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
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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.