In 2019 responsible ecotourism operator Inglorious Bustards launched their Flyway Promise, a comprehensive commitment to nature and the environment that seeks to have a positive impact on their surroundings – the East Atlantic flyway.

We caught up with conservationists Simon and Niki to learn more about the concept they’ve coined #FlywayBirding and how they’re putting conservation action and education at the heart of their business.

How did your focus on sustainability and ecotourism come about?

We both worked for conservation organisations for most of our previous careers – that work is a passion and a way of life, not just a job! When we decided to change direction and enter ecotourism, we did so with a vision of turning the traditional approach on its head and putting conservation and education at the heart of everything we do, making a positive impact on the environment wherever we travel by empowering local conservation organisations.

Our challenge was – and still is – to share the joy of watching wildlife all along the East Atlantic Flyway, but ensure that our trips cause no damage and bring only good things for the environment. We want to make sure that, when people travel with us, they’ll be benefitting, not exploiting the wildlife we see together.

Red-necked Nightjar. © Inglorious Bustards.

We’ve thought hard about how to bring a completely fresh approach to delivering wildlife holidays from a sustainable standpoint, making only a positive impact on our surroundings. And we’ve worked extremely hard to build some fantastic partnerships to help us! On our trips, “eco-tourism” is a promise, not an oxymoron!

We called this concept our #FlywayPromise.

Why the name ‘#FlywayPromise’?

Birds are amazing global travellers! Migratory birds such as the Turtle dove face epic journeys of 4000 miles twice a year from sub-Saharan countries like The Gambia to UK breeding grounds so when were thinking about their conservation, we really have to look at the big picture.

Our work for UK conservation NGOs centred around the plight of farmland birds in arable areas, including trying to prevent the loss of the Turtle Dove as a breeding bird from the UK. It took us all along the “East Atlantic Flyway” – though migratory areas in southern Europe to wintering grounds in the Gambia – working on projects whereby the process of sustainably growing birdseed for the UK market could also be used to create habitat areas for migratory birds, providing places to rest and feed for the long migratory journey.

It was here the idea was born to take an exciting new approach to ecotourism, hosting #FlywayBirding trips to some of the best wildlife watching areas across the East Atlantic Flyway, and using those visits to support local grass roots conservation initiatives – each one small on its own, but together providing ‘stepping stones’ across the Flyway.

Conservation is one of the foundations of ecotourism – whereby companies can not just sustain but help actively conserve the areas where they operate for the future. How does Inglorious Bustards support conservation work?

All across the East Atlantic Flyway, there are passionate individuals and local NGOs running brilliant small-scale conservation initiatives, making immediate positive differences for both migratory and local wildlife! We work with partners all across the Flyway, through financial contribution, volunteering of time, donation of fundraising and promotional expertise and of course bringing our guests to see their important work.

Our partners include: The Migres Foundation, who deliver the longest-running migration monitoring programme in Europe, almost entirely using volunteers; Marisma 21, an organisation devoted to the restoration of the salt marshes in the Bay of Cadiz, an important ecological area for migratory wading birds through artisanal salt production; and the Gambia Birdwatchers Association, who are training the next generation of Gambian ornithologists, restoring mangrove swamp habitat and empowering communities to preserve their own forests.

Inglorious Bustard and Migres front-man Alejandro monitors the passage of soaring Birds. © Inglorious Bustards

Our vision is with our help, that the combined work of these small but highly skilled local organisations can make a real difference for migratory birds across the Flyway.

Why is food choice such an important issue and what is Inglorious Bustards doing about this?

In the words of one of our partners, “The fork is the most powerful tool to change the planet.”

While everyone talks about electricity generation and fossil fuel consumption, it is an oft-ignored fact that by far the best way of having a positive impact on our planet is to change what we eat.

Findings presented at the IPCC in October 2018 were striking and conclusive. Currently 85% of the world´s farmed land produces just 18% of our calories. Loss of wildlife areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife. This is the legacy of unsustainable meat and dairy production, which has enormous environmental costs in terms of habitat loss, air and water pollution and carbon release. In order to keep global temperature rise below 2ºC by 2020, we as global citizens need to eat around nine times less red meat, five times less poultry and five times more legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Declines in the European Turtle Dove can be directly linked to intensive agriculture. © Inglorious Bustards.

Luckily in our part of the world taking action to improve food sustainability is a delicious experience! We want to make the choice to eat ethically an irresistible one! Thanks to our partnerships with organic growers and excellent vegetarian eateries, on our trips we are able to offer a higher proportion and better quality of vegetarian options on our dinner menus than ever before.

Our picnics always contain seasonal local produce from small farmers. In all of our destinations, we are lucky enough to find a wealth of small artisanal producers, many of whom are organic. In 2019 we will source at least 50% of the fresh goods in our picnics from them. Our aim is to increase this to 75+% by 2020. This isn’t just for conservation reasons! In Spain, local extensively grazed goats´ and sheeps´ cheeses are mouth-wateringly superb, and Andalusian organic tomatoes and peppers are quite simply world-beaters! The wealth of extensive grazing also means that sustainably-produced free range meat is par for the course on all our tours, and you’ll never be denied the chance to try some of the delicious locally-produced meat dishes our destinations are famous for.

