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Articles:

Ecotourism: A Walk on the Wild Side

Published 12/15/04
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 4, Winter 2004

Are you planning (or even just dreaming about) your next vacation? Did you know that you can help animals while seeing the world? Ecotourism — a unique and conscientious form of travel — makes it possible for travelers to visit sites of astounding natural beauty and, at the same time, to support local communities, conserve wildlife, and protect the habitat upon which wild animals depend.

Spreading the word about ecotourism is just one facet of API’s recently-launched More Beautiful Wild campaign, which builds on our decades of experience in animal advocacy and our long history of success in captive and exotic wildlife issues. The goal of More Beautiful Wild is to eliminate the exploitation of wild animals in the entertainment, research, and pet trade industries through public education and legislation, and by urging people help preserve wildlife’s rightful place in the wild. An especially critical part of More Beautiful Wild is our website (www.MoreBeautifulWild.com), which, in addition to being visually stunning, helps advocates easily learn about and take action on behalf of captive wild animals.

In upcoming editions of Animal Issues, API will explore in depth various aspects of the More Beautiful Wild campaign. In the Fall 2004 Animal Issues, we examined the plight of exotic birds, who suffer intensely in the global pet trade. In this article, we introduce readers to the concept of ecotourism, explain why ecotourism can be a boon for wildlife and the environment, and provide guidance for readers interested in learning more about — or hoping to engage in — animal- and environment-friendly travel.

Ecotourism and Animals

Ecotourism matters to API because ecologically-sensitive travel is a simple and rewarding way for animal advocates to help protect wildlife from poaching, the exotic "pet" trade, and habitat destruction.

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." When conducted properly, ecotourism is less destructive than many other environmental uses. The impacts of ecotourism can be managed to realize a balance between preservation and development; such balance can be achieved, for example, by limiting both the size and number of tours in a particular area and by incorporating environmentally-conscious meals, lodging, waste management, and wildlife viewing principles into the tours. Further, by creating economic incentives for impoverished villages or communities, ecotourism can encourage local guardianship of natural resources, habitats, and wildlife.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism is projected to remain one of the world’s most lucrative industries, generating more than $3.5 trillion in economic activity annually. Ecotourism is one of the most rapidly growing and dynamic sectors of the tourism market.

In the United States, wildlife watching is already big business. According to the most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (which is conducted jointly every five years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Census Bureau), 66.1 million Americans participated in wildlife watching, making a total of $38.4 billion in expenditures in 2001. If Americans spent just a fraction of this money viewing wildlife in developing nations, they could create huge incentives for global conservation.

International ecotourism can be a boon for everyone involved. For many travel aficionados, viewing exotic animals in their native lands represents the opportunity of a lifetime. The national and local economies involved in ecotourism benefit from the influx of ethics-minded travelers, as do many of the animals the travelers flock to see.

Ecotourism offers countries the chance to use native wildlife as a resource in a beneficial, non-exploitative way. For example, it has been estimated that properly implemented ecotourism programs could help preserve 85 to 90 percent of the biodiversity of the neotropical South American and Indonesian realms, and that wild parrots could become "environmental heavyweights" when it comes to saving large tracts of tropical forests through wildlife-viewing ecotourism.1 Similarly, in India and in many countries in Africa, elephants and large cats draw large numbers of wildlife viewers from across the globe — ecotourists who can help efforts to protect these animals from the threats posed by poaching, habitat degradation, and other destructive forces.

Ethics Matter

While the growing interest in wildlife watching and ecotourism holds great potential for boosting local economies and increasing protections for imperiled wild animals and the environment, it is not without risk or cost.

As more and more people set out into wilderness areas to appreciate nature, it is increasingly essential that limits on such travels be established and enforced. Such controls, whether established by governments or the ecotourism industry itself, can ensure that the trend in wildlife watching does not become as damaging to the animals and the environment as consumptive uses, such as hunting and trapping, which have a long history of threatening wildlife populations and compromising animal welfare. Ecotourists must also do their part both by being willing to make some wild places off-limits to human intrusion and by agreeing to strict codes of conduct in the areas in which travelers are allowed.

Despite the good intentions of many tourists seeking environmentally-conscientious travel, many existing ecotour programs merely hasten the destruction of wildlands rather than ensuring long-term protection. This is particularly true when the local populace in the program areas does not have direct ownership in the program and remains, at best, poorly paid employees of the operation.

