Making a Difference with Terra Incognita Tours
Travelers give back with part of their fees going to great causes
By Kristina Kulyabina
Here’s an opportunity to get your National Geographic photograph of a mountain gorilla in Africa while simultaneously helping to sustain the species.
When planning an international trip, the budget sheet tends to overwhelm my eyes. Is it really worth it? I hesitate at first but always choose pursuing adventure over conserving my savings. Recently, I discovered an ecotour company that allows travelers to feel a little less guilty about spending thousands of dollars on a safari in Brazil.
Terra Incognita Ecotours, a Florida-based travel company was founded in 2004 by 53-year-old Gerard Caddick from England with a mission to utilize ecotourism as a way to pay for conservation in some of the world’s most remote regions. Travelers experience enticing wildlife including mountain gorillas, newly hatched penguins, pumas, among others in their natural habitats. In every destination, Ecotours partners with a conservation group or an organization in which a portion of each traveler’s payment for the ecotour is a contribution to the conservation partner.
Caddick passionately believes that it is our responsibility as human beings to attempt to leave the Earth better than we found it. Conservation has always been important to him as he has formerly worked with endangered species and overall wildlife conservation.
Depending on the conservation partner, some donations are received during the tour or immediately after the tour. Sometimes, Ecotours makes donations several times a year to the same destination. In fact, where there is enough demand to justify multiple trips, Ecotours will make multiple departures per year to the same destination. The trips, however, are limited to group size so that travelers can keep environmental impact low.
For instance, in Rwanda, Ecotours partners with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, also known as Gorilla Doctors. More than $75,000 had already been donated to Gorilla Doctors over the past seven years in efforts to help fund the protections and sustainability of the mountain gorilla population in wild Africa.
Mike Cranfield, 61, is the co-director of Gorilla Doctors and says that the gorilla population as a whole is currently growing faster than the human population by 4% in Rwanda and is the only great ape that is not diminishing in numbers.
“I feel that Ecotours is really doing the right thing by taking some of the profits gained from a destination and giving it back to the local supporting work,” says Cranfield. “I am happy they have chosen us not just for the money but the exposure to some of the great people that we meet through Ged’s company.”
Cranfield also says that the project workers provide an evening talk to all the people that are trekking to educate them about the animals and some of the procedures that make the event safer for the gorillas. Many trekkers choose to tour the Gorilla Doctors facilities as well.
Gorilla Doctors is overall very conscious of its spending with the donation funds. Some goes towards wages, gas, and tires, and all things necessary to respond quickly and efficiently to a serious health issue.
Cranfield hopes that Gorilla Doctors can help promote and expand the one health approach. The overall goal of the organization is to improve the health care of the gorillas through training and research and to slowly build capacity so the governments of the African countries can take over the project.
Each destination with Ecotours is visited at a different time per year – all depending on climate, desired view of animal species, etc. The trips typically last between ten days to two weeks. The limit for a normal group size is 16 people, although for puma watching in Chile and giant panda tracking in China limits the size to only eight people.
“Normally, we have two departures per year to China, two or three to Brazil, two or more to India, five or six to Chile and as many as ten departures per year to Rwanda,” says Caddick.
Most activities along the ecotours include taking safari game drives and trekking to view extraordinary wildlife or visiting local cultural and historical places. Caddick says that the travelers do not directly take part in the conservation partner projects.
“We simply help fund the projects because they often require highly specialized, professional level skills, not manual labor. For example, veterinary care, GIS mapping, technical skills, etc.,” he says.
Part of the selection process for new conservation partners is that the organization wants and appreciates the help from Ecotours. In a two-way partnership, Ecotours helps fund projects while in return the organizations provide tourists with beneficial insight and appreciation for the places visited.
“We always form very close, collaborative partnerships. They are more than just partners, they become friends,” says Caddick.
Caddick also says that travelers often donate more after a trip and meeting a conservation partner, some of which have donated tens of thousands of dollars after they have returned. Ecotours has a high return rate for travelers –some are now on a sixth or seventh trip while the company has only been in operation for seven years.
One of the most unique countries formerly visited among these tours was Rwanda – which Caddick happens to visit five times a year.
“It’s not just the incredible experience of looking into the eyes of a Gorilla, but the fact that you are walking on the same trails as Dian Fossey, or the fact that the people there today are so kind, gentle, warm and friendly, and yet have experienced the horrors of a Genocide so recently,” says Caddick. “It is an incredible nation – probably my favorite on Earth!”
Ecotours has now donated over $100,000 to projects in Rwanda including the Gorilla Doctors, school-children scholarships, and the Akilah Institute.
Susannah Smith, 44, a communications professional from Florida participated in the weeklong Rwanda ecotour to view the endangered mountain gorillas. She says the country held the most bio-diverse landscape she has ever experienced – “tropical, lush, almost like walking in a salad bowl with birds from heaven. I’m not kidding.”
Smith also says the Rwandans are the kindest and most warm-spirited people she has ever met. The overall experience helped her take a step forward in life.
“It was the trip of a lifetime- gut wrenching wildlife encounters, beautiful people, delicious food. And did I mention you crawl into bed with a cozy hot water bottle and your wake up call is coffee and biscuits delivered to your room as you hear the birds announcing the approaching sun?” she says.
More EcoTours Travelers
Joseph Darling, 71, is a retiree/volunteer at the Wolf Conservation Center who lives in New York. He traveled with Ecotours to Rwanda, Brazil, India, China, and is scheduled to go to Chile and the Falkland Islands.
He says he chose Ecotours because it provided him with the best possible wilderness experience to see the targeted wildlife of the area and because it is all structured to give back to the local communities and people.
“Ged Caddick ‘gets’ what I was looking for in a trip to see wildlife. Accommodations were generally among the best available and the tours were in the right area to best maximize viewing opportunities,” says Darling.
Darling also says that Rwanda was fantastic. “Terra Incognita Ecotours has been doing this trip for a long time and has access to incredible lodging and a great feel for getting the best gorilla treks for people of any fitness level,” says Darling.
“In my group we had a blind participant and Ged was able to get him to the gorillas for “the experience”. He has also been supporting the gorilla rehab center for many years and has a marvelous reputation with the locals. The trek was arduous but, aided by the porters and trackers all members of our group easily got to the viewing areas for the gorillas that day.”
The gorilla recovery efforts opened Darling’s eyes to the difficulties and efforts that the people of Rwanda are enduring in order to preserve the “magnificent” species.
“One of the main reasons I travel with Terra Incognita Ecotours is the knowledge that part of my costs are going to support an effort in the community. When you are helping save a species it is a natural high,” says Darling.
Caddick says that he wants to develop the next Ecotours with trips to Uganda and Australia. The projects and itineraries are still to be announced. A traveler can sign up by simply completing a booking form and paying the deposit amount, which varies based on the specific tour. Sometimes it takes up to two to three years to develop a new destination and suitable partner. Caddick visits potential new locations several times, investigating logistics and identifying suitable projects and conservation partners.
To learn more about Ecotours and how to join an upcoming trek, visit ecotours.com.
Kristina Kulyabina is an editorial assistant at GoNOMAD. She’s heading to Thailand to teach English in Fall 2013.
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