Guiding People Through Nature

Leading expeditions into the wild has evolved into a full-time profession, and the people doing it play an increasingly important role in conservation education

  • Michael Lipske
  • Jun 01, 2006
THE CLIENT was being a pill. Or so it must have seemed to the guides, taking a break from their duties at a base camp in Africa, when she interrupted them to complain about a lizard in her tent. "Well, the tents often have these skinks, which are just three or four inches long," recalls professional wildlife guide Steve Morello. The skinks, he told her, eat insects and are even an endangered species, so she was actually quite lucky to have the harmless visitor. "If it bothers you, just shoo it away," he suggested.

Soon the client was back, however. The lizard wouldn't budge, she said, and she didn't mean to be a nuisance, but could someone please help her out? "So we opened up her tent and, lo and behold, there was a 3-foot monitor lizard sitting on her bed," Morello says of the reptilian intruder.

While that traveler may have gotten a little more than she bargained for, the experience no doubt was one she will remember the rest of her life. And for seasoned outdoor guides like Morello, who pride themselves on their ability to give their clients exceptional encounters with wildlife and the natural world, that's what their business is all about.

Not so long ago, if you signed up for a nature trip, your tour leader was apt to be a high-school science teacher or college professor with the summer off. They would trade their basic knowledge of the outdoors and interpretative skills for a free trip and a little income. But these days, guiding people through the outdoors has evolved into a full-time profession and the people practicing it frequently come with advanced degrees in the natural sciences or similar disciplines.

"We're kind of like modern troubadours, except with, hopefully, a higher degree of knowledge," Morello says of the profession he came to after years of conducting whale research off Massachusetts. A guide for the past 20 years, he helped found Natural Habitat Adventures, a major player in the nature-tour industry, and recently started a smaller company, Green Planet Expeditions.

With some companies now shepherding thousands of customers annually on trips to view wolves, polar bears, penguins, whales and other animals, many guides are spending more than half the year on the road or deep in the bush. "It's demanding work. You always have to be on your toes," says Dan Gifford, manager of NWF Expeditions, which relies on top-notch guides to give its clients memorable trips. "But the rewards also are great. You not only get to spend most of your time in fantastic places, you also get to take people whose lives tend to be far removed from the natural world and teach them about wildlife."

Along the way, the guides function as clients' travel advisers, guidance counselors and more. But their most valuable service is telling nature's story. Indeed, these days, leading nature trips isn't so much about telling people what they're seeing. "I really like knowing what things are, but there's a lot more involved in interpreting natural history than simply identifying birds or snakes or flowers," says Tom Ritchie, senior trip leader for Lindblad Expeditions, another major player in the industry. "It's very satisfying to be able to explain to people perceived relationships in nature, many of which are truly marvelous."

"Global environmental educators, that's what we've become," adds longtime guide Ged Caddick, head of Terra Incognita Ecotours, who formerly worked with endangered species in zoos. "It's obviously very powerful for people to see an elephant at the zoo," he says, reflecting on why he switched careers. "They see how big it is and how it smells and they gain an understanding. But when they go and see an elephant in the wild, the experience is like a quantum leap." Guiding, he came to feel, was a way "to be even more effective in educating people about conservation."

Gaddick and other guides point to a range of reasons for the growth of their profession and wildlife tourism. Nature programming on television "just reinforces people's desire to see wild things," says Morello. So does the sense that so many wild creatures and places are under assault and may not be seen in the same way decades from now.

Another factor: The demographic reality of the baby boom, observes Cory Lawrence of Off the Beaten Path, a company that runs trips in the American West. His clients tend to be in their mid-50s and still very active. "I've heard people say that the baby boomers generally refuse to grow older," says Lawrence, "and one way to defy aging is to really get out there."

Out there where the trails are rugged, the animals are wild and an experienced guide--with a master's degree in biology and the people-managing skills of a hotel concierge--will weave a soul-stirring narrative of natural history that travelers can savor long after they've gone home.

"I've seen people who are moved to tears when you get them near a wild animal," says Caddick. "And they go home and become advocates and ambassadors for that species or that conservation issue. If I didn't believe that we were making a difference, I wouldn't be doing it."

Writer Michael Lipske lives in Washington, D.C.

Great Destinations 
For more than 30 years, the NWF Expeditions Travel Program has been escorting travelers to some of the world's great wildlife destinations. "We make sure that when you travel with us, you go home not only with photos or souvenirs but also knowledge and valuable experiences," says Program Manager Dan Gifford. This year's trips offer travelers a wide range of choices. For more information, visit or call 1-800-606-9563.

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