Too often, ecotour programs and lodging facilities are owned by investors from nearby cities or developed countries who have as their primary goal making a profit, not protecting wildlife and aiding local communities. In a market economy, commercial interests typically attempt to maximize the number of tourists visiting an area, which invariably leads to environmental degradation. Once an area is thoroughly degraded or even destroyed, purely profit-minded investors generally move their operation to a new location, leaving local residents and wildlife to suffer the consequences.

Privately-based ecotourism programs that fail to work collaboratively with local communities may be in nature and may not effect positive change in attitudes toward conservation. For example, local people who do not benefit from ecotourism programs have little or no incentive to avoid or discontinue destructive activities such as logging, livestock grazing, market hunting, and parrot trapping for the pet trade.

Choose Wisely

Determining whether an ecotour truly serves conservation purposes or if it is merely a "green-washed" business venture can be difficult. More than 60 different voluntary certification programs award labels for varying degrees of environmentally-sensitive tourism practices. While the majority of these programs are for hotels and other lodgings, a few cover beaches, parks, tour operators, and guides. Unfortunately, however, no global standard or certification process currently exists for tour operations, so it left to compassionate travelers to ask the appropriate questions before choosing an ecotour, and to ensure that their dollars support only the best and most conscientious programs, outfitters, and guides.

API has devised a few questions that travelers should ask and issues to consider when selecting an ecotour.

1. Has the tour evaluated its impact on local wildlife?

The ecotour company or operators should, if possible, have available "pre-tourism" data demonstrating that its tours do not adversely affect wildlife. Such data should compare animal behavior in non-tour areas with their behavior in areas in which tourists congregate for wildlife viewing. Some studies have found that viewed animals become accustomed to the presence of humans and that their stress levels remain low or unchanged in the presence of tourists. Other studies, however, have shown an increase in animals’ stress indicators such as rapid heart rate and dramatic avoidance behavior in the presence of tourists, which could lead to an increase in mortality or lower reproduction rates.2

The ecotour should not offer or encourage physical interaction with wildlife, including catch-and-release fishing, swimming with dolphins, or handling of wildlife for photo opportunities or petting purposes. These activities are well-recognized as exploitive and harmful to wildlife.

2. Does the local community or village benefiting from the tours have an official agreement with the tour operators not to trap birds and other animals for commercial purposes?

The local community involved in the ecotour program should have a written agreement with the tour operators not to trap birds and other animals for the pet trade or other commercial markets. This can help ensure that ecotourism actually replaces trapping income rather than merely supplementing it.

3. What is the maximum number of people accommodated on each trip?

An ecotour should accommodate no more than 30 visitors per location, per tour. According to Dr. Nigel Dunstone, a lecturer in zoology at University of Durham in the UK who has studied the impacts of ecotourism since the early 1980s, when visitor numbers exceed 30 people, trails become too wide; the need for clean water, fresh food, and sewage disposal become too difficult to accommodate; and the disturbance to wildlife becomes too great to benefit conservation.3

4. Is the tour capable of accommodating vegetarian/vegan diets?

A truly environmentally-sensitive tour would provide and promote vegetarian and/or vegan meals for tour patrons. Adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet is one of the most important steps an individual can take to protect the environment and to protect animals from cruelty and exploitation.

Providing meat and other animal-based food products for tourists can result in increased hunting, fishing, and/or livestock production in the tour area, thereby negatively impacting the environment and animals. The food eaten by tourists from developed nations inevitably influences consumption trends in the areas the tourists visit. Rising meat consumption in the developing world could have devastating effects on the global environment. According to a Worldwatch Institute paper, "if livestock are to live in balance with the environment again, First World consumers will have to eat less meat, while Third World citizens will need to keep their meat consumption low." The paper also points out that "a diet rich in animal products is not an appropriate goal of pubic health policy, neither is it a wise development strategy."4

5. Does the tour company work closely with nonprofit organizations?

It is important that ecotour programs work actively with nonprofit environmental, animal advocacy, and public interest groups to safeguard against exploitation and to ensure that the focus of the tour remains conservation, and not pursuit of profit.

Despite the enormous amount of money made by international ecotour companies each year, very little of these funds are routed directly to conservation projects. Ideally, at least 10 percent of a trip’s total profits should be directed to nonprofit organizations that advocate for wildlife and environmental protection.

