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My top 5 ways to fend off ‘Blue Monday’…

Apparently today is the most depressing day of the year. Cold January Mondays, can be a miserable time as it is, without the thought that statistics are against us, as well as the rainy British weather.

I figured it would be a good time to escape the January blues and indulge in the beauty of nature, and some of the incredible conservation heroes working hard to secure a future for some of our planet’s rarest wildlife.

Here are a few of my top suggestions for getting through the day.

1. Try out Gorilla Safari VR

A free app for your phone or mobile device, Gorilla Safari VR was developed by vEcotourism.org and released by the Born Free Foundation over Christmas.

If you’ve not tried it yet, the app — available on Android and iOS — begins at Born Free Foundation’s headquarters in Surrey and takes users on an immersive adventure (either using a VR headset or as a 360-degree video experience on your device), to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Meet Eastern Lowland Gorilla patriarch, Chimanuka (star of BBC’s Gorilla Family & Me), and explore his native habitat with Ian Redmond OBE as your guide.

Gorilla Safari VR

I wrote an entire post on this app last month, so feel free to take a look back over that for a full introduction, or visit vEcotours website at: http://www.vecotourism.org/news/announcing-gorilla-safari-vr/

2. Watch A Lion’s Tale

The realm of Natural History film making is in a fantastic position at present. We finished 2016 on the high of the amazing Planet Earth II, with its ground-breaking footage and camera techniques; we’ve had a host of great wildlife shows presented by Gordon Buchanan, and currently you can catch the fascinating BBC series ‘Spy in the Wild‘ narrated by David Tenant. Spy in the Wild uses some impressive robotic animals fitted with hidden ‘spy cameras’ to film a very intimate and unusual look into the lives of a range of animals, from alligators and elephants to African wild dogs. 

But there are many other amazing Natural History films available that you won’t find from switching on your television. Independent filmmakers are posting some incredible results online, including ‘A Lion’s Tale‘ by Tania Esteban.

This film looks at the legacy of actress turned conservationist Virginia McKenna, who famously played Joy Adamson in the 1966 film ‘Born Free‘. Fifty years on, A Lion’s Tale attempts to look at what that legacy means among today’s wildlife conflicts, returning to Kenya (where Elsa the lioness was once released to roam free) to visit the Born Free team and the Kenya wildlife service rangers to explore their work on the frontline of conflict and education.

A Lion’s Tale saw its public release online this last weekend, catch it here:

For more info about the film: treproductions.co.uk/

Official webpage: taniaesteban.wixsite.com/alionstale

3. Explore ‘Speaking of Nature’ case studies 

Another impressive independent film project to have received its launch onto the World Wide Web is that of film maker Craig Redmond. His project ‘Speaking of Nature‘ was released on the 5th of January and has gradually been doing the rounds on social media.

I discovered it this weekend and spent an entire morning working my way through the six stories that comprise this project.

Each story focusses on a different conservationist; Badger Cull – Dominic Dyer, Badger Trust;  Primate Pet Trade – Dr Ros Clubb, RSPCA; Hunting and Trapping of Migrating Birds – Fiona Burrows; Committee Against Bird Slaughter; Wildlife Crime – Mark Jones, Born Free Foundation; Industrial Fishing – Wietse van der Werf, The Black Fish; Gardeners of the Forest – Ian Redmond, Ape Alliance

There is a written introduction to each conservationist, exploring their role and the plight of each animal they work with (or rather, for the protection of) and video footage of two-part interviews with each chosen person.

Grab a cup of tea, nestle in and prepare to be inspired.

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For the full stories, visit: https://craigredmond.exposure.co/speaking-of-nature

4. Discover GreenWorldTV

Something to get excited about for 2017 — a brand new television channel dedicated entirely to wildlife and environmental news!
Although GreenWorldTV hasn’t quite ‘landed’ yet, it’s coming. And I for one, can’t wait.
GreenWorldTV will launch in 2017 as the UK’s very first conservation, animal rescue and investigative wildlife online TV Channel and intends to bring a selection of educational and truthful wildlife TV shows, films and shorts to the world. Stay tuned – the channel will launch at http://www.greenworldtv.com
Check out this trailer for an idea of things to come, and give yourself something to look forward to:

 

You can sign up to Green World TV YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfsRp0AAJQII4EIfZeVoeRw

5. Have flick through National Geographic Kids Magazine

Ok, so I’m cheating a bit here, because – as some of you will know – I recently started working for National Geographic KiDs magazine. Their February issue (on sale now), is the first issue I contributed to.
It’s a great little uplifting read – lots of fun for children, but also, I’ve found, it’s a nice easy read on an early morning commute.
Simple language, great photography; some fun and unusual facts about big cats and a really interesting feature on polar bears (do you know how big a polar bear’s paw is?).
Plus, it’s bright and colourful and easily digestible. Definitely the kind of thing that cheers me up in January!