With travel, especially international travel, one of the biggest challenges for businesses seeking to operate sustainably is carbon emissions – with flights and on-ground transport often being the biggest contributors. Can you tell us a bit about how you’re offsetting carbon emissions? Why did you choose the offsetting scheme you chose?

Inglorious Bustards have pledged to offset unavoidable carbon emissions through World Land Trust’s (WLT) Carbon Balanced programme.

Unlike some carbon-offsetting schemes, this is not simply a case of absolving guilt by shoving some trees in an ill-thought-out location! WLT funds the purchase or lease of threatened land to create nature reserves, protecting both habitats and their wildlife. By protecting and restoring threatened forest in key areas of conservation importance, CO₂ emissions are prevented and carbon storage enhanced. To make projects like this work, this fore-sighted organisation includes, rather than excludes local communities. It funds partner NGOs to employ local people as reserve rangers, sustainably managing some of the world’s most threatened habitats and the animals found within them.

We balance all the CO₂ emissions associated with our staff flights and all in-country travel and accommodation associated with our tours. We are also encouraging our customers to offset their own holiday flights through WLT and have introduced an option to our booking form allowing them to offset as they book their trip.

However, it’s important to give thought to minimising impact in the first place rather than just paying to offset. In Spain, we minimise the emissions associated with our in-country transport by use of modern, fuel-efficient vehicles and careful route-planning.

The “Bustard-bus”.

Our focus on hosting trips along the glorious East Atlantic Flyway means that we are able to arrive at 90% of our tour destinations to meet our guests without boarding a flight ourselves.

How are you working to reduce plastic consumption in your operations?

As individuals and as a company we’ve always been careful about avoiding reusing and recycling plastic. And as people who avidly enjoy seeing the copious marine life the Strait of Gibraltar has to offer, we are unbelievably pleased that, after many years of campaigning, the horror of the extent of plastic consumption and waste has finally entered the public consciousness, and changes might actually be made.

Of all the hazardous materials littering our seas today, plastic poses one of the greatest threats – Long-finned Pilot Whales. © Inglorious Bustards

Thanks to our locally-produced food sourcing, the excess of packaging associated with supermarkets is immediately eliminated. When we buy dry and other goods, we buy in bulk and manage their use carefully, thus reducing both food and packaging waste. Luckily Niki is from Yorkshire originally, so thrift comes naturally!

We ask our clients to bring their own water bottles which are filled from taps or potable mountain springs. In countries outside the EU where tap water is not drinkable, we buy large containers and decant into personal bottles to reduce plastic waste.

How do you involve guests in learning about your conservation and other initiatives?

We want our guests to enjoy superb wildlife-watching experiences, in a relaxed atmosphere and have brilliant fun in the process. But we also hope that they’ll take more than just memories and photos away with them.

With the help of our conservation partners, we make sure they’re able to feel involved with the protection of the local environment, by providing opportunities to meet with the people working on the ground and visit the conservation initiatives we support. Nothing makes a greater impression than seeing a conservation struggle or success with your own eyes, and it ensures people go away with their thoughts provoked, and hopefully determined to do a little more on their own local area – thus becoming part of our #FlywayFamily!

Sustainable, traditional management of the salt pans for the environment, nature and people. © Inglorious Bustards.

What would you recommend to other operators who wish to operate more responsibly?

We know that many small wildlife tour operators have nature at their hearts, and we learn from them all the time. Our hope is not to be different, but that others will rise to this challenge too. Our approach is that the very first thing you do is think hard about how to eliminate as much of your own impact as possible, for example reducing single-use plastic use and sourcing local produce. Once you have minimised the impact of your own activities, then the magic can really happen! You are now helping people to enjoy wildlife and learn about conservation simply by bringing them, and it’s then a small step to start creating real positive change by getting involved with local conservation projects.

Is there anything you’d still like to continue improving? What next steps are on the horizon?

Basically, stay tuned! We are growing a little very year, and as we do, so does the work we can do with our partners to deliver real conservation benefits on the ground. For 2019-20 we have some really exciting projects in the pipeline in Spain and The Gambia. All will be revealed…

We’re also working closely with our accommodation providers across the board to come up with balanced menus that are not so heavily meat-based. We are lucky enough to know some really talented chefs, and in 2019-20 we will be working towards introducing at least one meat-free day to every trip (an approach pioneered in partnership with our Straits accommodation provider, Huerta Grande eco-lodge), as well as making sure vegetarian options are as superb as the rest of the menu!

We work with our accommodation providers too, continually making small improvements that add up, including finding practical ways to avoid single use water and shampoo bottles. Hopefully they feel supported and encouraged to expand this new approach to other groups!

After all it’s the little steps adding up that can eventually inspire great change!

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To learn more about Inglorious Bustard’s Flyway Promise, check out this article on their website or search #FlywayPromise on social media.

Featured image: Migrating White Storks © Inglorious Bustards.