For many nature lovers the only way for them to get close to iconic species such as mountain gorillas and chimpanzees is by going on a wildlife holiday. This trip falls under the title of Eco-tourism, but does it help conserve the species or is it exploiting an already at risk animals?
Firstly, it is important to know what eco-tourism is. The International Ecotourism Society defines it as;
“Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”
The idea of wanting to travel to the untouched wildernesses of the world started to gain momentum in the late 1970s as the environmental movement was gaining speed. A decade later ecotourism was becoming more accessible and more common for regular holiday makers. For many, travelling to these natural locations was far more desirable than flying around the world to visit another city or built up area. Since then the movement has continued to grow with numerous companies now specialising in eco-tourism giving tourists the chance to visit some of the worlds most awesome sites.
A quick search will find you hundreds, if not thousands of opportunities to visit areas including, Madagascar to watch lemurs, kayaking around Komodo to see dragons, Week long trips to watch polar bears and trips to see both gorilla in Africa and meet the Masai Mara people. For anyone interested in nature all of these sound fantastic as they give people the opportunity to see nature working in its natural habitat. But eco-tourism has not avoid skepticism and many studies have been completed to see if it really achieves the goals outlined by the founders of eco-tourism.
Tourism helps local people
Many eco-tourism providers make a point state that eco-tourism will have positive effects on the local community and will improve their well-being as well as the environments, but finding exact numbers of how your money will help is difficult. There is little doubt that eco-tourism does indeed allow the local people to make more money then if it wasn’t available. The eco-tourism industry adds numerous other jobs for local people to take. Nature guides, hotel staff and shop keepers can all profit off the introduction of tourists. The introduction of eco-tourism also aims to educate the locals more about the wildlife they live near and why tourists want to see these creatures. With more knowledge the local community will take pride in their local habitats and environment. This can then reduce the amount of exploitative behaviours at the expense of the ecosystem. Conservation agencies are looking into tourism to do just this. By providing alternative businesses for local people they hope that deforestation will be slowed in the Amazon.
Tourism helps the visitors
For many people tourism is the only way they will ever experience these habitats and species. Eco-tourism aims to educate not only local communities but also the visitors about the conservation issues, the species and how they are able to reduce their impact on the habitats. At the end of the day, this is a holiday for many people, that doesn’t mean it cannot be meaningful and educational. It is said by many that the best way to get people interested in conservation is to let them see the species firsthand, if every single person who visited the mountain gorillas became an active and passionate defender of the forest, how would that improve the chances of the forest being protected? For many eco-tourism also provides a connection between those that love the species and those who live side by side with them. The understanding the locals can provide to tourists can be extremely insightful and enjoyable to hear accounts of nature from the local community. This connection alone could be a selling point for many would be travellers.
Tourism helps wildlife
The human effect of eco-tourism can be relatively easy to monitor but when measuring the impact on wildlife this becomes more difficult. Whilst yes more money is available for conservation projects, and more people are educated about the plight of these species, but there are also many negatives. One of these negatives is the introduction of foreign diseases. For example, a troop of gorillas may have little to no contact with any humans in their natural habitat. There will be some disease in the population but it is unlikely any major outbreaks will occur as the population will have immunity or tolerances to their local diseases. But when eco-tourism begins suddenly the troop has regular, close contact with other primates(us) bringing a whole host of unfamiliar foreign illnesses. Consider how far tourists may travel from. Suddenly diseases from all around the globe are introduced to these animals. Animals that then mix in their environment with other gorilla troops. It would take only one aggressive unfamiliar bacteria to trigger an outbreak that could use a local population collapse. You may often see on documentaries, those who follow primates will wear face masks. But is every tourist going to be wearing a mask? We can only hope that they are. With strict biosecurity rules in place this risk can be minimised. But it is unlikely the risk can be totally removed. It is also important to bear in mind the psychological effect that observers may have on animals. We have been habituating animals for decades now and we are quite good at it now. But even when the best observers such as Jane Goodall is there watching the apes. They will not be acting in a wholly natural behaviour whilst she is there. Observers change behaviours, even in very subtle ways. But these subtle changes over the years could add up to negative effects on individuals or on the population as a whole.
One final thing to consider
Whilst it is everyone’s choice to decide where they stand on eco-tourism, as the data keeps coming in opinions may change about its benefits and risks. But it is important to remember that yes, eco-tourism may offer a more responsible trip then a regular holiday. But just consider a few things, how much carbon will be produced by the flight itself? Yes a regular holiday will also have a carbon heavy flight and properly offsetting can livid this. Will the money go to conserving the species, or the community? A lot of eco-tourism sites offer trips with a hefty price tag. Sometimes into the tens of thousands of pounds. Before you pay for your trip, think that this is a business, not a charity. So how much of that money will go to conservation really?