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Visit www.ngkids.co.uk or pick up a copy in your local newsagents.

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Introducing Gorilla Safari VR! A Christmas present from Born Free

Born Free Foundation have a special gift to give this Christmas. Working in conjunction with vEcotourism.org they have just released a brand new app — Gorilla Safari VR — and it’s completely free!

I know quite a few people will be waking up to a VR headset underneath the tree on Christmas morning, but for those who aren’t ready to take the leap into fully immersing themselves in the virtual world just yet; you can still enjoy the app and its opportunity to explore the habitat of the Eastern Lowland (or Grauer’s Gorillas) using a smart phone or tablet. The app is available on IOS and Android.

Gorilla Safari VRIan Redmond OBE, is the guide on the Gorilla Safari VR, and will take you to the Kahuzi-Biegan National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the heart of Africa.

“I invite you to join me on this unique VR trip to learn more about the world’s largest primate – the Eastern Lowland, or Grauer’s Gorilla.” Ian writes on the Born Free Foundation website.With us will be John Kahekwa, winner of the 2016 Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, presented by HRH The Duke of Cambridge at the prestigious Tusk Awards this November.”

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A sneak peak of the VR tour

“Christmas is a time for family. And while most people take this to mean reconnecting with seldom seen siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, think for a moment about our wider zoological family. Don’t you wish sometimes you could get away from it all to visit your more distant relatives, the great apes?”

“If so, Born Free has a special Christmas gift for you this year. In conjunction with the team that brought you virtual travel via http://www.vEcotourism.org, and just in the nick of time for Christmas.”

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Meet Ian Redmond, John Kahekwa and Born Free Foundation President Will Travers in the app

Having supported the fantastic work of vEcotours for a while now, I was so excited to hear that they have developed an app for my favourite charity, which even includes a view of the Born Free Foundation Headquarters in Sussex.

I gave the app a little go this morning and I love it! Here’s how I got on…

Perhaps the coolest thing about this new app (other than the fact you can download it for free…), is that it arrives just in time for today’s BBC Two’s special Christmas Eve programming, which will see a back-to-back screening of Gordon Buchanan‘s two-part series The Gorilla Family & Me from 3:45 this afternoon.

Ian and John Kahekwa both worked with the BBC last year to make the two-part series, and there’s an opportunity in the Gorilla Safari VR app to look behind the scenes of the making of the documentary.

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Going behind the scenes with Gordon Buchanan while filming The Gorilla Family & Me

Join Gordon and the BBC film crew with the warden, rangers and trackers on the trail of siverback Chimanuka’s family. You could also spread some more Christmas cheer and continue being a part of Chimanuka and Mugaruka’s wild story by adopting the gorillas through Born Free Foundation.

You can adopt the pair (I have!) and receive a personalised adoption certificate, photo, cuddly toy gorilla, the pair’s full story and regular updates about the gorillas; courtesy of Adopt! magazine. To find out how, click here.

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To learn more about Gorilla Safari VR visit: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/news/news-article/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=2394 

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Shouting to stop elephant extinction as CITES starts

I’d like to say the first time I saw elephants in the wild, the ground shock and the earth rumbled. It didn’t. In fact, it was the most natural feeling in the world, to see a small herd sweep through the bushes and thorny acacia trees.

It didn’t feel like a surprise, to have these beautiful giants walk into my life because it felt like me walking into their life was the surprising part. The earth beneath my feet, and the plants, and even the hot, dry, slightly dung-scented air, belonged to these creatures not to me. It was far more humbling than epic.

Elephant's Journey, photograph by Kate SnowdonYesterday, the 17th CITES meeting began in Johannesburg. CITES; the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, is a meeting between governments to reach international agreement on wildlife trade. Launched in 1975 to protect wild animals, it takes place every three years with representatives from most of the 182 Member Countries discussing whether to tighten or loosen trade restrictions on specific species.

