Andy Tucker, General Manager at the UK’s largest specialist wildlife tour operator, Naturetrek, brings his knowledge and passion for ecology to a company that shares his enthusiasm for quality nature travel.
How many people do Naturetrek take away each year?
When we started in 1987, 27 people travelled with us that year, and we now take away 4,000 people a year, which is growing at the rate of about 10% annually. Our clientele range from individual travellers joining a like-minded group of wildlife enthusiasts to private group trips for branches of organisations such as the RSPB.
What is your background in conservation?
I’ve always been a keen birder and naturalist from childhood and I studied Aquatic Biology at Aberystwyth University in Wales before working in fisheries consultancy for a while. I then travelled to South America and worked as a guide for a year in Peru and then a further year in Ecuador. Whilst in South America, I learnt Spanish whilst also studying the birds, fish and other wildlife of the Amazon basin. I joined Naturetrek in 1998 on returning to the UK. I began as Operations Assistant, then Operations Manager, and became General Manager around 2003/4.
How did you come to work at Naturetrek?
I met the founder, David Mills, at the British Birdwatching Fair, and having decided that I didn’t really want to pursue a career in fisheries, discovered that we shared a lot of the same aims in wanting to bring our passion for wildlife to the public through treks and tours.
The company started with a handful of wildlife treks to Nepal, Kashmir, Ladakh and Morocco – what was the process of that?
David Mills, who founded the company, began his career in his early 20s, guiding treks in the Himalayas. During his time doing this, he noticed that there were always two or three people lagging behind at the back with binoculars, wanting to pause and explore the wildlife in more detail. He realised that there was a gap in the market for tours that allowed people to walk and trek through pristine habitats, while enjoying the wildlife in-depth at the same time. Using his contacts, he began with a few treks to the Indian subcontinent and built up from there.
What input do you have in putting together the tours and how do you choose them?
We have five or six managers within the company who all cover specific geographical areas. Mine is South America and Western Europe and we get ideas from personal travels, or trips that we are hosted on by tour operators and ground handlers in specific countries. We also get inspiration for tours through television documentaries and even through a particular article in a newspaper or magazine. We’ve constantly got our ear to the ground and add around 20 to 35 new tours each year. Of course, some of the older tours slip off the programme as areas become affected by war or the Foreign Office advise against travel to a specific place, or simply because they have been run for a while and we want to try something new. We never stand still!
How do you source the expert ornithologists and guides?
We have a small group of trained guides from the UK that we employ full time, and we also call on the services of teachers, conservationists and ecologists, who will often lead tours in their spare time. We also use the leading resident naturalist guides in the countries we are visiting. We’re always open to new guides and will often get personal recommendations. Usually we would ask for a CV and if we like the look of this, we take it from there.
You run specific butterfly-watching tours with 10% of the income going to the Butterfly Conservation charity in the UK – how did this come about?
We’ve always worked with conservation organisations to try and help support their particular cause. In the past, we have been involved with the RSPB, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), International Animal Rescue (IAR) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). But we’ve been working with Butterfly Conservation for about 10 years now – we usually choose one charity to partner with – and donations are into six figures. Of course, we are always open to charities approaching us, and can help with things such as competition prizes. A relationship usually develops from there.
Jaguar safaris in the Pantanal and a unique Spectacled Bears and Condors tour in Peru are some exciting highlights. Can you tell me a bit more about those?
Jaguar-watching in the Pantanal is a red-hot ticket at the moment. The African savannah has provided the backdrop to wildlife holidays for going on 35 years with relatively easy access to the animals through land rover safaris, but South America has often proved to be a more difficult destination for large mammals, with the species there being secretive, thinly-spread and largely nocturnal. Things have changed in recent years though; there now exists some excellent accommodation in wildlife-rich areas, so long cruises or road journeys to get to places of interest are no longer necessary. Locally-based bilingual wildlife guides in Brazil are excellent, too. The Spectacled Bears and Condors tour in Peru is also a popular one, mixing the cultural and human aspects of Peru with the wildlife. We travel right into the world’s deepest canyon, the Colca Canyon, to look for Andean Condors, and the Spectacled Bears are a real draw, providing a reminder of Paddington Bear and his Peruvian roots! The eco-systems and cultural heritage of the Andes are varied and fascinating; a really amazing place to discover.