I recently spoke on the phone with Jessica Pociask, the owner and founder of WANT (Wildlife and Nature Travel) Expeditions. In the next year they will be leading trips to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Japan, Baja, Costa Rica, Jordan, The Maldives, Ecuador, The Galapagos Islands, Mongolia, Alaska, Kamchatka, and more. For a little wanderlust, check out the schedule here.
Tell me about WANT Expeditions.
We’re a conservation-oriented expedition company that specializes in taking people to see rare wildlife. We focus on the most authentic travel experiences — we don’t do cookie cutter trips. There is no song and dance.
Who is your typical client?
The majority of clients are looking for something above and beyond. The average client age ranges from 50 to 75, but we’ve been having a lot more people in their early forties. Most people who have the time and money to go on our expeditions are typically retired, and our destinations are not typically for first time travelers.
What are some of your most popular destinations?
Jordan is very popular. Also, the Pantanal, which is a wetland area in South America about the size of France. It’s the best wildlife destination outside of the continent of Africa. You can see jaguar, anteaters, capybara, cayman, and so many tropical birds.
And how long is that trip?
About two weeks. And we put a maximum of sixteen people on our trips — sixteen is the magic number. After sixteen, people start to break up into smaller subgroups and all that. But we do private tours as well.
How did you come to start doing this? It seems like a big project to start.
I studied climate change at Michigan State University and got the opportunity to travel and research in Antarctica. And being there, seeing the people that came through there, I discovered it was a career option — to lead expeditions that had a science base. People want to be educated about the places they go — by experts — about the biology, socioeconomics, politics — of a place.
Then the first expedition was to Botswana and Uganda and that was in 2007. And the crazy thing is one of the women who was on that trip is traveling again this year to Baja.
Has the staff grown a lot since then?
The office staff has remained about the same since then, but we’ve built up more guides for sure. It’s a typically a male-dominated field, but there are so many amazing, talented women in the field and who do an excellent job leading, so we’re trying to shift, and are shifting, to a female-dominated staff in terms of guides, and I’m really excited about that. Just seeing them stepping out and leading expeditions — and they are professional of all trades: photographers, artists, biologists, activists — is incredible.
How do you find your guides? Do you have the place in mind and try and find a person who knows it really well? Or do you find the person and let them lead a trip to a place they’ve lived and studied?
Both, actually. It really depends. One of our guides I met in the embassy in Washington D.C. I was going to the DRC, and I was looking at her waiting there and I just got the feeling that we were going to the same place. Or that at least she was an experienced traveler. Turned out she was going to the DRC. I told her, “I’m going to be where you’re going in two months’ time, and I guarantee you’ll have forgotten stuff.” I gave her my information and told her to let me know before I left the States and I’d get whatever she needed to her. At the time she seemed skeptical, but sure enough I got an email with a list of things she wanted me to bring over. And now she’s one of our guides. She’s amazing — extremely intelligent, well-traveled, she led for National Geographic, lived in the Congo, she was perfect for the job. So sometimes it’s just random like that.
What are your goals for WANT?
We’re really opening up a new genre of travel for people who are looking for something more — not just a visit to the beach — and we can deliver that because we work intimately with people on the ground — scientists, locals, activists living there. And we want to become known for that.
We’ve already done a few, but I want to become preferred company to do donor trips for conservation groups. It makes such a difference to people to see a place in person.
Do you encounter any ethical issues in going to a place in terms of how your business might change it or exploit it?
I think what we do, and how we do it, is ultimately good for conservation — there’s always that catch 22, of course, and inevitably there will be some conflict or some impact to us being there. We are careful not to just put western views on the location and on whatever conservation or other issue they are having.
But, in terms of the good, when it comes to conservation, if people can’t touch it, taste it, smell it, people don’t care. Its kind of like the premise of a zoo, though I’m not a fan of zoos, people get the opportunity to see things they normall wouldn’t; and they are moved to become ambassadors protecting a certain type of wildlife or that certain place they visited.
I’ve seen this through taking people to see gorillas — and only a certain number of people can get in to these areas — but those people who do are going to take those experiences and share them on social media, by word of mouth — it really changes people’s lives — and that will have more impact than any sort of advertisement.
And the impact of working with a location and with locals can be very good. In one of the places we go there are lots of problems with bushmeat, but through helping us with our trips and conversing with our guides, in this area the people are realizing that the affect of this type of hunting extends further than they thought.
And we’re employing local people on a lot of our trips, which leads to empowerment, connectiosn, more and different opportunities. It’s been amazing to see the impact on that level.
Do you have any suggestions for women travelers?
There’s been a big uptick in solo women travelers. If women are excited to do it and see a place they’re interested in, they should take that step. They’ll find a network of women doing the same thing and they’ll find future potential travel partners. I see that all the time on my trips. People become longtime friends because they share a very global and philanthropic perspective. It opens up a whole new community.