There are roughly 5600 species of animals and 30,000 species of plants already protected by CITES, which lists threatened species in three appendices, according to how threatened they are by poaching, habitat destruction and international trade. A simple break down of these is as follows (please see here for full explanation):

  • Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial, for instance for scientific research.
  • Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily now threatened with extinction but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. International trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. No import permit is necessary for these species under CITES. Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.
  • Appendix III is a list of species included at the request of a Party that already regulates trade in the species and that needs the cooperation of other countries to prevent unsustainable or illegal exploitation. International trade in specimens of species listed in this Appendix is allowed only on presentation of the appropriate permits or certificates.

This year’s meeting is the first to be hosted by an African country since the year 2000 and a record number of proposals, resolutions and decisions are expected to be made — with elephants, lions and rhinos high on the agenda. In my last blog post I looked at the debate surrounding the trade in rhino horn (i.e. whether or not it should be legalised), and today I want to talk about elephants. (Look out for my next blog on the protection status of African lions. I have previously written about the trophy hunting industry here).

Remembering Elephants

This is week seemed like the best time to stop and think about elephants. To really appreciate their beauty and their place in Africa and Asia, and indeed on this planet that we are fortunate enough to share with them. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to do this than at the book launch of an incredible book of wild elephant photography, called Remembering Elephants. Founder of the Remembering Elephants project, Margot Raggett (pictured below), explained that all of the photographs that appear in the book were gifted by the photographers, allowing it to be sold with 100% of profits donated to Born Free Foundation, to help such elephant projects as:

  • helping rangers in Kenya in their fight against poaching
  • volunteers in Mali
  • the veterinary unit in Malawi
  • the Ethiopian Elephant Sanctuary.

remembering-elephants-2Knowing the importance of the evening and the context of the book, it was particularly poignant when Born Free Foundation co-founder Virginia McKenna explained that the level of protection that these animals receive will be determined by the 182 Member Countries at CITES over the next few days, and the European Union has officially announced it will not support the Appendix 1 ban on elephant ivory trade. Last week, however, Britain announced its decision to ban all sales of ivory that cannot be proved to be over 70 years old. Virginia took the opportunity to call for a ban on ALL ivory sales in Britain, including in auction houses, stating: “The chink in the armour is easily exploited. It is easy to label something as antique.” 

Virginia addressed the audience to express her concern that at the rate at which elephant numbers are declining (in the early 20th century there were thought to be 3-5 million wild elephants, compared to an estimated 450,000 – 700,000 African elephants and between 35,000 – 40,000 wild Asian elephants alive today), these such photographs may be the only way we can see elephants. A selection of the photographs included in the book can be seen below:

Next to take the stage was Ian Redmond OBE, who I’ve worked alongside on previous projects (and blog posts!) relating to vEcotours. Ian was introduced as seeing himself as ‘a naturalist by birth, biologist by training, and a conservationist by necessity. This certainly came across when he spoke about the difference between the two different types of African elephant (savannah elephant and forest elephant; distinguishable by more rounded ears and brownish tusks that point down rather than outwards), yet how incredibly integral both species are to their environments and eco-systems.

I have heard Ian Redmond call elephants the ‘gardeners of the forest’ before, but thinking of them carving the landscape; be it by dispersing seeds in their dung (also a brilliant plant fertilizer), churning up and deepening water holes with their trunks or trampling down vegetation, allowing a variety of plants to grow; I truly understood the sentiment in his statement that “when you save elephants, you don’t just save elephants”.

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Ian talks about the world’s only underground elephants, that mine for salt in caves near Mount Elgon. Find out more here: http://www.vecotourism.org/news/take-a-tour/salt-mining-elephants-of-mount-elgon/

He spoke of the underground elephants of Kitum Cave; the loss he felt at a young male, Charles (pictured above) being poached there; and how those on the ground, poaching these animals are simply desperate people, trying to make money  and how the real ‘bad guys’ are the ones buying and using these products. It was hard not to appreciate that demand for ivory ornaments and elephant parts as traditional Asian medicine really is the root cause of driving elephants to the brink of extinction.

Finally, we were left with a story that demonstrates the power of these animals, compared to that of humans, as Ian described his recent encounter in Mount Elgon, which left him rolling backwards underneath an elephant!

Ian had brought a special friend along with him for the event, one who I was introduced to at the end of the night; Archie the Elephant. Archie (the fluffy little guy sitting on my shoulder), has his own Facebook page, where updates of his adventures traveling around the world with various field biologists, conservationists, etc. will be documented to raise awareness of global wildlife issues and help tell the stories of different species and environments. The idea is, if you ‘like’ Archie’s page, you’ll learn about all sorts of wildlife stories. As someone who works in educational media, I think this is a great idea for kids! (and adults alike, really!).