6. Does the tour program address animal welfare issues?

For some people, one of the most difficult parts of traveling is witnessing animal suffering and mistreatment at the hands of humans. One example is the widespread practice of keeping wild-caught birds on leg chains attached to perches; the birds may languish for years, never to taste freedom again. It is also not uncommon while traveling to encounter repeatedly abuse and neglect of domestic animals, including cats, dogs, goats, and horses. Such mistreatment may be due to cultural beliefs about the treatment of animals or a lack of education or access to veterinary care. A good ecotour program should address such situations by providing local communities with education and animal care supplies.

7. Does the local community benefit directly and indirectly from the tours?

A percentage of the profits of the tour should be spent on local community development. The link between safeguarding economic futures and protecting animals and the environment should exist on a community-wide level. To ensure this connection, a portion of guiding and hosting fees should go into a general community fund to be used for local projects, school materials, and medical supplies. Profit-sharing with communities strengthens local guardianship of native species and habitats. Moreover, members of local communities have emotional, traditional, and/or religious ties to the land and, therefore, are less likely to degrade and abandon their homeland in the course of business.

Ideally, the native community has a meaningful stake in ecotour programs, in the form of profit-sharing, land and lodging ownership, and a role in decision-making.

Ethics in Action

Although ecotourism is just one small piece of the global conservation puzzle, according to those fortunate enough to participate in such travel, it can be an inspiring, life-altering experience. For animal advocates, seeing an animal in the wild often makes it more difficult to tolerate the unnecessary confinement and suffering endured by their captive counterparts. It is this connection that lead API to include ecotourism as a facet of our More Beautiful Wild campaign and our efforts to preserve wild animals’ rightful place in the wild.

More Beautiful Wild offers myriad ways for advocates to use their love for animals to effect positive change. To learn how you can help wildlife stay wild, please visit www.MoreBeautifulWild.com or contact API at 1-800-348-7387.


Quick Animal-Friendly Travel Tips

  • Tell your travel or hotel customer service agent that you will need vegan or vegetarian meals, and let him or her know that you are not interested in staying at a hotel or resort that uses live animals for display or guest entertainment.
  • Never purchase products made with shells, fur, feathers, or animal parts of any kind. While it is possible to make products out of naturally-discarded shells, or molted feathers collected from free-living or rescued birds, in a market setting it is nearly impossible to determine with certainty that the products did not come from abused, trapped, ranched, or hunted animals.
  • Stray dogs and cats are a common sight in many regions of the world. Feeding these animals encourages them to approach other people, who may not be so friendly — a situation that could result in abuse or even death of the animal. Encouraging restaurant and hotel management to work with local animal protection organizations to spay and neuter strays and to deal with them in a humane way (perhaps by creating designated feeding areas) is one way to influence positive long-term change for animals after you have departed. Donations to local humane organizations are always helpful, as well.
  • Learn a few phrases in the native language of the country you are visiting to gently but clearly express your feelings about the treatment of animals. For example: When faced with a person displaying or selling captive wild animals (birds, monkeys, bats, etc.) you might consider learning how to say, "They are more beautiful in the wild." When faced with a person whose domestic animal is in poor condition or who is abusing an animal, you might ask them to "Please show compassion for this animal."

Ecotour Resources

The following companies and organizations currently offer ecotours and have indicated that they follow many of the ecotourism principals discussed in this article and that they are capable of accommodating vegetarian/vegan diets if notified in advance.

Wildland Adventures: Ecotours in North America, Central America, South America, Africa, Turkey, Middle East, New Zealand, and Antarctica. Several tours in Africa with opportunities to see wild African elephants, lions, and rhinoceroses. Website: www.wildland.com

Rainforest Expeditions: Five ecotour locations in the South American rainforest of Peru. Specializes in wild parrots. Website: www.perunature.com

The Indonesian Parrot Project/Project Bird Watch: Limited tours to the Moluccan island of Seram, in Eastern Indonesia. Specializes in wild parrots. Website: www.indonesian-parrot-project.org

Birding Ecotours: Bird-watching tours in Asia, Africa, South America, North America, and Australia. Tours designed specifically for bird watchers covering many different bird species. Website: www.birdingecotours.co.za


The Story of a Lory

As Senior Program Coordinator at API, Monica Engebretson frequently works on behalf of wild birds. Ecotourism has helped her gain firsthand understanding of the challenges that these birds face.

