Tourism in line with bird conservation

How far do I travel to watch a rare bird? How do I keep my ecological footprint low if I want to see the world, experience unknown bird species and want to explore different nature? Questions, on which George Armistead finds answers in his job. The impacts of the climate change unfold before George’s eyes directly in his home region of Philadelphia and the Mid-Atlantic states where he pursues birds. Since the water level rises, many farmers sell their land as the over salted soils do no longer yield a good return.

George is Chief Network Officer for Rockjumper, one of the globally largest travel agencies for bird-watching tours. During the year George himself only accompanies around two to three tours. His focus and his personal main concern are Rockjumper’s conservation and partnerships. All tour guides of the company are bird-watchers since very young, so bird conservation is not only a question of the natural interest to preserve their commercial basis but a personal affair of their hearts.

Protecting and celebrating birds and biodiversity is identified as one Rockjumper’s core values.

Of each registration for a tour Rockjumper reserves a minimum of 50 USD of their profit for the fund. George manages the fund, promotes Rockjumper’s interests in bird conservation and finds local and international partners, who benefit of the money. Last year, in 2018, they collected 292,2999 USD in this way. Rockjumper invests the money in activities like bird monitoring, research work as well as tangible conservation measures of habitats and PR work for the local importance of bird conservation.

The partners for bird and nature conservation are at first hand BirdLife International and their national organizations like Audubon in USA, the American Birding Association with their youth program especially, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East as well as smaller initiatives.

All this partners are overseen and connected by George and Team Rockjumper. Regularly, he organizes in addition tours and events with the organizations to celebrate the joy of bird-watching and to collect money for specific bird conservation programs.

In the age of nine George started his bird-watching career. His father was the first book review editor of the American Birding Association’s (ABA) magazine and a “hardcore birder” as George describes him. George keeps faith with the association his whole life. For five years he even was working for ABA to organize events.

The mission of the organization is his life motto: “ABA’s goal is to inspire all people to protect and enjoy wild birds”.

Actually, George wanted to work in environmental consulting after his master in Pennsylvania. But he always was attracted by outdoor jobs to connect people closer to nature. Although his today’s job mainly happens in front of a computer in his office, while he connects organizations, finds bird conservation projects and draws up ecotourism tours, he thinks: “It is the most challenging job I ever had, but at the same time my favorite ever. The world is our office.”

Not only the destinations of the tours are spread over the whole world, also the Rockjumper employees are. The headquarter is in South Africa, but the tour guides live in Africa, Asia, USA and Europe. In every little radius one may bring the world back home today. George daily aligns with his colleagues from South Africa, Europe and other parts of the US in online-meetings.

As there is the danger that the personal part is ignored if you do not meet face-to-face, they start their meetings with positive news, which everybody experienced. George likes to report about his personal bird-watching adventures in Philadelphia or his favorite football-team. Occasionally, those two passions lead George to a real conflict. Last year he heard from friends that a White-winged Tern appeared in Philadelphia at the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.

But exactly on this evening a friend had invited him to a football match of the Eagles. As the tickets had been difficult to get he did not want to reject the invitation under no circumstances. Anyhow, the White-winged Tern occupied his mind during the match. Directly after the game he drove to the field and found the tern in the last minutes before sunset. George loves his excursions in the areas. Recently he got the first Sandhill Cranes of the region in front of his optics.

He describes that he is dependent on this short trips that everybody may live with him in a harmonic way. It guarantees his good mood.

Enough green spaces in urban areas are an essential health aspect for everyone in his eyes. Birds are the animals that are most easy to reach even for city dwellers to connect to nature. That is why he puts all his energy in protecting them.

Even so George experiences his work for bird conservation, with the partners and his local tours as totally engaging, he enjoys the occasional trips he guides, especially the Antarctica Charter Tour with the focus on bird conservation. Last year the Rockjumper tour guides counted 8,064 different bird species, which their groups watched around the world. Since many years Rockjumper collaborates with ZEISS to have the best optics with them on tours.

However, it is not only about birds, mammals and the best view on their tours. Good food and a positive mood in the group are crucial. George describes himself as an irascible infant if he does not eat regularly. He always ensures sufficient meals on his tours. In his eyes there is nothing better than to celebrate the adventures and bird sightings of the day at a dinner with delicious food and drinks.

Who guides a travel group in three weeks needs energy, charisma and good planning skills. Sometimes the tour guide is the one to clean up after a party, sometimes he acts as a psychologist, now and then he is the shepherd or he has the role of a good football coach. The tour guide has to sense how much the group still manages, he has to transform frustration at bad weather days into positive energy and he has to deal in a sovereign way with suddenly occurring problems at remote places. The birds always reliably exert their impressive effects on the groups. On them George and his colleagues may rely without any organizational effort as long as we all ensure to sustain their habitats.

Michaela Sulz

Michaela Sulz is a passionate birder and blogger for ZEISS Nature Blog.