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Global March for Elephants and Rhinos

Yesterday, two days after the Remembering Elephants book launch, and coinciding with the opening day of CITES, hundreds of people took the streets of London to voice there disappointment in the EU’s decision not to back the Appendix 1 listing of elephants, to call for a FULL ban in Britain on the sale of ivory, and show CITES, and the world that we want the poaching of elephants and rhinos to end. Similar marches took place in more than 130 countries around the world.

global-march-for-elephants-and-rhinos-2Please take a moment to listen to this passionate speech from campaigner Dominic Dyer delivered outside South Africa House, which articulates the demands of those demonstrating, and the desperate situation that elephants are facing, far better than I can.

The march, organised by Action for Elephants UK finished at Downing Street, where a number of speakers voiced the significance of elephants and rhinos to our world, our need to protect their conservation status, and the desire for a full ban on ivory sale in the UK.

Knowing that Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change will be attending the CITES meeting in Johannesburg later this week, a letter was delivered to Prime Minister Theresa May outlining these demands and signed by hundreds of significant figures spanning across environmental experts, television personalities and leading religious figures. The letter can be seen here in the hands of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who will soon be releasing a film on the realities of the ivory industry.

global-march-for-elephants-and-rhinos-33Virginia McKenna also delivered a passionate plea outside Downing Street, holding up a child’s painting of elephants and declaring that ‘when we have children caring about these animals, caring about these issues, we must win’. I really hope that the world’s governments are paying attention!


Some of the people at the march, giving their support to elephants and rhinos by calling for Appendix 1 protections status at CITES were:

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Discovery Education blog: VR apps for classroom conservation

Virtual Reality can take students out of the classroom and into entirely new lands, environments and experiences — from global travel to outer space — and it is primed to be the next big learning opportunity to integrate into the learning environment. (The ‘New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology’ report published by the World Economic Forum identified VR as a key opportunity for technology to be used in the advancement of social and emotional learning [SEL].)

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vEcotours VR app used in class at Cambridge Elementary School

There is a wealth of fantastic, educational material available for students to immerse themselves in, and I’ve been getting to grips with that from Discovery VR, the Natural History Museum, London (which I’ve previously written about here).

For a recent post on Discovery Education’s community blog, I looked at vEcotourism, which offers virtual tours across the globe to see endangered wildlife in their natural environments. They have recently introduced a new ‘kid’s version’ of their Mount Elgon virtual reality tour to visit the world’s only salt-mining elephants.

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This particular version is narrated by children and has been trialed in classrooms alongside project work to ‘adopt’ some of their other tour locations, challenging students to research the habitats and the species that live within them, and produce their own voice-over narration.

Read the full blog post here: http://blog.discoveryeducation.com/blog/2016/09/14/what-to-do-with-web-2-0-tools-vr-apps/

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Revisiting Sir David Attenborough’s Great Ape playmate

In the wake of Sir David Attenborough’s 90th birthday celebrations, the BBC has curated a fantastic collection of programmes from Sir David’s incredible, extensive catalogue of work, available on BBC iPlayer. The collection includes the brand new programme; Attenborough at 90, which sees a number of colleagues, friends and admirers of Sir David come together to celebrate his milestone year.

Of course, the birthday broadcast included one of the most celebrated (and remembered) moment of David’s on-screen history, which is…

NB: Since the making of these films, the practice of human interaction with wild gorillas is no longer permitted, due to further understanding of the human diseases we may pass on to them. 

Born Free Foundation supporter and ambassador of vEcotourism.org, Ian Redmond OBE, was on hand for the programme, filmed in front of a live audience, to reminisce the infamous gorilla introduction between Sir David and the gorillas.

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As Dr Dian Fossey’s research assistant, it was Ian who took David and the BBC crew to meet the gorillas. The incredible moment has been the subject of a new BBC Earth article, which goes on to explain what happen to the gorillas after that magical moment; written by Ian.

 “There is the unforgettable moment when Pablo, a playful youngster in Group 5, sits in David’s lap and sprawls back wriggling, making David grimace slightly despite his evident delight – I suspect that was because gorillas do have rather bony bottoms!” — courtesy BBC Earth.

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Ian Redmond observing the gorillas. Photo taken by DR Dian Fossey, courtesy of Ian Redmond.

