Satisfying low-impact night-time wildlife tours

This experimental wildlife research determines opportunities for low-impact night-time viewing of wildlife coupled with high visitor satisfaction.

The research was presented in Wolf, I.D. & Croft, D.B. (2012). Observation techniques that minimize impacts on wildlife and maximize visitor satisfaction in night-time tours Tourism Management Perspectives 4, 164-175

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Background of study and methods

Golden mantled rosella (Platycercus eximius ssp. cecilae)Nocturnal observation of wildlife is a popular tourist attraction. However, there is very little research about its impact on wildlife and thus the optimal trade-off in minimising impacts and maximizing visitor satisfaction.

This research first used a questionnaire-based survey to determine the characteristics of a satisfying nocturnal wildlife tour for visitors to a popular Australian rangeland tourist site.

Applying the survey results, observation methods typically employed in night-time wildlife tours were analysed. Compared were the results achieved with:

  • different illumination: white vs. red vs. infrared light
  • watch modes: sitting at artificial watering points vs. hiking in creek beds
  • observation times: starting at dusk vs. 2 hours past dusk
  • wind speed.
  • A particular interest by visitors was revealed in high-tech wildlife observation equipment such as night vision devices and bat detectors.
  • Further satisfaction was said to be gained from specific types of wildlife and wildlife behaviour viewed, as well as close, species-rich and abundant observations.
  • Preferred conduct of the tour: namely, early after dinner, stationary at watering points or a tour combining a night-hike followed by a stationary observation at a watering point, and during calm nights.
  • Respondents underestimated aversive effects on wildlife imposed by night-time tours, which suggests that there is need for education.

Main insights

What type of night-time viewing is most rewarding to participants?

Abundance and species richness of the non-bat fauna and bat activity were greatest at artificial watering points directly after dusk during calm nights.

A night vision device enhanced by infrared light facilitated closer observations, the viewing of undisturbed wildlife behaviour and revealed more species than under white or red light.

When was the night-time viewing the best?

Chart showing night-time observation distance of non-bat fauna for various light sources
Chart showing number of bat passes in various light sources during the night time study

Chart showing kangaroo behaviours with various light sources in the night time study
Chart showing bird behaviours in the night time study

Observation distance, abundance and wildlife behaviour were all influenced by the type of observation technique: a night vision device coupled with infrared light was least intrusive and therefore observations were closer, increased incidence of wildlife detection and yielded more observations of the 'sought-after' social behaviour.


This research showed that scientific studies can determine which visitor activities can facilitate comparatively low-impact wildlife viewing coupled with high visitor satisfaction. Importantly, this study showed that both outcomes can be achieved at the same time.

Overall, night-time observation of wildlife in the Australian rangelands provided a contemporary experience of the Australian fauna with a reasonable number of wildlife sightings and high species richness. NSW parks in the far West could benefit from promoting encounters with large and unique wildlife such as kangaroos that congregate near watering points where they display natural behaviour. However, expectations of participants in night-time tours should not be raised beyond reason as the viewing of free-ranging wildlife always remains unpredictable.

This research suggests that when conducting wildlife viewing in similar ecosystems as used for study, it should be done on calm, fair-weather nights, and commenced with a 0.5 hour creek bed hike followed by 0.5–1 hour of a stationary observation at a water point. The equipment necessary for the nocturnal observation is best set-up opposite favoured access sites to water by wildlife where the size of the water point is sufficiently small to facilitate close observations.

A night vision device enhanced by infrared light provided the best viewing experience. Night vision goggles are particularly useful as they can be worn during both ambulatory and stationary observations. As survey respondents wished to experiment with novel technical equipment, bat detectors seem an excellent complement to the tour experience.

Equipment should be introduced and explanations provided on appropriate viewing behaviour as the potential impacts of night-time viewing are likely underrated by participants.

Given that a single quiet observer conducted these experiments, complimentary studies are needed on the impacts of additional factors such as tour group size.