Twice, she has had the good fortune to travel to Indonesia with the Indonesian Parrot Project/Project Bird Watch, a U.S. nonprofit conservation organization that has worked in coordination with Yayasan Wallacea, an Indonesian organization focused on sustainable community development. Together, the two groups have been working to provide sustainable income to villagers in parrot-rich areas of Indonesia and to protect parrots and parrot habitat from cruel and destructive trapping and logging activities.

One of the most difficult aspects of her travels in Indonesia was witnessing the common practice of keeping wild-caught birds on leg chains attached to perches. The sight of a chained parrot sitting listlessly on a perch, or futilely pacing back and forth and calling to his or her wild brethren, was heartbreaking, and the temptation to purchase and release the animal could be overwhelming. But the solution is not that simple.

Purchasing birds actually encourages the trade and likely results in more birds being captured. In addition, most chained birds cannot be immediately returned to the wild. Recently-captured birds typically have their wings clipped prior to being chained, and birds who have spent months or years on a perch may not be able to fly as a result of atrophied or weakened flight muscles; they have also become accustomed to humans, which increases their chances of being recaptured.

During her group's visit to a village in Indonesia in September 2003, the Project Bird Watch tour faced a difficult dilemma with "Lucky," a wild-caught rainbow lorikeet (or "lory"). Lucky had been trapped in the wild and purchased by Indonesian military officials, who hoped to sell him for a profit in Bali. But when an island park and wildlife official prevented the military from removing the bird, Lucky was given to a local villager, who kept him chained to a perch in front of her restaurant. Lucky had been chained to this perch for over a year and had been feed primarily rice and sweet tea (a lorikeet’s natural diet consists of nectar and fruit). Because the restaurant owner had acquired the bird by happenstance and was not in the business of trapping or selling birds, her group was confident that, if they purchased Lucky, they would not be contributing to the wild bird trade. They bought Lucky for the equivalent of twelve U.S. dollars with the intent to release him back into the wild as soon as possible.

As Lucky eagerly devoured the bananas they fed to him back at the village guesthouse, it was apparent that he had become quite tame and could not be immediately released. However, the alternative — forcing him to spend the rest of his life on a chain as a "pet" — was not an attractive option.

After much deliberation, the group devised a compromise. They freed Lucky from his chain with the idea that he could remain in and around the guesthouse compound for as long as he wanted. The village leader and his family agreed to provide food and water for him. Monica's group hoped that in time, Lucky would eventually join a wild flock.

For a time, Lucky did remain in the village, climbing and chewing on trees and regaining his flying ability. He seemed genuinely happy to be free of the leg chain, and soon began avoiding human contact — a positive step in his rehabilitation.

They were not sure how much compliance to expect from those they entrusted with Lucky’s care. There was no guarantee that someone in the village would not recapture him, and again sentence him to a life in chains. There was also no guarantee that Lucky would not make a bid for life in the wild and fail. Monica's group felt, however, that by giving Lucky a chance, a choice, and, if nothing else, a few days of joy and freedom, they had made the right decision — although they all wished that a better option had existed.

A month after their departure from the island, they received word that Lucky had left the village for the jungle. He made a break for — and, they hope, won — his much-deserved freedom.

Rehabilitation programs for birds like Lucky are desperately needed in Indonesia, and many other countries. API recently provided assistance to Project Bird Watch and Yayasan Wallacea in their efforts to build a wild bird rehabilitation and release center. At press time, the center was preparing to release its first group of parrots — confiscated from a wildlife trafficker — back into the wild.


Notes:

  1. Munn, C. A. 1998. "Adding value to nature through macaw-oriented ecotourism." JAVMA 212 (8): 1246-49.
  2. Ananthaswamy, A. 2004. "Massive Growth of Ecotourism Worries Biologists." New Scientist, March 2004. http://www.newscientist.com/news/print.jsp?id=ns99994733.
  3. Arthur, C. 2004. "Penguins in Antarctica. Dolphins in Scotland. Dingoes in Australia, They all face the same danger: Ecotourism." The Independent, March 4, 2004. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/environment/story.jsp?story=497632.
  4. Durning, A. B., and H. B. Brough. 1991. Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment. Worldwatch Paper 103.

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