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The Bird’s Eye View

Rockjumper Co-Founder Adam Riley tells us about the joys — and the business — of birding

Ecotourism entrepreneur and YPO member Adam Riley isn’t trying to sell people products he wouldn’t want to buy himself. The co-founder and managing partner of Rockjumper Birding Tours, the world’s largest birding tour company, says he’s “selling what I know is going to be a wonderful experience. I get immense pleasure from setting up and running our tours, and finding superb guides who provide our clients with exceptional wildlife encounters. It’s a real feel-good business.”

Riley particularly enjoys introducing people to birding and watching them catch the bug. “I guess it’s how a priest would enjoy converting someone to their religion,” he says. “Sometimes you can see that a whole new world has suddenly opened up to a person. And that’s great because once you really get into birding it’s not just something you do during your vacation. It becomes a way of life.”

Riley’s own conversion to birding took place when he was a boy, and set himself the task of spotting every bird that was native to the area around his hometown, Pietermaritzburg in eastern South Africa after he was given a bird fieldguide for Christmas. After university, he qualified as a chartered accountant before deciding he wanted to turn his hobby into a day job, and set up Rockjumper with a fellow birder. Nearly two decades later, the business is flourishing, with tours to more than 100 different countries each year, from Guyana to Madagascar.

Rockjumper’s launch coincided with the start of a major global surge in birding. “It has really taken off phenomenally over the last 20 years,” says Riley. “It’s become very mainstream, there are even birding reports in the sports sections of some major U.S. newspapers now.” The profile of birders is changing too. “It’s becoming popular among business executives,” says Riley. “Most of them have a drive to excel in everything they do. Going on holiday and lying on the beach is not what these highly motivated people prefer to do. But with birding, they’re driven to wake up early, head out to remote areas they would never otherwise visit and set themselves the target of finding a particularly sought-after species.”

Those executives who five years ago would have been swathing themselves in padded Spandex and cycling up mountains are now spending their money on ultra-high-spec binoculars, zoom lenses and Rockjumper tours. And there’s no shortage of challenges for them to take on. “There can be a really competitive aspect to it,” says Riley. “Some people want to get great photographs. Some want to see as many species as possible in a certain country or continent. Others go and try to find species that are lost and haven’t been seen for a hundred years, or even completely new species. Yet others simply just enjoy being in wild areas and observing birds and every other aspect of nature around them.”

Your birding adventure

So what are the hotspots that birders should head to? “If you want the ultimate birding trip I would suggest Papua New Guinea,” says Riley. “It has the most remarkable birds in the world. You’ve got more than 30 species of birds-of-paradise, which are just absolutely beautiful, then there’s the world’s highest diversity of colorful pigeons, kingfishers, parrots and other exciting birds. For a beginner, though, I would suggest northern Tanzania as a first trip. Africa doesn’t have the highest number of bird species of any continent but Africa’s birds are generally the easiest to see as many are tame, colorful and really showy. And of course you can visit the big game areas at the same time.”

The opportunity for adventure is almost as big a part of Riley’s tours as the actual birding. “Whenever we visit an area where there’s something really fantastic we’ll always include it in our itinerary, be it going to see gorillas in Uganda, hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru or visiting amazing tribes in southern Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley,” he says. One of his most exciting regular trips is to Antarctica. “It’s a life-changing experience to visit the Antarctic wilderness,” says Riley. “One of the highlights is South Georgia Island, on the way to Antarctica, where you can walk among hundreds of thousands of King Penguins at their colonies. And then setting foot on Antarctica itself, this forbidden land that so many people sacrificed their lives to discover … It’s extraordinary.”

During the course of his career, Riley has spotted more than 8,000 species of birds. But there’s one in particular he really wants to see. “There are nearly 11,000 species recognized now,” he says. “No one will ever see all of them, so what a lot of birders are focusing on instead are the different bird families, of which there are 240. People try to see one member of each family, and then they’ve seen the greatest diversity of the bird world. I’m just missing one family, represented by the Plains-wanderer.”

The Plains-wanderer is native to the Australian outback. No prizes for guessing where Riley’s headed soon …

Rob Orchard is the co-founder and editorial director of the Slow Journalism Company and the publisher of “Delayed Gratification” magazine, which revisits the events of the preceding quarter after the dust has settled and makes a virtue of being “Last to Breaking News.” The publication is an antidote to PR-driven stories, knee-jerk reactions and churnalism. Previously, Orchard launched and ran magazines for Virgin Atlantic and created the Middle East’s biggest travel magazine.