Cat Capon, 32, is on a mission to get people to care more about the planet – by getting up close and personal with wildlife and indigenous populations on adventure holidays. By seeking out unique ecotourism experiences she’s convinced we will have a better understanding of what is needed to preserve a billion years of natural history. Mike Peake talks to her
When did you first fall in love with animals, Cat?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love animals. Because I’m an only child, I was always with our family pets and loved being outdoors. I vividly remember one time when I was about six coming home from school with pockets full of ants. My mum asked me what on earth I was doing and I told her that I’d been watching them carry leaves, that they were just fascinating and that I wanted to keep them – which probably wasn’t the best idea. Another big influence was the wildlife documentaries of David Attenborough, which my parents encouraged me to watch from an early age.
How did all this turn into a job?
I went to Imperial College in London studying zoology and ecology – but I was much more about adventure and impact rather than the research side of science. I was really keen to get into wildlife TV so I did countless internships at independent production companies and then, because I had a mortgage to pay, I worked for Saatchi and Saatchi in their environmental section. That was great, because it let me work with some big blue chip companies on their corporate responsibility campaigns. It was nice to see how businesses can make an impact, but it was slightly soul-destroying when you realise a lot of the social initiatives of big businesses are basically very peripheral and intended to make people feel slightly less bad about buying their products.
It was nice to see how businesses can make an impact, but it was slightly soul-destroying when you realise a lot of the social initiatives of big businesses are basically very peripheral and intended to make people feel slightly less bad about buying their products.
Did TV lure you back?
Yes, my heart wasn’t in the other job and I went back to the TV world were I worked on a documentary with (British wildlife presenter) Steve Backshall, and then I worked with Richard Branson’s son making environmental films. While working there, and given his family’s obvious connections to travel, I realised the impact that responsible travel could have as a conservation tool for wildlife. It’s a win-win situation for the planet: people can go and see wildlife in its natural habitat and have an amazing experience and at the same time the money they are spending is also having a positive impact in preserving animals for the future.
So how did you break into ecotourism?
I came up with an idea to run a campaign about ecotourism and to try and get people to make a small change in their life by choosing holidays that were more environmentally-friendly. So not staying at carbon-consumptive five-star all-inclusive resorts where there’s no immersion into the culture or the wildlife, but staying instead with local people and getting as close as possible to wild animals and really understanding them – and wanting to make a difference in terms of their future on our planet.
It’s a win-win situation for the planet: people can go and see wildlife in its natural habitat and have an amazing experience and at the same time the money they are spending is also having a positive impact in preserving animals for the future.
You self-funded 12 different adventures around the world to get footage to promote your ecotourism idea: where would you recommend for a great wildlife holiday?
Number one is Madagascar. It is by far the most magical island I’ve ever been to and it has every single type of biome apart from polar. The wildlife there is genuinely unique and can’t be found anywhere else on the planet: you’ve got reptiles and lemurs and it really is in trouble. Within the next 25 years, without ecotourism and conservation methods they predict that every single lemur species will be extinct. Conservation International believe that only $7million is needed to preserve them and that’s something I’m very keen to raise awareness for.
Where would come second?
The Galapagos Islands. Not the easiest place to get to, but it is just phenomenal for wildlife. The animals there are not afraid of humans, having not been preyed upon by man, so you can get really close to blue-footed boobies, iguanas and, of course, this is where the iguanas are chased by snakes, as seen on the TV series Planet Earth – I felt so lucky to have seen that happen in person. On my very last day there I went snorkelling and in the space of half an hour I had swum with sharks, turtles, penguins – basically loads of animals that are on everyone’s diving Bucket List.
Anywhere else we should check out?
Uganda, because it is probably slightly under-sold as an ecotourism and safari destination. You’ve got the tree-climbing lion population that you don’t get anywhere else and, of course, the great apes. There are some amazing chimpanzee and gorilla interactions to be had there. For me, seeing the group dynamics of chimpanzees in the wild was like watching a group of prehistoric people.
What’s been your scariest animal encounter?
I genuinely have never been frightened by an animal. I’ve swum with great white sharks; I’ve been right next to gorillas and bears. For me, public speaking is the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve had a few comical encounters, though, such as the time a gorilla urinated on my head.
How does someone know that the holiday adventure they’re booking is ethical and sustainable?
It’s a tough one. You want some of the people that you’re staying with or the guides that you’re working with to be indigenous to the area that you’re visiting – because then you know that the money you’re spending on the trip is going back to the local people and will have a local impact. Ask lots of questions. Ask about how many local people they employ? Do they give back to the community in terms of educating young people in the area? Do they support any local scientific research programmes? You’ll soon know if someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes
Finally, most people pick a nice easy package holiday because they’re looking for some rest; why is it worth going the extra mile to seek out an animal encounter?
Sure, package tours are easy but I think you will come back with 10 per cent of the experience that you could have had. Basically, if you choose a wildlife holiday you’ll come back with a much richer experience. You’ll have experienced what it’s like to be with local people and their culture. It’s not scary. In fact, I always find trying to work out how to get from an airport in the middle of Uganda to a lodge is half the fun!
Find out more about Cat Capon and her ecotourism on her YouTube channel: Catherine Capon’s Wildlife Adventures