Happily, Poppy, the then two-year-old infant who played alongside Sir David Attenborough, is now an elderly matriarch in the Susa Mountain Gorilla Group, which can be visited, virtually, at close range on the flanks of Mount Karisimbi, courtesy of vEcotourism.org. For full details and more information, click here or the picture below:

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The new naturalist’s kit bag…

What equipment does a naturalist usually need?

vEcos Adviser and Ambassador (and renowned wildlife biologist and conservationist) Ian Redmond suggests a binoculars and hand lens, but soon, a virtual reality headset could also be a vital piece of equipment!

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I’ve recently explored how natural history and conservation are establishing a firm place in the classroom (and assembly hall), with a recent review of Discovery Education‘s Racing Extinction virtual field trip and having visited a school in London to deliver a whole school Racing Extinction assembly alongside Born Free Foundation‘s Dominic Dyer.

But also making its way into new school learning is the presence of VR, virtual reality.

A recent post on Discovery Education’s community blog examines a new paper published by the World Economic Forum called ‘New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology’ in which VR, apps and wearable technology are recommended as opportunities for technology to be used in the advancement of social and emotional learning.

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Jumping on this trend, vEco have just published a new video, created by Craig Redmond, discussing how their 360-degree interactive, immersive tours, live tours and planned VR app are ahead of the game! Watch the video in full here (or click the image below)!

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Digital conservation and virtual reality tourism

Virtual reality technology is going to change the game of conservation in a huge way.

I spend a lot of my time indulging in digital content and documentaries, both for my job and as a hobby. I work as a sub editor for Discovery Education UK by day* and blog, build websites and try my best at photography in my spare time. (*Disclaimer: all thoughts on this blog are strictly my own).

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Having visited the BVE expo at the end of February with my good friends at Chiswell Studios, I have found a new excitement in all the potential opportunities of making virtual reality (digital worlds entirely created by people) and augmented reality (elements of the real world, but with digital graphics interspersed) media content for a more interactive audience experience.

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BBC’s Jon Page speaks about the change in the audiences’ role

I listened with particular interest to the seminar: ‘Creating a new broadcasting system with audience experience in mind’ by keynote speaker Jon Page, Head of Operations at BBC Research and Development (pictured above). Jon spoke of the way that audiences look for a personal, two-way experience to get the most of their media and positioned them as ‘explorers’ rather than ‘consumers’.

He showed us a video created by the BBC to demonstrate the type of audience experience they believe they will be catering for in the not-so-distant future:

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Aside from some of this imagined technology potentially impacting the type of content I would make for schools at Discovery Education (see the child doing his homework at 1:58), the video interested me in the way that it made Autumnwatch an interactive game.

‘Gamification’ was one of the buzz words of the expo’s seminars this year, along with ‘immersive’ and ‘responsive’. Jon even described what was happening with the imagined new version of Autumnwatch as ‘citizen science’ – and seeing as ‘citizen journalism’ is now so embedded in our culture that we barely give it a second thought anymore, the idea of the whole nation becoming ‘scientists’ to a degree, doesn’t feel that far fetched.

It seems now that the first generation of Internet gamers has grown up, the requirements they demand from their media consumption is somewhat different to the generation before. And how fantastic that we have the technology to deliver it!

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The entry page to a 360-degree, immersive digital tour of Mount Elgon, Kenya.

Enter vEcotours. With all this amazing technology and adapted content design, there must be a way we can use it for conservation education? …Exactly!

This World Wildlife Day, I posted about the live guided tour of Mount Elgon in Kenya that I would be taking — and I can say it was fascinating to share an online, immersive experience with people from all over the globe and various time zones; one where we could have a two-way conversation.

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Screen grab of the digital tour’s portals to other 360-degree landscapes

With Ian Redmond at the helm, guiding participants through the virtual world and into various portals of information (still images, videos, article clippings, etc.) and answering questions over his mic from the ‘explorers’ using the chat bar — and another member of vEcotours, Jay, responding to all other conversation in real-time via text on screen — that ‘personal, two-way experience’ that I heard about at BVE appears not to be just round the corner, but already here!

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A screen grab of some of the additional multimedia presented on the tour.

Never one to let an opportunity pass me by, I’ve decided to offer my web publishing and writing skills to vEcotourism and have joined the team as a blogger!

I’ll be sure to post info and updates of what I get up to with vEcotours on this site too, so please keep an eye out for those! But in the meantime, why not check out what all the excitement is about and take a virtual tour of one of their locations? Turn the volume up and enjoy!virtualtouroverview

You can follow vEcotourism on Facebook and Twitter for more info too.