

  • Reporting sightings can be importantboth for science and to promote mammal watching and the associated eco-tourism benefits.
    • Consider submitting data to the relevant local wildlife management agency or citizen science database especially when records are interesting. If threatened or rarely known species are involved share the sightings with the relevant IUCN SSC Specialist Group or regional conservation agencies or recovery teams.
    • Writing a report about a trip and sharing it on mammalwatching.com is good practice. Please don’t rely on other people’s reports without contributing back to the community. The best reports include details of the logistics on how to get to sites and contact details of guides as well as species seen. But such detailed reports are not, of course, compulsory and information is better than none. Please do not feel you have to submit a report in English (Google translate is a wonderful thing!).
  • We encourage sharing as much information as possible about interesting sightings, unless there are compelling reasons not to. For example if there is a credible reason to believe poachers might target the area as a result of a report (see these guidelines for birders on how to avoid doing exactly this ).
  • Approach species identification with caution as many small mammals and bats in particular are hard to identify in the hand, let alone the field. Reports that are suitably circumspect about difficult identifications are of greater value to both science and the mammal watching community than cavalier identifications. Including photographs and other details is good practice when possible. In other words, if you are uncertain about a sighting please say so clearly: “best guesses” may skew our understanding of species distributions and more.

Organised Tours

  • There is the potential for guides to push the boundaries to unacceptable levels both to please the more novice clients and those clients with high demands. Encourage operators (and all others within the mammal watching community) to adopt these guidelines for the benefit of conservation. If you feel guides are getting too close or behaving inappropriately don’t be afraid to say so. Similarly don’t place unrealistic demands on guides to produce views of mammals that are obtained in a manner that is not ethical
  • Tip and recommend guides for good practice not just for finding target species.

And Finally

  • Last, but not least, please help locals appreciate the value of their wildlife and encourage them to protect the animals and their habitat. Try to be generous with your thanks and tips when you see animals being protected by a community with much less than you may have. Remember income from mammal watching trips may be instrumental in protecting a patch of forest or a certain species. Respect local people, their land and their customs. Upsetting local people, or being disrespectful, can cause considerable problems in the long term both for the wildlife and for future mammal watchers.

 

6 Comments
  1. Profile photo of Vladimir Dinets
    Vladimir Dinets 4 months ago

    A few additions I would suggest:
    -Traps should also be washed with diluted bleach between locations, even within the same geographical area (non-flying mammals have more limited dispersal abilities than bats, so carrying a virus or other pathogen to another population, even across a small river or a chain of hills, might have devastating effect). For the same reason, if you handle an animal and it pees/poops on your clothes, wash them well before moving to the next location.
    -Mistnets should never be left unattended for more than an hour; it is better to check them every ten minutes, or even watch continuously from a distance if you have a thermal scope.
    -Bat hibernation sites might actually be less sensitive to disturbance than other roosts.
    – Pitfall traps should have rain covers or drainage holes (but drainage holes can cause them to be flooded with groundwater, so can’t be used everywhere). Also, they need to be checked more often than box and cage traps because they are open to predators and often catch multiple animals (for example, there are places in Siberia where you can only get live birch mice if you check pitfall traps every hour, otherwise they get killed by shrews).
    – Old box traps with holes, rust, sharp edges etc. shouldn’t be used. Cage traps and leg traps are even more dangerous and shouldn’t be used at all, except for serious scientific reasons.
    – It would be great if we could do a joint study on the response of various mammals to light of different color. For example, I was surprised to find out than some horseshoe bats get spooked by the tiny red light that small cameras use for focusing.

  2. Jens 4 months ago

    As a scientist I am very familiar with these codes of conduct – we regularly have to sign them when we publish to show that we adhered to certain principles. These lists – just like yours – are mostly a list of prohibitions; i.e. what not to do. This makes sense for scientists but for the group of people who visit this website it might also make sense to think of behaviours we want to promote. I noticed that you included a few such behaviours towards the end of your list. Maybe we could think of even more. My suggestion is motivated by your statement that we should try to do more “good” than “harm”. After a long list of all the “bad” things we shouldn’t do it would be refreshing to then turn to a list of positives things we agree would have a positive impact.
    I can’t think of any items I would like to add to your list right away but it certainly got me thinking.

    • Profile photo of Jon Hall Author
      Jon Hall 4 months ago

      THat’s a very good point Jens. If you think of anything please let me know. I will have a think too.

      And thanks Vladimir – all good points.

  3. Jens 4 months ago

    Hi Jon, here are some ideas for things to promote:
    1. Contact information regarding local conservation agencies that are little known in some cases but deserve our support (by using their guiding services etc.).
    2. Encourage mammal watching activities that are local and that don’t necessarily always involve flights to far-flung places. This is not meant as a criticism or replacement of exotic travel but as an addition. Finding out about local mammal watching activities can be very enriching and can lead to better protection of those species on our “door-step”.
    3. My third point is partly implicit in some of the information you already listed. Many of our mammal-watching activities are undertaken as some form of eco-tourism. I guess, we all agree that we want this type of ecotourism to be sustainable in those regions, parks etc. where it is practiced. The sustainability concept can embrace many aspects of our activities reaching from the type of transport we use, to the lodges we stay at etc. This doesn’t mean that we have to be eco-purists at all times but merely that we become more aware of some of our choices.

    Nothing new of course and some people already include this type of information in their reports on this site which is helpful.

  4. Jan Ebr 3 months ago

    Now I am gonna get properly crucified here, but I honestly don’t understand mammal trapping for fun. It’s obviously an indispensable method for research, but it wouldn’t ever occur to me that I should do such thing just as a hobby mammalwatcher, I would just feel wrong doing that. But it seems to me that mammalwatching has set out in this way, so at least seeing it being taken heavily seriously in the Code is commendable.

    Then there is one other thing I don’t like and that’s the talk about tipping. I know this is second nature to any american, but I find the whole concept of tipping absurd. If it is a business transaction, I want to pay the agreed upon price – and depending on how I liked it, I will recommend it to other people. If it is more of a friendly setting, then giving someone money outside of a pre-agreed contact feels even weirder to me – “look at how rich I am…” Then when people go around the world and tip in places where it’s not originally a part of local culture (which is almost anywhere outside western and partly Arabic world) they export this habit there unnecessarily. I would be much happier if guides (however little I use them) charged the whole price they need to work comfortably upfront, instead of relying on an unspoken rule about giving them some more voluntarily.

    Finally on the topic of disturbance, I would really love to learn more. If there was a series of books on “How to see mammals on this continent with minimal disturbance”, I’d buy all of them right away, this is simply something that’s not that easy to find in normal books – which animals are sensitive to light? where does even a small disturbance cause unforeseen harm? In my years of birding I found many counter-intuituve examples in bird world and many if them are really unknown to the general audience and one simply feels like an idiot when you do something you shouldn’t just because you don’t have the right information.

  5. John Dixon 3 months ago

    Reporting

    Any site a local guide takes you to is an integral part of their income. They need repeat business. Do not publish precise details of stakeouts local guides have shown you. I do not consider this need apply to Western tourist company tours.

    Also, any photographs you publish should first have been stripped of geographic location information and captions/descriptions should be general.

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