Ecotourism for Parrot Conservation:
What to look for in an Ecotour
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism is projected to remain one of the world's biggest 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.
The Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." When done properly, ecotourism is less destructive than many other environmental uses and its impacts can be managed to realize a balance between preservation and development. Such balance can be achieved by limiting both the size and number of tours in a particular area and by incorporating environmentally conscience meals, lodging, waste management, and wildlife viewing principles into the tours. By creating economic incentives for impoverished villages or their communities, ecotourism can encourage local guardianship of natural resources, habitats, and wildlife.
In the United States, watching wildlife is already big business. According to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation conducted 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 and spent $38.4 billion in total expenditures. Spending just a fraction of this money viewing wildlife in developing nations could create huge incentives for conservation.
It has been estimated that properly implemented ecotourism projects could help save 85 to 90% of the biodiversity in the neotropic (South America) and Indonesian realm and that wild parrots could become the "environmental heavyweights" when it comes to saving large tracts of tropical forests through wildlife viewing ecotourism (Munn 1998).
While the growing interest in wildlife-watching and ecotourism has the potential to boost local economies and concern about the plight of wild animals and the environment, it is not without its costs. As more and more people set out into wilderness areas to appreciate nature, controls and codes of conduct become increasingly more important to ensure that the trend in wildlife-watching does not become as damaging to the animals as consumptive uses, such as hunting and trapping which have a long history of threatening wildlife populations and compromising animal welfare. Tourists should be willing to protect wild places that are off-limits to humans and agree to strict controls and codes of conduct in the areas in which they are allowed.
Despite the good intentions of many tourists seeking environmentally conscience travel, many existing ecotours are merely hastening the destruction of wild lands rather than ensuring long-term protection. This is especially true when the local populace in the project areas does not own the project and remain at best poorly paid employees of the operation. Often the project and lodging facilities are owned by investors from nearby capital cities or foreign developed countries with the primary aim of making money - not protecting wildlife and aiding local communities. As market forces dictate, commercial interests will attempt to maximize the number of tourists visiting an area and this inevitably leads to environmental degradation. Once an area is destroyed the investors generally move the operation to a new location leaving local people and wildlife to suffer the consequences.
Privately based ecotourism that fails to distribute a significant amount of ownership, management, and profits to the local community is essentially exploitive in nature and is unlikely to effect change in local attitudes toward conservation. Local people who do not benefit from ecotourism projects 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.
Determining whether an ecotour really serves conservation purposes or whether it is merely a "green washed" tour can be difficult. More than 60 different voluntary certification programs award eco-labels for varying degrees of environmentally sensitive tourism practices. While the majority of these programs are for hotels and other lodging, a few cover beaches, parks, tour operators, and guides. But no global standard or certification process currently exists for tour operations, so it is up to compassionate tourists to ask the appropriate questions before choosing an ecotour and to ensure that their dollars support only the best and most conscientious tours.
Questions to Ask & Issues to Consider When Selecting an Ecotour
1. Does the local community benefit directly and indirectly from the tours?
A percentage of the profits from the tour project should be spent on local community development. The link between safeguarding economic futures and safeguarding animals and the environment must exist for the entire community. To ensure this, a portion of guiding and hosting fees should go into a general community fund to be used for community projects, school materials, and medical supplies. Profit sharing with local communities strengthens local guardianship of endangered species and habitats. Moreover, members of local communities have emotional, traditional, and religious ties to the land and, as such, are less likely to degrade and abandon their homeland as a course of business.
Ideally the native community should own 100% of the lodging and 100% of the land on which the lodging is built. The community should have an equal vote in decision-making about the tourism operation and should receive a majority (60% minimum) of the profits from the tours.
2. Has the tour evaluated the impact of tours on local wildlife?
The tour company/operators should, if possible, have "pre-tourism" data demonstrating that the tours do not adversely affect wildlife. Such data should compare animal behavior in non-tour areas with their behavior in areas where tourists congregate for viewing. Some studies have found that viewed animals become accustomed to the presence of humans and, as such, their stress level remains low or unchanged in the presence of tourists. Other studies however have shown an increase in stress indicators such as rapid heart rate and dramatic avoidance behavior in the presence of tourists, which could lead to increase in mortality or a reduction in reproduction (Ananthaswamy 2004).
The tour should not offer or encourage physical interaction with wildlife such as fishing, catch and release, swim with dolphins, and handling of wildlife for photo ops or petting purposes. These activities are well recognized as exploitive and damaging to wildlife.
3. Does the local community or village benefitting from the tours have an official agreement with the tour operators not to trap birds and other animals for the pet trade and other commercial markets?
The local community involved in the project should have a written agreement not to trap birds and other animals for the pet trade or other commercial markets to ensure that ecotourism actually replaces trapping income rather than merely supplementing it.
4. What is the maximum number of people accommodated on each trip?
The tour should accommodate no more than 30 visitors per location, per tour. According to Dr. Nigel Dunstone, lecturer in zoology at University of Durham, 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 and fresh food and sewage disposal become too difficult to accommodate, and the disturbance to wildlife becomes too great to benefit conservation (Independent News 2004).
5. Does the tour company work closely with nonprofit organizations?
It is important that tour programs work actively with non-profit conservation, animal advocacy, and public interests groups to safeguard against overexploitation and ensure that the focus remains on conservation rather than slipping into the philosophies of traditional profit-driven tourism.
Despite the enormous amount of money made by international ecotour companies each year, very little of this money is directly routed to conservation projects. At least 10% of the trip's profits should be directed to non-profit organizations that advocate for wildlife and environmental protection.
6. Is the tour capable of accommodating vegetarian/vegan diets?
A truly environmentally sensitive tour would provide and promote vegan meals for tour patrons. Adopting a 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 for tourists can result in increased hunting and fishing or livestock production in the tour area, thereby negatively impacting the environment and animals. The food consumed by tourists from developed nations inevitably influences trends in areas they 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" (Durning and Brough 1991).
Because people concerned about animals and the environment are often also concerned about social issues, this section includes information for considering all these topics.
7. Does the tour program address issues such as animal welfare, human rights, and family planning?
While it is unrealistic to expect a single tour program to solve every social and environmental issue facing a particular location, the program should at least recognize certain issues and take steps to effect change by providing education or resources for local people to begin addressing various social issues.
One of the most difficult parts of traveling is witnessing examples of animal suffering and mistreatment at the hands of humans. One example is the common practice of keeping wild-caught birds on leg chains attached to perches where they may languish for years, never to taste freedom again. Another is the abuse and lack of care provided for domestic animals including cats, dogs, goats, and horses. Often such treatment is a result of long held cultural beliefs about the treatment of animals or is simply due to a lack of education or access to veterinary care. Regardless, the tour program should address such situations by providing local education and animal care supplies.
Another issue commonly encountered in developing countries is the status of women and children. Again, the treatment of women and children is often dictated by long held cultural beliefs and must be dealt with respectfully and carefully. At the very least, women and girls should be given an equal opportunity to benefit from education and women should have the opportunity to participate in the project's decision-making processes. Domestic violence and child abuse should not be tolerated.
Mechanisms should be in place to provide culturally appropriate family planning education. Addressing human population growth in both developed and developing countries is perhaps the single most important environmental issue facing the planet. Moreover, in many countries poverty and population growth reinforce each other (Brown 2001).